Thanksgiving Confessions of an Anxious Grandma

November 23, 2010 in Mediterranean, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

I’d like to believe that my primary focus for Thanksgiving is an attitude of heartfelt gratitude. If I’m perfectly honest with myself, however, I realize that the majority of my thoughts leading up to this holiday are largely about food. It may sound like I’m turning a holiday designed for thankfulness into a holiday planned around eating. At a certain level our family does spend plenty of attention on Thanksgiving eating. If I try to ‘cut myself some slack’ to purge the guilty thoughts from my mind, the neurons of my brain get clogged up by thinking of a list of excuses.

  • I have been cooking Thanksgiving dinner for 30 years or more. One has to think obsessively about what foods to purchase, and about their preparation. What can anyone expect with a project that occupies this much mind space?
  • I feel a certain anxiety if I so much as imagine someone not having an absolutely delicious meal.
  • The same anxiety rushes into my soul if I even consider making something a bit healthier – what if they don’t like it?

Now you may be thinking in one of several ways from reading this confession.

  1. Wow! That’s a load of guilt and anxiety.
  2. Or you may be so confident that your family would never reject a new recipe to replace a long-loved traditional (and unhealthy) one that you think it foolish to obsess over serving healthy dishes.
  3. Or, you may mutter to yourself “why should the cook care? The guests should be grateful that someone made the effort to make a big meal.”
  4. Or you may be thinking about how many years you too have been the main cook and may fully understand my conflict.

My Thanksgiving table reflects a thousand points of decision-making that could have gone in many different directions. But as you can probably imagine, being a dietitian/nutritionist who writes about eating in a Mediterranean-style diet might be enough to bring on a certain amount of anxiety. After all, this style of eating is pretty much at odds with big parts of traditional American Thanksgiving Day fare. It is low in processed foods – the easy stuff to prepare; low in sugar, in fat, and in sodium.  It is especially low in meat, especially processed and red meat, while being high in vegetables and fruit, in whole grains, and in nuts and legumes. It uses extra virgin olive oil instead of loads of butter, gravy made from grease, and deep-fried dishes. I was wondering if I’m the only person who is dedicated to serving and eating healthy that ends up with a banquet load of apprehension when preparing for a banquet of traditional dishes? Be more positive, you may urge.  Look at the bright side.  Turkey is much more healthy than red meat, and you don’t have to deep-fry it or deep-fry anything else. Harvest time brings to the table some wonderful colored vegetables and fruits, including pumpkin, winter squash, green beans, and those wonderful anti-oxidant packed cranberries. Freshly picked nuts also abound at harvest time.

If you had these positive thoughts, thanks; but still, this worry-filled mind of mine has nevertheless brought me to the point of sharing some of what I think about putting on the feast, including ways of preparing the positive foods I imagined some of you might have mentioned.

My first thought is that Thanksgiving comes but once a year – yes, I can be grateful for blessings all year long, but the eating holiday in honor of gratitude, comes but once a year. Having said that, I will admit that the once-a-year perspective has a very powerful influence upon my menu planning. I don’t let go of portion control, but I don’t make all my traditional recipes into low fat substitutes.  I think that it is wonderful for those who do make mashed cauliflower, turnips, rutabagas, or celery root, instead of mashed potatoes. Yahoo for the glycemic load from cauliflower verses potatoes! I admire those of you that are making these innovative recipes; I’ve had them and really enjoyed the recipes. But the little ones in the family are like food detectives; just imagining hearing the words, “Grandma, What’s wrong with the potatoes?” strikes fear through my heart. I make mashed potatoes once a year; I just don’t have moral fortitude to make mashed turnips on Thanksgiving.

And the Gravy that goes with it also gets the annual reprieve – once a year shouldn’t put too much pressure on my menu planning. I will say that I do use a gravy skimmer that removes much of the fat, and the gravy still tastes great.

My Aunt Lori’s baked Cranberry Relish – I’m not worrying about the smaller children with this dish, because the little ones like the jelly stuff that comes out of a can. It is doubtful that they will even try the cranberry relish at all. So to the older set I just want to say that I’m dedicated to making cranberry relish from scratch. I want to be sure that, like the pilgrims we’re staving off scurvy or at least, trying to pack in some powerful antioxidants, anthocyanins and other phytonutrients from the beautiful ruby red berry. But the real reason that Aunt Lori’s Relish is on the table, year after year, is fairly simple – I love the combination of roasted nuts, real sugar, orange marmalade and the tang of cranberries; and of course, it’s a tradition.

Those of you who pay attention to starchy carbohydrates may have to exercise the same restraint I do at this holiday.  Ordinarily, I’d never serve stuffing, potatoes, rolls, and yams at the same meal. But, here we go again; I’d also never risk deleting the item that ‘just makes Thanksgiving perfect’ for someone in the family.

As related to snacks

Sometimes I add something new to the Thanksgiving Day menu; in the past few years I’ve added smoked salmon, and shrimp instead of cheese for the mid-day snacks. This year, I’ll continue to have bowls of nuts. Once I figure out when the football game is, I’ll make some popcorn (or get some help making it) – saying to myself that it is truly a fine whole-grain snack. When I was making my list for snacks, I went wandering through a few pages on the Internet, to see if I should add to my list. Early in to my browsing, I stumbled upon a recipe, directions and even a video for deep-fried candy bars. I’m trying to recall if I was more horrified in 1982 when I attended a demonstration for deep-fried cheese or today when I saw deep-fried candy bars. Since it’s not a tradition, I don’t want to start it! Can you say arteriosclerosis? Although I can’t recommend the deep-fried candy bars, I can recommend peanuts and whole nuts, which have the potential to lower coronary heart disease risk. In addition, I’ll have some slices of fresh watermelon – yes, I realize it’s not Independence Day, but it will be good all the same.

  • I think there are about as many ways to get through Thanksgiving without gaining lots of weight, as there are dietitians and creative minds. If you wonder how this dietitian does it, I’ll share a couple of personal rules that help me. First, I don’t “waste” calories on foods that are not important to me. I can easily live without rolls; but I would really miss stuffing – so I skip the roll and have a moderate helping of stuffing. Actually, if I had to pick only one food for the Thanksgiving meal – it would be stuffing. A close second is yams and apples – now I’m making myself hungry. Yams are probably only second because they are already a frequent guest at our table; not a once a year treat.
  • White meat turkey makes me just as happy as dark meat – so why choose the extra calories the dark meat delivers – for no difference in enjoyment.
  • Having a small serving (a taste of a dish) helps me to savor the flavor without getting that uncomfortable feeling of full.
  • Dessert - A very small sliver of pie or as some call it a taste, can be just the perfect portion, especially if I want to taste more than one variety.
  • I often send leftover foods that don’t fit into our regular style of eating home with the guests. The holiday then becomes a one day event, not a week marking the beginning of the end of weight management. I usually save a little turkey meat to make turkey vegetable soup or to use on top of a green salad; both are good ways to recover from the extra calories of Thanksgiving.

I mostly want you to know that what I do is what works for me – I am suggesting that you develop some ideas that work for YOU that can net a very low temporary weight gain or no weight gain. There are thousands of articles and ideas on how to eat fewer calories during the holidays, but I’m suggesting that you enjoy this special holiday, and develop some methods that will support your goal of staying healthy, while enjoying the Thanksgiving menu.

I hope that you will be able to enjoy the company of family and friends and the bounty of delicious and beautifully prepared food on your Thanksgiving table. Such a bounty eaten in good company is one of the joys of life, and for that wonderful blessing I am grateful.