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Food For Thought

Seven mindful strategies for handling the Thanksgiving stuffing

Updated: Nov 19

Whether you're an experienced mindful eater or a newbie, facing down what is arguably the biggest food holiday that we have in the U.S. can feel daunting. What if you're eating habits aren't up to handling all that stuffing? (And by that I mean both the starchy side dish and the too-much-food kind.)

Believe it or not, Thanksgiving and #mindful eating can coexist—and happily. Put one or two of the following strategies into place and this day of feasting will be not only more easily managed in a physical (and mental) sense, but more enjoyable, too.

Your body doesn't know it's a holiday, and will signal for food when it needs it

1. Eat something early in the day

Resist the temptation to simply skip food early in the day in order to "save up" for the main event. Fasting until the big meal sets you up for sky-high hunger levels which can easily lead to overeating. Your body doesn't know it's a holiday, and it will signal for food when it needs it. A better bet is to listen to your body's cues and eat something when you're hungry, but make lighter, intentional choices. Have a morning meal that provides some protein, fiber and a little fat. Nutritious and easy choices such as Greek yogurt topped with a little granola and a sprinkling of nuts, or a simple sandwich of peanut butter and sliced banana on whole wheat bread plus a glass of milk will give your body both the energy and nutrients it needs. Oh, and if your holiday meal will be in the evening, be sure to eat something for lunch, too.

2. Find mindful moments while cooking (or helping to cook)

Yes, I know this may not sound like anyone's idea of enjoyment, but hear me out. Once you start looking for them, you'll likely be surprised at how many pleasurable moments can be found in food preparation. Many times we are so focused on the eating of food that we forget to savor the preparation of food as a satisfying step in the process. What I mean by this is, the washing or peeling veggies, for example, can be a chance to absorb another aspect of the goodness that the food has to offer. You can tune in to the colors of the produce, temperatures of ingredients that are cool from the refrigerator, and aromas of ingredients and spices you are working with—just notice. The repetitive actions found in cooking, such as chopping or stirring can actually be calming if you aren't in a huge hurry. Garnishing platters, arranging a buffet table, even setting the dining table can be pleasurable activities when done with focused attention and mindfulness. If you're the chief cook for the meal, try spreading out the effort by "outsourcing" a dish or two to guests and including some make-ahead dishes on the menu—you'll gain some breathing room and boost your enjoyment. And if you're not the main cook for the meal, be a sport and offer to help!

Think about your current fullness level and choose food portions that match that level

3. Prior to eating, take a moment to think about how hungry you are, and plan to eat accordingly

There's no rule that says everyone needs to end the Thanksgiving meal feeling overly full and uncomfortable. Wouldn't it be great to truly enjoy the Thanksgiving feast and feel wonderful afterward? (Heck, you might feel so good that you'll propose a nice walk for the group after the meal!) Taking a minute to think about your current fullness level and then consciously making the decision to choose food #portions that match that level goes a long way toward helping you feel good about your choices—not to mention feeling physically good after the meal. And remember, you can always go back for another spoonful of something if you're still hungry.

4. Focus on your favorites

Some things only come around once (maybe twice) a year, and if you don't have them now, then when? For me, that's stuffing. There is no way that I am going to skip stuffing. I want stuffing several times over the next few days, so I always make A LOT (and I don't care if this year there are only three of us at the table). My other favorites: cranberry sauce (homemade), and pumpkin pie. I do take a little bit of turkey so I have some protein, and I happen to love lots of different green veggies so those show up, too (I like a colorful plate). Ok, you get the idea. Remember, foods that make up holiday meals typically aren't on your table every day, so don't deny yourself these special foods. On the other hand, do consider skipping the cheese and cracker tray or topping your plate with store-bought rolls—you can have that those anytime. When enjoying your chosen favorite foods, really focus on observing everything about them—how they look, smell and taste—as if you've never eaten them before. When you do that, your #satisfaction level rises. In fact, if you're paying attention to how you feel inside, you'll likely find you don't need big portions of these foods because you savored each forkful to the fullest (although if you want more you can always take some). Eat slowly, appreciate your food, and make no apologies for your choices.

Eat slowly, appreciate your food, and make no apologies for your choices.

5. If eating with others, tune in to your companions

Assuming that you are having your meal with others, take time to really look around and observe the scene, listen to and participate in the conversations and immerse yourself in the Thankgiving-ness of it all. Yes, the food is a central theme of course, but often the conviviality, shared gratitude and feeling of connection is what that makes Thanksgiving such a wonderful holiday (my #favorite holiday, in fact). Another reason for fully engaging with your companions is that it helps put breaks in the meal, causing you to eat more slowly. Eating slowly, as well as eating with small conversation interludes, gives your body adequate time to register fullness. That leisurely pace allows you to tune in to yourself; as the meal progresses, you can adjust your food intake as needed.

6. Push the pause button before serving or eating dessert

Inserting a break in the eating action between the dinner and the dessert is another way to let our bodies catch up to all the eating we've done. If you are hosting, make it clear that you'll be putting an "intermission" between the turkey and the pie. You can take that time to clear dishes and put away food (enlist some help with this part!) and encourage guests to go for a little walk around the block or simply move out of the dining area for a few minutes while you reset the table for coffee and dessert. Not only does this help manage the mess on the dining table, but a short break of 15-20 minutes gives any mindful eaters (and everyone else) time to really tune in and notice how much "room" is actually left for the sweet stuff. I promise that once you start doing this regularly—meaning not automatically having dessert right after dinner—you'll find that you really don't want any dessert, or that you want a bite for the taste, but don't feel the need to eat a a whole serving.

There is no failing in mindful eating, just learning and practicing.

7. If you overdo it, don't beat yourself up about it

Hey, you're not alone if, despite your best intentions and efforts, you ended up eating more food than you planned (or more than felt comfortable). Did you give yourself #freedom or "permission" to have whatever you wanted in the portions that felt right to you at the time? If so, there's no shame in that—eating more than usual on a holiday is allowed! Later in the evening, or perhaps the next day, take a few minutes to reflect on how your mindful eating practices worked for you in that situation. Don't ruminate too long about this—it's not the end of the world and there's certainly no reason to punish yourself over it. I always say there's no failing in mindful eating, just learning and #practicing. What was especially challenging about the holiday meal itself? What might you do differently next time you're in a similar situation? Give it a little thought and then move on.

So there you have it, seven ways to employ mindful eating this holiday. If you try any of these strategies, let me know how it goes! I think you'll likely enjoy your holiday meal more and not leave the table overstuffed (or maybe that's over-stuffinged). I wish you and yours a most wonderful #Thanksgiving.

Looking to "dig in" to finally changing your eating habits?

Join our community of like-minded folks who are learning the ins and outs of habit change with me and our supportive FB group, the Eating Habits Lab. 

Join us for free—we are always happy to welcome new lab partners!

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