Healthy approach to Thanksgiving

Enjoy yourself, but do so in moderation

By Barbara Pierce


“Thanksgiving is my favorite food holiday!” said registered dietitian Crystal Hein, owner and operator of Crystal Clear Nutrition in Herkimer. “I have fond memories of the amazing food my Grandma Hein used to cook!”

Who doesn’t love Thanksgiving with all their heart? Thanksgiving food is heavenly. We get the day off school or work to enjoy the best things in life: food, family and football.

A cozy autumn serenity is in the air. And no gift giving is involved — save that stress for next month.

“The rituals and traditions of Thanksgiving are a large reason we love the holiday so much,” added Hein. “In our society, preparing food is one way we express our love.”

Thanksgiving is all about food. In preparing that food we’re showing our love. We spend those long hours in the kitchen — elbow-deep in raw poultry, mixing massive bowls of lovely stuffing, shaping mouth-watering buttery dinner rolls or kaiser buns, stirring that delicious gravy — all to nourish our loved ones with a really great dinner. It’s a precious ritual.

“Traditionally, Thanksgiving is comprised of many carbohydrate-rich foods: potatoes, stuffing, corn, sweet potatoes, bread, cranberry sauce and desserts,” Hein added. “It wouldn’t be ‘Thanksgiving’ without these foods.”

So how does an advocate of healthy cooking and fitness like Hein handle being faced with all these carbohydrate-rich, calorie-laden, unhealthy foods?

Hein suggests that our Thanksgiving focus be on family and friends rather than eating way too much food. We don’t need to feel that we must eat as much as possible so that we have that ‘I can’t eat another bite’ feeling. “I don’t feel that’s necessary or a good outlook for the day,” she said. “Give yourself permission to enjoy the food, but as with anything, I always preach moderation.”

Follow Hein’s suggestions and you can enjoy a Thanksgiving feast with all the trimmings that will be satisfyingly indulgent but will not be a calorie or nutrition catastrophe.

Plan and execute

— “My first tip for the day: Fully enjoy the one food you must have. For me, that is my Grandma’s sausage stuffing; my entire family looked forward to her sausage stuffing. I try to emulate her recipe. To this day, it’s my favorite Thanksgiving food. Sweet potatoes are a close second for me,” Hein said.

“Then have a small portion of one of the other carbohydrate-rich foods. It’s always a good tip to make half your plate non-starchy vegetables and this rule applies even on Thanksgiving. That could include a green salad, fresh steamed green beans or broccoli,” she added.

“What I do is have turkey, sausage stuffing, non-starchy vegetables and sweet potatoes for my meal and enjoy a slice of pumpkin pie later,” Hein said.

“Other cooking techniques to ‘lighten’ up the meal include limiting the fat (butter or sour cream) that you put in your mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes. Or use a light sour cream or serve butter and sour cream on the side for people to add themselves if desired,” she added. Mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes on their own aren’t bad; it’s the stuff we add to them.

“Drippings from the turkey are typically mixed with flour and butter (roux) for gravy. Instead, thicken the drippings with flour and water (slurry); this would contain less fat. Another option is to limit the amount of gravy you add to your plate,” she noted.

White turkey meat contains less fat and therefore, fewer calories than dark meat. And skip the skin.

— Dessert: Pick one piece and enjoy it. You also can save it for the next day.

— Alcohol: Devise a plan; have one glass before dinner or after dinner and/or consume water in between your alcoholic beverages.

— Appetizers: Keep them light — maybe a fresh fruit or vegetable tray. This would be a good thing to bring if you’re a guest at dinner.

— Other tips from Hein: Do not starve yourself all day “to save room for dinner.” Treat Thanksgiving like any other day. Start your day off with a nutritious breakfast; you’ll make healthier choices when you’re not starving. Also, if you’re ravenous when the main event begins, you’re more likely to overeat.

— Exercise before the big dinner. Hit the gym or go for a walk. “My gym is usually open for a couple hours in the morning and I’ve made it part of my day,” Hein said.

— Stick with sensible portion sizes.

During the meal, take your time to eat. Eat slowly, savor the flavors and enjoy each bite.

And remember: Get right back on track if things don’t go according to your plan. Don’t let one day derail your health and nutrition goals.