How To Survive Thanksgiving (And Other Feasts) And Still Enjoy Everything!

I LOVE the Thanksgiving Feast. I always have, and always will. It features all my favorite foods in one meal. It is one very large, very delicious, seemingly never ending meal.
In the past, I would be busy all morning, with my breakfast and lunch consisting of coffee. Then I would serve our feast, which in our family is traditionally around 2pm. (That allows the hunters in the family to spend 6-7 hours in the woods and make it back in time to eat.) Then I would clean up, watch some football (American style, not soccer for you Europeans) and eat some more. I would loosen my belt, take a nap, wake up and eat some more. Then, later in the evening, I would just snack on a little more.
But why am I hungry? I clearly ate a day’s worth of calories in that first meal. In total, I probably ate 5000 calories or more (I never logged a Thanksgiving feast before I started LoseIt so I am not sure. I might have to test that theory—not actually eat it, but log the food as if I ate it.)
A lot of the reason I ate that much was the old enemy: habit. I always ate like that, as did everyone around me. It’s easy to get sucked into a mindless morass of endless eating, when you are acting and reacting mindlessly. When you live with your eyes open—living mindfully—you can break those habits.
Another problem was what I was eating, and how it works in the body. At my traditional feast, I have turkey, dressing/stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, a green vegetable like Brussels sprouts, gravy, cranberry relish, homemade bread, wine and beer, pumpkin and pecan pies, and homemade whipped cream. In other words, the meal is protein, carbs, carbs, carbs, carbs, carbs/fat, carbs, carbs, carbs/fat, and fat.
Do you see the problem? Carbs—starches—metabolize quickly, usually within 2 hours of eating. Eat a coffee, donut and OJ for breakfast and see how you feel 2 hours later. You crash and are hungry again. The same happens with this feast. Sure, I eat some protein, but most of the feast is variations of carbs. When you eat carbs, your body will pump out insulin to help move the sugars out of the blood and into your cells. (This assumes you have a healthy insulin response. I am simplifying the process a lot. I don’t want this to be a metabolic physiology lecture.) And those are burned off quickly. So about the time I have everything cleaned up and maybe watch a bit of the game, I am hungry again. Not because my body needs calories, but because the available sugar in your blood is low, and your brain only runs on glucose as its fuel. (Your body can make glucose from non-starch foods, so eating a diet high in protein and fat will still give your brain it required glucose. That is called “gluconeogenesis”.)
After you eat, you get hungry again. You will go to the leftover food, and eat more of it. But since most of it is carbs, the cycle continues. Eat, wait, and get hungry again.
How can you fight that? With proteins and fats! Make the turkey the center of your meal. Eat a larger portion of turkey, and then reduce the portion sizes of the carbs. If you make sweet potatoes don’t put marshmallows on them (ugh) but instead top them with real butter, or high quality coconut oil. When you make your mashed potatoes, add butter, or sour cream or heavy cream, or buttermilk. Adding those ingredients will make for creamy mashed potatoes, but also hide some extra fat to help mitigate the starches. (But let’s be real. If you make a mound of potatoes like Richard Dreyfus in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” you are still getting too many carbs at once.)
If you are going to serve bread, choose whole grain bread with a lot of fiber. Pies? I’m not sure how to work with the pies. Just eat a smaller slice.
Yes, I know. These tips to hide fats in foods fly in the face of calorie reduction concepts, but I am not teaching calorie reduction here. I am teaching you how to control your eating for this type of meal. You will be challenged to eat within your budget, and as long as you log it, I believe that it’s okay to exceed your budget. But you need to do it with your eyes wide open and with an understanding of eating over budget is not the same as a feeding frenzy. These tips are designed to help prevent that out-of-control binge feeding.
Here are other hacks to help with this meal and the aftermath:
  1.   Use a measuring cup or scale to accurately portion your food. Eat controlled quantities of the foods you love, even if the total calories are more than normal.
  2. Use a plate smaller than usual (instead of the common 10-11” plate, use 7-8” plates.)
  3. Fill it with your favorite foods, but only once. You really do not need a second portion, even with the smaller plate.
  4. Wait 20 minutes before serving the pie. A simple way is to announce that dessert will be served when the coffee is ready. Start making the coffee only after everyone is finished eating. While it is brewing, you can either whip the cream (ideally) or thaw some whipped topping (it works, but isn’t as good). This will take about 15-20 minutes if you time it correctly, and that is how long it takes our minds to realize that our stomachs are full. If you wait the 20 minutes, you and your guests will be less likely to want a lot of dessert.
  5. Do not serve alcohol before the meal. Alcohol will stimulate our appetite.
  6.  Do not skip breakfast. Eat a modest breakfast, but one that is high in fats and proteins. You certainly won’t need toast or cereal grains at breakfast prior to this feast. But getting enough slow-digesting proteins and fats will help prevent uncontrollable hunger, which is common when you decide to “not eat breakfast and lunch so I have room for dinner.”  That practice will frequently lead to that accidental binge, because by the time you eat, you are so hungry that self-control is lost.
  7. Log the entire meal and any other eating. The number will probably be large, but not logging the food won’t make it not affect your body. Your body logs everything you eat, whether you acknowledge it or not.
  8. Don’t serve any alcohol. The meal is caloric enough, and these are truly empty calories.
  9. After eating pack the food it in take home containers for your guests, or put it in your freezer for future meals. If it is not easily accessible in the fridge, you are less likely to graze on it.
The last thing is how to handle family issues.  When a large family gathers together, conflict is inevitable. When compared to eating habits, this is a real challenge. Following my suggestion #8 (above) is a start. Try to find a universal focus. Discussion the merits of the Affordable Care Act, or who may run for President in 2016 would not be suggested topics of discussion. In our house, the focal point will be the Green Bay Packers/Detroit Lions football game. In other homes, maybe you can go “old school” and break out a deck of cards or a board game. Seriously, sometimes lighthearted family fun goes a long way in maintaining happiness. Maybe you want to take advantage of all the hands available and decorate for seasons that you celebrate. If you are crafty (I’m not) you can use the afternoon to create holiday greeting cards as a family.
Or maybe take a nap. I will be up late tonight preparing the meal. I have a detailed timeline if what goes in the over, at what temperature and for how long. I lay out the food on our kitchen island so I know how much room I need. And I will make the inevitable last-minute grocery store run, sometime tonight before I go to bed. I NEVER go to a grocery store on Thanksgiving morning. Insanity! By the time I am done cooking and cleaning, packaging, labeling and freezing food (and sending more home with our son who is living on his own) I will be tired. And when I get tired, I get the “munchies.”

Do I have all the answers? No. But I think these ideas will help. But in the end, you need to enjoy life. And regardless of how large the meal is, it is only one meal out of the year.  That is 1/100th of 1 percent of the total main meals you eat in a year (assuming three meals a day.) One large meal will not wreck your weight plans. In fact, learning how to live with this situation will give you a greater chance to succeed in the long term, because we will always be confronted with feasts. If we panic and act improperly, we are setting ourselves up for failure.
What tips would you recommend, for this and other feasts? What worked for you this year? Let us know below!
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4 comments on “How To Survive Thanksgiving (And Other Feasts) And Still Enjoy Everything!
  1. Trevor – brilliant! Great tips, great way of looking at things, and most of all – great way of thinking. I will most certainly be taking all this into consideration with the holidays (and meals that come with them) coming upon us. Have a great one!

  2. Cathy says:

    Trevor, great blog post (necessarily not short 😉 ;-)). Great tip about eating a high protein, high fat breakfast and reducing the carbs. I will skip my oatmeal, keep the fruit, up the Greek yogurt, and add a hard boiled egg. I like your ideas about family interactions. To take it further, if children are a part of your celebration — play with the kids! Play a board game, jump on a trampoline, laugh and be silly. Feel too tied to the kitchen? Tie that apron on someone else for 30 minutes, and ask them to peel the potatoes and baste the turkey while you play with the kids. Letting go, laughing and not having to argue with Uncle Bob can be a great stress-reliever!

    • Cathy, those are all great ideas! Thanks for sharing! I rely on my readers to help me fill in the cracks and crevices that I miss.

      Yeah, it wasn’t short, but I think the topic warranted it. (Talk to my student. Or my family. “Long-winded” is a fair description!)

      Enjoy!