Easy-to-do tips and tricks for a healthier Thanksgiving feast

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Anyone who watches their weight knows their kryptonite is right around the corner: Thanksgiving.

The feast day can leave folks feeling gorged, tired and unhealthy. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

We spoke with Kim Shapira, a registered dietitian in Los Angeles, and April Thompson, a Greater Cleveland chef, businesswoman and author, about easy-to-take smart approaches when it comes to holiday cooking and eating.

They offer several things to consider, and we’ll toss out a few suggestions to help:

Don’t starve to gorge!

Some folks will think they have outwitted their diet by starving themselves and wearing sweatpants so they can feel comfortable as they go for another heaping of mashed potatoes or a second slice of pie. Not a good approach, Shapira said.

“I think people get so caught up in the celebration and the holiday and narrow-mindedly focus mostly on the food they are going to have, but they forget that their body really thrives on consistency,” said Shapira, who has written “This Is What You’re Really Hungry For: Six Simple Rules to Transform Your Relationship with Food to Become Your Healthiest Self.”

She suggests treating Thanksgiving like a Thursday, not a feast day, so to speak. The body, which thrives on blood sugar and consistency, needs to be fed every two and a half to three hours.

Eat when you are hungry, small and often, and don’t undereat, Shapira said. Undereating sends the signal to your brain that your body “is in a famine.” Even if you are eating something considered “healthy” your body will store it as fat if you are really hungry, she said.

” ‘Healthy’ is very individualized,” she said. “Every single person at the meal will have different factors in their body that are creating inflammatory responses (to certain foods).”

She suggested taking “a bird’s-eye view” of the meal, asking: “How does my body respond to this?”

Eating when you’re not hungry (at the table) is not good, Shapira said.

“I would direct everyone to ‘healthy’ in quotes and normal eating,” she said. “Sometimes I have pumpkin pie, but I don’t generally have pumpkin pie two or three days in a row. If I do that I am in a habit spiral.”

Suggestion: If you like pie, consider whether you really need to make it a la mode.

We spoke with two experts - a dietitian and a chef who focus on healthy eating – to get their advice on what to do and not do on Thanksgiving. They offer a variety of approaches, from a trick using water, mindfulness, a special recipe and more.

Green-bean casserole anyone?ASSOCIATED PRESS

Keep healthy preparation in mind

With turkey, there are several approaches you can take to stay on the healthier side, said Thompson, who was in the middle of preparing a large menu for her holiday meal. Avoid dark meat and frying turkeys. And forget the butter injections.

Instead, consider preparing a spatchcock turkey, which more evenly roasts a bird. You can brine it ahead of time and grill it, she said. Her fall harvest turkey will have the flavorful accoutrements of dried cranberry, apples, oranges, onions and celery, which can be roasted.

Thompson, who works on heart-healthy programs with the Cleveland Clinic, also has a unique suggestion for vegetables: Cut the yams in half and mix them with butternut squash, she said.

“Butternut squash will take on the same flavors if you season them the same way, you roast them the same way and mix them on in with your sweet potatoes. You can have half of the density of the potatoes and half of the calories. Then, when you get sick of them, you can throw them in your blender or Vitamix or whatever and make a nice soup.” (Recipe below.)

For traditional green-bean casserole, make your own crispy onions, she said.

“Just a flour-dusted crispy onion using real heavy cream and sauteed mushrooms instead of getting a cream of mushroom soup, which might be quicker but you’re more in control of your calories when you do it yourself,” Thompson said. “So by using some Parmesan cheese, heavy cream and sauteed mushrooms, you miss all of the preservatives. You know that cream is going in as a whole fat and it will eliminate as a whole fat rather than preservatives that are in (canned) soups.”

Also, she said, find a local farmers’ market and roast fresh vegetables with herbs in a pan.

“Small changes will help everyone have the happiest holidays ever,” she said.

Shapira focuses less on recipes and more on the long-term effects of remaining healthy while offering positive habits. She focuses on why people are eating and on the changes they need.

“Everyone knows that kale is healthy, but they are drinking the milkshake after the kale,” she said, adding “deep frying is probably not great for somebody with high cholesterol.”

Suggestion: If you’re cooking, ask yourself if you need that much salt or sugar in a dish.

We spoke with two experts - a dietitian and a chef who focus on healthy eating – to get their advice on what to do and not do on Thanksgiving. They offer a variety of approaches, from a trick using water, mindfulness, a special recipe and more.

Portion control is key.Associated Press

How much is too much?

Both Shapira and Thompson focus on portion control.

“Take your normal portion, cut it in half, and wait 15 minutes to see if you need more food,” Shapira said, saying it helps to be cognizant while you’re eating. Slowing down can stave off digestive stress, prevent overeating and avoid weight gain.

“The fatigue we feel after this is from the size of the meal. It puts so much distress, and our body goes into overtime to process and break down all of those nutrients.”

Thompson agrees.

“Eat several small portions,” she said. “Don’t make that gigantic platter of everything. Eat all day long, but pace yourself. Give yourself breaks in between. And eat small meals. Every single thing is about portion control. If you know you want to have dessert, maybe not have a gigantic pile of macaroni and cheese.”

Suggestion: Do you need that extra roll with a glob of butter when you’re having stuffing as well as mac and cheese?

We spoke with two experts - a dietitian and a chef who focus on healthy eating – to get their advice on what to do and not do on Thanksgiving. They offer a variety of approaches, from a trick using water, mindfulness, a special recipe and more.

Offering raw nuts is a healthy alternative during the holidays instead of bowls of candy.Associated Press

Avoid bad snacks

It’s really easy to pour candies in a festive bowl and plop it on the counter. Shapira suggests “putting a pitcher of water in a really pretty glass on the counter. Every time you walk into the kitchen you create a habit where you’re pouring yourself some water. This will help you get a little bit of a pause or space between the thought to eat and the action to eat.”

Thompson offers: “Remember when we were little? Our parents had nuts and nutcrackers. Raw nuts are so good for us. Get dried fruits. Put out things like that. Create tiny appetizers for people to snack on so they won’t be tempted to go toward the candy. Put out a bunch of healthy snacks and you can snack all day – especially for people cooking the meals. Where there used to be M&M jars there are now trail mix, quinoa bites and things like that.”

Suggestion: Just a few raw almonds daily can help with good cholesterol. Slicing up a lemon or two for the water pitcher can add flavor without calories. And consider air-popping popcorn.

Finally …

What to do: Plan family activities, Thompson said. Play games or go for a walk “so you don’t spend the entire day gorging yourself with food.”

What not to do: Shapira says avoid the scale. “Give yourself some grace if you ate a little extra salt or starchy foods,” she said. “Get back to eating well consistently. Don’t have shame or persecution.”

Don’t forget that mindfulness has its place, Shapira added.

“Ideally,” she said, “take your eyes off of the food and see the people you’re with. That should be Thanksgiving.”

Suggestions: You don’t have to be like the Kennedys and play touch football, but a walk in the neighborhood isn’t a bad idea. If you settle in to watch any of the day’s NFL games, know that it is a long day so keep the alcohol in check. Also remember that your dinner and sides probably will remain for leftovers, so you don’t have to try to conquer everything on the table in one sitting.

April Thompson’s roasted butternut squash and sweet potatoes


1-2 butternut squash peeled and cubed

2 sweet potatoes peeled and cubed

1 onion, medium peeled and chopped

1 tbsp minced garlic

4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

2 leaves fresh sage chopped

1 stem fresh rosemary (remove leaves and chop finely).

½ cup monkfruit sweetener

1 tbsp nutmeg

1 tbsp cinnamon


1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

2. Peel and chop all the vegetables and throw them in a large bowl.

3. After the vegetables, onion and garlic are in a bowl, pour in extra virgin olive oil.

4. Add seasonings, stir. Lay out on lined baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes, then turn over vegetables and bake for another 20 minutes.

Time: Usually takes 35 to 50 minutes. Poke a fork into the vegetables to test if done. They should be tender but not mushy.

I am on cleveland.com’s life and culture team and cover food, beer, wine and sports-related topics. For my recent stories, here’s a directory on cleveland.com. Bill Wills of WTAM-1100 and I talk food and drink usually at 8:20 a.m. Thursdays. Twitter: @mbona30. My latest book, co-authored with Dan Murphy, is “Joe Thomas: Not Your Average Joe” by Gray & Co.

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