Eating Smart: A Different Approach to the Holidays

The holidays are once again upon us and for most of us this means a big traditional Thanksgiving dinner with the family, Christmas parties, cookies, sweets – you know the drill. Is there a way to survive this annual over-the-top eating onslaught without gaining 5 pounds while still enjoying some tasty holiday treats? I yes, there is. But accomplishing this will take some forethought and awareness.

Thanksgiving Dinner

Let’s say you’ll be having Thanksgiving dinner with your family and someone else is doing the cooking. This means that the ingredients that go into this mail are completely out of your control. Here are some of the biggest problems with this meal as it is typically prepared.

The stuffing is usually made from enriched white bread (ick), the mashed potatoes are usually loaded with butter, cream or milk, and salt, and the gravy is full of saturated fat. And of course the desserts are an even bigger problem as they are loaded with enriched white flour, butter or lard, and sugar (I’m getting a stomachache just thinking about it).

Make the right choices. Eating a plate of this food and having it do the least amount of damage is all about choices. Go heavier on the white meat (dark meat has more saturated fat) and the veggies, and go lighter on the mashed potatoes, stuffing, and gravy. Don’t eat the turkey skin, it has the highest concentration of saturated fat in the whole bird (if you must eat some, go sparingly). Try to be careful about overall portion sizes.

Eat a snack or appetizer 30 minutes before the meal. It takes about 20 minutes to feel full when we eat, so doing this will help you feel full sooner, and possibly keep you from over eating.

Don’t waste your splurge. You probably will splurge on different foods at Thanksgiving, as this holiday comes but once a year. But don’t waste your splurge on general over eating – splurge on foods you really love or foods that are special. Mashed potatoes are common and you probably eat this at different points throughout the year, so there’s no real point in eating a heaping mound of this. Dinner rolls can do a lot of damage, and once again, this is an extremely common food. But let’s say grandma’s apple pie has always been one of your favorites and may be only available during holidays. This splurge makes more sense.

Don’t take the leftovers. If you take leftovers home you will likely feel compelled to eat them, adding more unneeded unhealthy calories to your diet later in the week. A simple “No thanks, we’ve got tons of food in the fridge right now” or “No thanks, I’m trying to eat healthy, and this one splurge was enough.” should suffice. A couple of other options would be to just take white meat, or, if there is enough to go around, take a few plates of food and give it to a homeless shelter or a neighbor in need.

Healthy Substitutions for Your Holiday Meal

If you’re cooking the meal, then you are in control of what goes into it. A traditional Thanksgiving dinner doesn’t have to be unhealthy; it’s all about the ingredients, and the subtleties. While the white meat that comes from an oven roasted turkey is quite healthy, the stuffing, due to the fact it is usually made from white bread, is typically not. Make your stuffing from whole wheat bread.

Gravy is usually another big problem when it comes to unhealthy calories, so learn to make it with a little less turkey fat. After you’ve removed your turkey from the roasting pan, drained the juices into a bowl, and separated the juices from the fat with a ladle – combine the juices with a limited amount of fat to make the gravy, even substituting some of the fat with low-sodium, fat-free chicken broth.

Mashed potatoes are typically another unhealthy calorie bomb, so again, use substitutions. Use Smart Balance instead of butter and skim milk instead of whole milk or cream. Try mixing in some fat-free yogurt to help create a creamy consistency. A little garlic powder and cracked black pepper will also go nicely. You could also experiment with substituting rutabagas, which have a higher nutritional value, for some of the potatoes.

Dinner rolls are usually made from enriched white flour but they don’t have to be. Substitute whole wheat flour for the enriched white flour and Smart Balance instead of butter to make a hearty and healthy roll.

Lose the salt. These foods are dense with flavor and you might be surprised how good they can taste without adding any salt during preparation. Leave it to the guests to add it when they sit down to eat.

When baking pies, cookies, and other desserts, once again, use substitutions – whole wheat flour instead of enriched white flour, smart balance instead of butter or lard, Splenda instead of sugar, and canola oil instead of corn oil. And if you’re craving chocolate, try baking with Beachbody chocolate Shakology for a healthy alternative, there are a ton of great recipes available online.

Put your table salt in a covered glass bowl or Tupperware container instead of a shaker. You can’t really see the salt coming out of the shaker, but if you grab a pinch of salt with your fingers, you will know exactly how much you’re using.

And lastly, put Smart Balance on the table for your family and guests to use instead of butter.

Keep Moving

Don’t stop your exercise regimen just because the holidays are here. If you’ve been working out regularly, why stop now? Get up a little early on Thanksgiving and try to get your workout in before you embark on your day’s activities. If you’re traveling for spending the day somewhere other than your own home, improvise. A little while after dinner, go for a walk to work off some of that ‘turkey gut’.

Many families also cook a huge dinner on Christmas and all of these concepts and food substitutions apply there as well. If you’re going to have some eggnog, go with light eggnog. You can even find recipes to make your own eggnog online that will be far healthier than what you’ll find in the supermarket. Try to avoid ‘holiday cookies’, they have no nutritional value whatsoever. If someone gives you a box of chocolates, ‘donate’ it to someone else. Don’t let peer pressure dictate your diet.

A Thanksgiving Feast, or My Yearly Food Coma?

When I think back to many of my earlier Thanksgiving dinners with my family, I remember my mom, dad, and grandmother working in the kitchen all morning long, preparing and cooking for our annual holiday eat-a-thon. My siblings and I would often help out, peeling potatoes, washing pots and pans, and setting the table. When the meal was finally ready we would all sit down, mom would say grace, and then we would all go to town. It would only take about 15 or 20 minutes for us to literally inhale an overabundance of food, most of us taking seconds, some even thirds. Then the sinking feeling would begin, usually during the half-hour or so it took to clean up the mess of pots, pans, dishes and silverware. Another half hour or so later and dad would be asleep in his recliner while the rest of us were deemed immobile on the couch for the next several hours. Even though it was nice to see the family, I don’t remember a lot of conversations taking place after dinner, we all sat speechless in front of the TV, too stuffed to speak. That heavy feeling would last for the rest of the day, often into the next.

Eating, and overeating food in this manner is an oral fixation and needs to be seen for what it is. There is nothing wrong with our tradition of eating a Thanksgiving meal with loved ones and friends. But for many, there is clearly something wrong with how we prepare this meal, and how much of it we eat. We all need to eat to live. But while over eating, and overeating unhealthy foods, can happen in just a few brief minutes, its negative effects can last for hours or days, potentially undoing all sorts of gains and strides we’ve made towards our health. Is it worth it?

New Traditions

I think it’s time we consider a new way forward – a merger that combines a modern approach to health and well-being with all that is good about the holidays. Let’s think about making our holiday rituals evolve around spending quality time with family, friends and loved ones FIRST, and the food as a complement to that quality time, rather than the food being the central theme, as it is for so many. Suggest the idea of taking a walk with your family and friends after dinner. Let’s teach our kids and the younger generation how to cook these foods in a healthy way, and the importance of physical activity. Why wait till January 1st to start your new resolutions? Now is the time for any worthy change you have in mind. Let’s use this holiday season as a time to start some healthy new traditions and a new way forward.

This has been a public service announcement from someone who cares. Happy holidays!

2 Responses to Eating Smart: A Different Approach to the Holidays

  • Thanks a alot for all the wonderful information. I wonder if we went back to serving “courses” instead of one big feast, it would make a difference? That way there would be time to mingle and digest! Food for thought.

  • Thank YOU, it was your quest for knowledge that led me to write this. You make a great point too. A few generations ago, “courses” were more common in our society, like they still are in many European countries. This concept has long since been abandoned for the most part but it should be brought back. Dividing a big meal into two or three courses allows more time for digestion and allows you to feel full sooner, leaving you more likely to use some restraint. This brings another thought to mind, that being the concept of setting down your fork or spoon in between bites, which also helps to slow down the eating process.

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