Q: I don’t want Thanksgiving to throw off my diet, but I don’t want to miss out on the flavors of the holiday either. What’s my best eating strategy?
A: I applaud you for not wanting to dive into the meal bib tied up with forks and knives at the ready, especially since many people follow the “eat until you feel like you should have stopped 10 minutes ago” approach at big meals. Thanksgiving is also the kickoff event for most people’s annual holiday weight gain, so a little awareness will hopefully set the tone for the season. It’s actually pretty easy—and still tasty—to prevent a gorge-fest.
First there are two things you need to do before you sit down:
1. Have a protein-rich breakfast. Many people skip or limit their Thanksgiving breakfast in an attempt to save calories for later. Big mistake! Research shows that consuming protein in the morning can significantly impact satiety later in the day and can act on your brain to help decrease the drive for sweets and treats.
2. Move! Go for a hike, sign up for a Turkey Trot, lift some weights—it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’re active. Exercising will promote better usage of your Thanksgiving calories, shuttling them toward your muscles cells for rejuvenation and recovery purposes instead of having them being packed away in your fat cells.
Having done those, when you’re at the table, follow this guide:
Starters: Begin with a small bowl of broth- (not cream-) based soup or an appetizer-sized green salad with vegetables and a little vinegar, salt, and pepper. Penn State nutrition studies repeatedly show that both of these tiny intro courses help people eat fewer total calories at the subsequent meal.
Green vegetables and squash: Measure out a baseball-size serving; if you’re really hungry, feel free to bump that up to a softball. Opt for roasted vegetables (lightly buttered or olive-oiled is okay), but if your only options are creamed corn or the classic green bean casserole, go with the beans.
Turkey: White or dark is up to you, but stick to a palm-size portion of skinless meat—and no gravy (there are tastier, let alone healthier, ways to enjoy your calories).
Starch: Round out your meal with another baseball-sized scoop of mashed potatoes, stuffing, or sweet potato casserole. However, if the casserole at your feast has enough marshmallow and brown sugar that it could be served as dessert, pass on it.
Extras and Wine: A dinner roll or glass of wine is fine, but if you really want one of these, boost your vegetable serving by 50 percent and skip the starch. Due to its high sugar content, however, you should turn down the cranberry sauce.
Dessert: Yes, you can finish the meal with something sweet. Although many desserts are calorie bombs, your best bet here is to stick with the classic—a slice of pumpkin pie—as it has almost 40 percent fewer calories than pecan pie. That’s the calorie equivalent of running two miles! Just be sure to guide your host to slice about 1/8 of a 9-inch pie onto your plate and eat yours naked (that’s right, sans whipped cream) because we all know serving sizes can be a little “generous” when it comes to the meal closer.
Even if you decide another eating strategy is better for you, pay attention to the order in which you eat at Thanksgiving. Go for green vegetables first, then protein-rich turkey, and finally starches. This will allow you to fill up on the low-carb, less-calorie-dense foods so that by the time you start in on your mashed potatoes or sweet potato casserole, you’ll already feel fairly full and won’t eat three helpings, but instead will have enough room to treat yourself to a little of these Thanksgiving classics.