Turkey. Stuffing. Mashed potatoes. Gravy. Cranberry sauce. Pumpkin pie…and going back for seconds.
Clearly, Thanksgiving is a day that’s all about eating. If you’re like many Americans, you start the holiday promising yourself that you won’t overdo it. Unfortunately, it’s incredibly easy to overindulge. So while you might enjoy every bite that passes your lips, chances are you end the day feeling like a blob and regret eating so much.
The good news is there’s a better, healthier way to approach the holiday, and it doesn’t mean you’ll have to choose between savoring your special holiday meal and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
“With a working knowledge of the components of healthy eating and living, you can navigate Thanksgiving—and the holidays beyond—with a satisfied stomach and with no regrets,” promises Sarah Stone, director of operations at MindStream Academy, a co-ed health and wellness boarding school for teens who want to get fit, lose weight, build self-esteem, manage stress better, and take control over their health and wellness destinies.
“Right now at MindStream, we’re preparing our kids to proactively navigate their Thanksgiving holidays back home while still staying healthy. The same advice can be helpful for all Americans,” says Stone.
If you’re ready to have a healthier holiday, read on for five of Stone’s tried-and-true tips:
1. Understand the eye-stomach gap.
At some point, we’ve probably all used the excuse, “My eyes were bigger than my stomach.” This eye-stomach gap is why MindStream teaches its students that our desire to eat comes from both our physical and mental conditions and that people often don’t consider whether they’re listening to their stomachs or their brains.
“When other people around you are eating, components of your own brain called ‘mirror neurons’ are activated, stimulating your own desire to eat—even if your stomach is telling you you’re full,” explains Stone. “This leads to overloading your plate and overeating, which leads to weight gain. The good news is, simply being aware of this phenomenon makes you less likely to give in to it. When you feel the impulse to dip yourself a generous portion of whatever’s on the table, pause for a moment and ask yourself how your stomach feels about this decision. If you’re full, just say no.
2. Remember that a family who cooks together stays healthy together.
Believe it or not, when you get the whole family involved in meal preparation, you’ll be investing in everyone’s physical and emotional health. First of all, the simple act of being together while you cook (and later eat) gives you time to catch up on one another’s lives, talk about things that excite you and work out things that are troubling you. Coming together over food helps your family create a positive environment in which you can make good memories and strengthen your emotional bonds to each other.
“In addition to strengthening your family’s bond, cooking together can help everyone maintain a healthier lifestyle,” Stone says. “Studies have shown that cooking as a family reduces the risk of childhood obesity, builds positive self-esteem and increases the overall health of your family. This is because when kids help prepare a meal, they can see what goes into the dishes; they’re proud of their efforts and they’re more likely to eat the results.”
3. Understand the power of the portion.
We live in a supersized society. This bigger-is-always-better mindset causes most of us to feel like the balloons at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Unless we eat until we think we might burst, we feel that we haven’t eaten enough. However, the truth is that you can do your holiday meal justice without straining your waistband. The key is revising your definition of “enough” by understanding portion control.
“There are several ways to reduce the amount of food you eat while still feeling satisfied,” points out Stone. “We advise our MindStream students to first check out the entire spread before serving themselves — and then to go through the line only once. If possible, use a smaller plate—and if that’s not an option, try to visually ‘mark off’ the edges of your plate as off-limits for food, meaning none of your food should cross over into those areas. It’s fine to try all of the dishes if you want, but remember to dip sample-sized portions instead of full ones. Drink lots of liquids as you eat, and again, try to be aware of how your stomach is feeling as opposed to how much food is left on your plate. If you utilize these strategies, you’ll still get to taste all of the holiday dishes you crave, but you won’t go overboard,” Stone says. Click here for a practical primer for preparing a healthy meal.
4. Step away from the table.
Spending time together at the table is wonderful while your family is actually enjoying the Thanksgiving meal…just don’t allow yourselves to be glued to the chairs afterward. When the meal is over, get up and clear away the plates and leftovers.
“In addition to removing yourself from temptation, make yourself earn your food,” suggests Stone. “It’s okay if you don’t have much free time on Thanksgiving Thursday, but at other points during the long weekend, consider playing outside games such as touch football, volleyball, badminton, etc. Or, you can take a walk with your family in order to enjoy the scenery and each other. And if the weather is bad, engage in a game of charades, do some holiday decorating, or walk around the mall to scope out the sales. Remember, exercise of any kind balances the calories you ingest, and family activities are just as important as the yummy meal,” Stone adds.
5. Be aware of your emotional triggers.
Unless you live in a ’50s sitcom, chances are there are at least a few dysfunctional relationships in your extended family. Whether your mother-in-law makes you feel two inches tall or your brother always knows how to push your buttons, you may feel compelled to take refuge in a plate of food. However, Stone says, there are several ways to stay healthy while keeping stress at bay.
“This is a topic we are really emphasizing at MindStream, because when kids go home for the holidays many of our students will be re-immersing themselves in the emotional triggers that caused them to develop unhealthy relationships with food in the first place,” explains Stone. “It’s very important to go into holiday gatherings with a foreknowledge of what you’re feeling, what your triggers are and what a positive reaction to them might look like. Whenever possible, pick your battles and try to avoid topics that have caused tension in the past. Instead of burying your feelings in food, try a simple ‘out’ like, ‘If you’ll excuse me, I’d like to say hello to Great-Aunt Pearl before she leaves,’ or, ‘It’s really hot in here—I’m going to step outside for a few minutes.’”
“Ultimately, having a healthy Thanksgiving shouldn’t be complicated,” Stone concludes. “Keep things simple by focusing on fellowship. Even though this is a special holiday, your daily routine shouldn’t change too much. A good night’s sleep, regular exercise, and healthy eating are big stress reducers all year round, and you should absolutely keep those habits up during the holidays. And most importantly, remember that the healthiest thing you can do, at Thanksgiving and always, is to cultivate a positive attitude and self-image.”
Sarah Stone is co-creator and director of operations for MindStream Academy. Along with Founder Ray Travaglione, she has worked on the MindStream Academy project from its inception. She is an honors graduate of the University of Toledo whose dream was always to work with youth. After her previous work as director of admissions at a teenage recovery management facility, Sarah found a path that led her to her work at MindStream. Her dream has been realized as she takes great pride in helping teens work to heal and nurture what is broken and learn to be tolerant and understanding of themselves.