I’ve gotten so many questions the past few weeks about how to navigate the Thanksgiving holiday without falling off the health wagon. Maybe Thanksgiving isn’t worrying you a lot – but I would bet someone in your life is grappling with this idea right now, so having a way to talk through it can be helpful.
Let’s assume you are going to eat the traditional three meals per day in the month of November. That gives us ninety meals to work with. Ninety fairly small decisions about what to eat – whether to eat healthy (what your body wants) or whether to eat unhealthy (what your brain often wants). Nintey times to make the right choice.
Even if you make a conscious choice to go crazy on Thanksgiving night and only eat pure junk, it’s still only one meal. One decision out of ninety for the whole month. One decision out of 1,095 for the whole year. Not the end of the world. Probably not the difference between life or death. If you are typically a healthy eater, a meal full of stuff your body isn’t used to processing will likely cause you to feel terrible – and will likely have you spending way more time in the bathroom than you normally would – but it won’t be utter devastation.
Unless you mean, “what am I supposed to do about the Thanksgiving season?”. That is a very, very different question! The Thanksgiving season is this vague season between the Halloween season and the Christmas/Hanukkah season. Although Halloween is only one day (and a day that is really targeted at kids), many people celebrate the Halloween season. And they typically celebrate the Halloween season by eating lots of Halloween-themed junk food.
If you follow up this season with another food-themed season (dubbed the Thanksgiving season) and immediately transition into the Christmas/Hanukkah season, which is really, really junk food themed, then right there we have a problem.
Because the minute each of these seasons is centered around the food, than every time you are given the option to partake in the seasonal food, you are left with a choice – partake and enjoy the short-term rewards, yet suffer the long-term health consequences or decline to partake and feel left out.
If the Halloween season and the Thanksgiving season and the Christmas/Hanukkah season is about other things (instead of about food), then choosing to partake or decline isn’t such a big deal.
Halloween at our house is about hanging up all of the goofy decorations that we have accumulated over the years. It’s about carving pumpkins and grimacing about the grossness inside. Before the kids were too old and too cool, it used to be about finding the perfect Halloween costume. You wouldn’t believe the lengths I went to to make some of those things! When the kids were little, it was about trying to get through every house in the neighborhood before people started turning their lights off.
Even back then, in the height of candy collecting, there was an element of the holiday that was about candy, but it was pretty minimal. We bought candy to pass out on Halloween afternoon (having it sit there in advance tempting us was not an option), and after the boys spread out their loot on the kitchen table and basked in the sheer quantity of sugar, they knew that their job was to pick out 30 pieces – because the rest was all getting donated the next day.
And then we moved on.
The Thanksgiving holiday season doesn’t really exist in our house. We celebrate Thanksgiving dinner together as a family (or at least we did prior to this stupid pandemic) and we have some traditional foods, but the getting everyone together part is way more important to us than what food is going to be served and how much of it we are going to eat.
We are a fairly big family and we don’t all get together that often. Therefore, when we do, we focus a lot more on the games we are going to play (we are a huge game family) and what we are going to do together while we have the chance. There’s usually some family Mario Kart and Code Names. Last year my sister brought out a craft for everyone to do – and we made sock gnomes – which were amazingly funny and entertaining, especially my middle son’s “Patrick Ma-gnomes” We’ve already gotten giggles pulling those out again this year.
This year, with this stupid virus running rampant in our community, we’ve decided to forgoe the family gathering and postpone it for the spring or summer – when we can gather outside and be safe. If we still have to be socially distancing then, we will come up with games and things we can do while staying 6 feet apart. We have big wooden Yahtzee blocks and corn hole and bocce ball and all kinds of things that will keep us laughing and engaged. I’m sure we will have food – but it won’t be the center of the gathering.
Regardless, as long as we view this holiday as one meal, it won’t really matter in the huge scheme of things if we eat well during that meal or not.
And once that meal passes, and we enter the Christmas/Hanukkah season, it still won’t be much of a struggle. Because the Christmas/Hanukkah season is about a lot of things, but very, very few of them are about food. We will talk more about those in another post (this is getting entirely too long), but what I’m trying to say (circling back to the beginning!) is that celebrating Thanksgiving, and deciding what to eat during that one meal, shouldn’t be a huge, disastrous process.
It’s more about how you define the holiday. It’s more about evaluating how intricately celebrations and food are intertwined in your brain – and if they are always connected, making a conscious choice to separate them a little.
If everything on your enjoyment list is paired with some sort of unhealthy food – and it can’t be enjoyed without that food, then trying to improve your health is going to cause you to miss out on so many things that you enjoy. Chances are, you aren’t going to stick with it. None of us want to sacrifice pleasure and tradition and enjoyment over and over again.
Rather than constantly sacrificing, why not try reframing these things in a different way? Make your holiday about something else. How about making it about gratitude? Or family? Or reflecting?
More on this soon! As always, if you need help, you know where to find me!
be strong – be healthy – be happy
Courtney Younglove, M.D.