October 2010 Issue

“Frugal” Feasting — Help Clients Celebrate Thanksgiving’s Cornucopia of Foods in Modest and Healthful Ways
By Christen C. Cooper, MS, RD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 12 No. 10 P. 66

For many people, Thanksgiving brings to mind fond childhood memories. Some recall eating a favorite dish, one whose preparation was so time consuming that it was enjoyed only once per year. Others remember helping loved ones serve a Thanksgiving meal or learning how to make a family recipe. Still others recall the moments of relaxation and celebration after the dishes were washed, the political arguments ended, and attention shifted to parades and football games.

However, for those who struggle with weight, Thanksgiving and all its trimmings can present a lofty challenge. Some dieters spend a great deal of energy resisting the urge to overeat and dealing with family members’ yearly scrutiny of their appearance. Mustering the energy to forgo mashed potatoes or pumpkin pie doesn’t leave much energy for enjoying the distinct aromas, colors, and beauty of the Thanksgiving table. It can also preclude more uplifting conversation with loved ones.

Dietitians are well positioned to help clients more fully enjoy Thanksgiving Day by helping them refocus their attention on sharing a nutritious meal prepared with heart and soul. After all, Thanksgiving is rooted in graciousness, thankfulness, and shared celebration; it was never meant to be a day of complete self-denial.

Modest Beginnings
According to writings from the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Mass., the Plymouth colonists enjoyed a bountiful first harvest and had enough food, including corn, fruits, vegetables, and fish, to store during the winter. The following year the harvest was much leaner, and the colonists were forced to survive on the stored food. With newcomers constantly arriving from England, however, their food disappeared more quickly than expected, and many of the colonists went hungry.

During the third year, the Pilgrims’ crops were decimated by an unusually dry summer. When it finally rained, a day of thanksgiving was proclaimed on November 29, 1621. To celebrate, the Pilgrims prepared a modest Thanksgiving meal. Having just enough food was reason to designate a day to humility, thanks, and gratitude for their gift of simple sustenance.

In America today, the problem is not having too little food but having too much. But even in the face of “too much,” sticking to the spirit of “just enough” can have great value in keeping the body healthy and the mind at peace. Eating just enough to satisfy hunger, sampling each Thanksgiving dish with gratitude and not gluttony, can prevent dieters from flying wildly off track. In fact, having a small portion of each seasonal dish can help satisfy nutrient deficits that occur after long periods of dieting. Eating reasonable helpings of holiday dishes can also diffuse the emotional turmoil of constant food vigilance and help quiet the cravings that inevitably emerge as your grandma’s sweet potato casserole comes out of the oven. As Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, author of Read It Before You Eat It, recommends on her Web page devoted to diet tips, “Remember the word ‘sample.’”

Danger of Too Many Choices
Food manufacturers, psychologists, and food scientists have debated and widely studied the topic of food variety. “Variety is the spice of life” is a popular American anecdote often used in regard to food. All signs indicate that Americans love variety. They demonstrate this by purchasing tens of thousands of new food products each year. They buy nonfat, low-fat, chocolate, vanilla, and plain versions of a single food and dine in restaurants with long and detailed menus. Vendors have learned that when consumers can’t find something they like, they’ll still buy something if they can “create their own.”

Studies on how modern Americans deal with variety—at buffet tables, at restaurants, and in markets—show this population tends to eat more when offered more choices. David Kessler, MD, former FDA commissioner, talks about this phenomenon in his book The End of Overeating. Others, such as Brian Wansink, PhD, director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab and author of Mindless Eating, say variety may be the spice of life, but it can also make people fat.

At Cornell, Wansink researches the ways in which portion size, package size, food variety, and other attributes affect what and how much Americans eat. He summarized the effects of restaurant variety in a recent interview with the Wellness Council of America: “The large variety of restaurants allows a person to have hamburgers one day, fried chicken the next day, tacos the following day, and Subway on Friday. Because of the variety in restaurants, people can rotate restaurants and never really get bored, so they continue to eat poorly.”

Given the publicity about variety and its potential dietary dangers, many people go on high alert when faced with a large number of tempting foods. As dietitians, we advise clients to survey an entire buffet table before they make any selections. We tell people to eat slowly and savor each bite. We ask them to pause, evaluate their hunger, and stop when they are full. The publicity on the dangers of variety has caused some people to fear losing control and eating too much, which, given the state of overweight in America, may be a good thing—most of the year.

Value of Variety
But what if on Thanksgiving, dietitians advise people to change their mindset—to eat only what they need but not to avoid variety. We can ask them to eat with a sense of graciousness, perhaps trying something they’ve shirked in years past, making an aunt or grandmother feel especially good. What if we encourage them to bank their calories and not use them to dive into a mountain of a single food but for sampling a little of everything on the holiday table?

After all, variety is important—even necessary—for good health, judging by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. To meet federal guidelines, people need to eat a variety of foods. According to the official USDA diet quality tool, the Healthy Eating Index (HEI), most Americans do not get the variety of nutrients they need to keep their bodies healthy. Without putting forth some effort to diversify their diet and try new foods—especially whole grains, fruits, and vegetables—Americans will likely continue to fall short of recommendations.

At present, the majority of Americans’ diets “need improvement,” according to the HEI. This is true for people of all ages. In fact, most Americans fail to meet all recommendations except those for total grains, meat, and beans. The least desirable scores go to the intake of whole grains, dark green and orange vegetables, legumes, sodium, and calories from solid fat, alcoholic beverages, and added sugars. Scores for total fruit, whole fruit, total vegetables, milk, oils, and saturated fat also need improvement.

Sounds like Americans could use variety, but they need it in the form of smaller portions of a wider range of foods. The typical Thanksgiving meal offers great variety, and dietitians can help clients take advantage of it in a smart way.

A Variety-Rich Thanksgiving Feast

Whether roasted bare, rubbed with olive oil, drizzled with lemon butter, brined, grilled, or sprinkled with blackberry brandy, turkey has retained its Thanksgiving stardom for more than 200 years. A source of lean protein, turkey also contains ample selenium, niacin (vitamin B3), pyridoxine (vitamin B6), and phosphorus.

Cranberry Sauce and Parsnips
Cranberry sauce is a Thanksgiving side dish that has remained a holiday staple. Cranberries boast healthy levels of vitamin C, fiber, manganese, and vitamin K, a package of nutrients rarely found in a single food. Many dishes have been designed to feature this “superfood,” which is native to the northeastern United States.
Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, writer for the Food Network’s Healthy Eats blog, says homemade cranberry sauce is a must in her home. In the quest for a favorite cranberry recipe, Angelo White’s family has tried a number of variations, arriving at some top choices, including zesty orange cranberry sauce and ginger cranberry sauce.

Parsnips have also become a staple on the Angelo White Thanksgiving table: “They were a foreign food to most of the family until a few years back, and now it wouldn’t be Turkey Day without them.” Her simple technique? Cook sliced parsnips down in a bit of simmering water until tender and then roughly mash with butter, salt, pepper, fresh parsley, and chives.

Squash and Stuffing
Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, who also writes for Healthy Eats and teaches food safety at Teachers College, Columbia University, touts a long list of healthful Thanksgiving dishes. One of her family’s favorites combines two Thanksgiving favorites: squash and stuffing. The dish begins with halved squash that is filled with rice or quinoa stuffing. These alternative grains provide more nutrition than basic bread-crumb–based stuffing. And the Amidor family’s version is baked and served separately from the turkey; therefore, it doesn’t absorb saturated fat from the turkey’s drippings.

Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes’ nutrition announces itself with the vegetable’s bright orange hue. In season in November and December, these starchy veggies contain large amounts of vitamins A and C, manganese, copper, fiber, vitamin B6, potassium, and iron.

Melissa Halas-Liang, MA, RD, CNSD, CDE, founder of SuperKids Nutrition [for which this author works in an advisory capacity], infuses a healthful crunch into her sweet potatoes by baking them in their skins and filling them with fruit and nut chutney. The chutney is made with chopped dried apricots, walnuts, golden raisins, and cranberries and mixed with low-sugar apricot jam. She uses the leftover chutney for breakfast and snacks, spreading it on hearty whole grain bread or mixing it into plain yogurt.

Pumpkin is rich in beta-carotene, magnesium, iron, and potassium. Pumpkin pie is a tradition in many American households, sometimes alone, sometimes with whipped cream or ice cream on top. Making the pie from real pumpkin instead of canned pumpkin pie filling can raise the nutritional content. The time-consuming nature of making “real” pumpkin pie is heady, but the taste and health benefits are worth it—especially if the trouble comes but once a year. There are pumpkin alternatives that can take the sugar level down a notch and retain pumpkins’ great nutrients, including low-fat pumpkin bread or muffins, which can be enhanced with raisins, and grilled pumpkin seeds sprinkled with nutmeg and other spices.

Save Room for Some Physical Activity
Give clients license to be as modest about exercise as they are with food on Thanksgiving. After all, top experts at the 2009 European Congress on Obesity suggested that calorie intake determines around 90% of body weight and not exercise (a mere 10%).1 Some families take a traditional walk after their meal to view the fall foliage. As a way to get everyone moving, Halas-Liang breaks her family into two groups: the power walkers and the strollers. She already anticipates a new Thanksgiving tradition this year: children, seniors, and everyone in between enjoying some jumping, jogging, and kicking with Wii games. Such video games provide more activity than sedentary TV watching. For those stuck in the kitchen for clean-up duty, washing dishes, sweeping, and other tidying activities also provide exercise, as does chasing kids around the backyard. Everyone can get moving in some capacity after the Thanksgiving meal.

Focus on the Meaning of the Holiday
Thanksgiving can nourish the body with healthful food and the heart and mind with the company of family and friends—that is if people let food lead the way instead of getting in the way. As dietitians, we understand the mix of emotions experienced by people trying to control their weight. Thanksgiving barrages them with a wide variety of tempting foods and turns on the calorie calculators in their heads. But as we help clients deal with this challenge, we can also encourage them to let go of angst and turn their thoughts toward the gratefulness and graciousness for the abundance of food that most Americans have to eat—on Thanksgiving and every day.

— Christen C. Cooper, MS, RD, is the founder of Cooper Nutrition Education & Communications in Pleasantville, N.Y. She is also a member of Daughters of the American Revolution, a national organization of women who have Revolutionary War descendants and who study and celebrate American colonial history.

1. Lowry F. The obesity epidemic in the US is due solely to increased food intake. May 14, 2009. Heartwire. Available at: http://www.theheart.org/article/970183.do


Colonial Thanksgiving: A Locavore’s Feast
By necessity, the Plymouth colonists ate the foods that were in season or those they had managed to store for several months using techniques such as cold storage and salting. Native plants included walnuts, chestnuts, plums, gooseberries, raspberries, wild cherries, ground nuts, wild strawberries, watercress, crab apples, and wild onions—a surprising variety for the short New England growing season. The English brought spices, including cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves, with them from the Old World.1 Another treat, the pineapple, was scarce and came from afar, but it became the colonial symbol of welcome. “Huzzah!” was a colonial exclamation of happiness and approbation. It was often heard at the beginning of a delicious meal.

The following were some colonial Thanksgiving staples:

• Syllabub was a colonial dessert that could be eaten as a parfait or drunk as a punch. It was made from cream, lemon zest, sugar, nutmeg, and mint.

• Hasty pudding was the colonial version of a quick dessert, with its recipe brought from England. The original ingredients included flour, tapioca, oatmeal, and milk. When made in the colonies, the settlers used cornmeal, which was inexpensive, as well as molasses or maple syrup and milk. The name was changed to Indian pudding because by using cornmeal (favored by the Native Americans) instead of the other grains, it greatly increased cooking time and could no longer be considered “hasty.” Traditionally, the pudding was served as an appetizer, not a dessert.

• Stewed pumpkin, which was spiced like pumpkin pie, was served with no crust.

• Skillet cranberries, made of cranberries, brown sugar, and brandy or rum, were a favorite of patriot John Adams.

• Marlborough pie was made from puff pastry, applesauce, and lemon.

• The most exciting dish (and usually the most costly) was the turkey, traditionally served in a sauce made from local onions.


1. Duffy MP. Create an authentic New England Thanksgiving feast. Available at: http://www.theheartofnewengland.com/food-Authentic-Thanksgiving.html. Accessed July 28, 1010.