Eating Mindfully

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Tips for a Mindful Thanksgiving Feast

Four tips to help you feel satisfied without feeling stuffed this Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving can be a time of socially sanctioned binge eating. We come together with friends and family with the intent of consuming as much food as humanly possible in a short amount of time. Many families have their own traditions around this. In my family, it is mandatory to wear “stretchy pants” (pants made from a givable fabric) to the holiday meal so that our waistbands don’t constrict our ever-expanding stomachs. The eating begins with snacks set out before the meal. Then we move to the dinning table for the main event. First comes soup and salad, then the turkey with various side dishes, and finally desserts (notice the s at the end of desserts- there are many). By evening, the excitement of the holiday meal has given way to post-meal bellyaches, as we all sprawl out on the couch, unbutton our stretchy pants, and promise to never eat again. Fun times, right? Thanksgiving can be particularly difficult for those who usually restrict their eating through dieting. Due to a lessening of our usual restrictions around food, the holiday becomes a reason to eat all of the restricted foods that you’ve dreamt of for so long. And since you’ve promised yourself that you’ll be back on your diet tomorrow, you eat as much as possible today. Add in the stress that often comes from difficult family relationships and you have a recipe for eating disaster. If the above scenario resonates a bit too close to home, you may want to try something different this Thanksgiving. Here are some mindful eating techniques for a satisfying and enjoyable experience that won’t leave you feeling like a stuffed Butterball afterwards.

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1.   Don’t skip breakfast. Many people don’t eat breakfast on Thanksgiving because they are “saving up” for the big event. But skipping breakfast means that you will arrive to the Thanksgiving meal feeling very hungry and primed to overeat. Since the turkey and fix’ns are not usually served until later in the day, you are likely to gorge on the snacks and appetizers before the main event. I don’t know about you, but canned nuts and potato chips are not usually what I’m looking forwards to on Thanksgiving. However, this is what I’m likely to consume if I arrive hungry. If you arrive satiated, you will be less likely to overeat the first food you see. You can make more controlled and conscious decisions and chose the foods that are most appealing to you.

2. Check in with yourself. Use a hunger and fullness scale to identify how hungry and full you feel throughout the day. Try to stay in the middle ranges of the scale without becoming either famished or stuffed. Remember: it’s a long day of eating. Eat until you feel satisfied now and go back for more food if you become hungry again later. Reheat leftovers if you desire more food after the meal ends.

3. Take a small taste of each food that looks appealing to you. There are typically many different choices available during the Thanksgiving feast. To start off, try taking a small portion of each food that you desire. Make mindful choices- observe what the food looks and smells like, notice any emotional reactions to the foods, and take note of your hunger and fullness level (see #2). Eat each food mindfully, observing the appearance, smell, texture, and taste of each bite. Notice if the taste changes as you eat. If you desire more of any of the foods, go back for a second helping. Continue to track your hunger/fullness level as well as your enjoyment of each food.

4. Enjoy. Our enjoyment of food often diminishes as we become less hungry. When eating mindfully, you may notice that the cream puff that tastes so incredible at first bite becomes cloyingly sweet after the 10th bite. There usually comes a point in the eating experience where the food is no longer as enjoyable as it initially was. Try to notice the point where you are no longer fully enjoying the food and consider stopping.

While Thanksgiving tends to be a food-centric holiday, consider alternate non-eating sources of satisfaction. Catch up with your great-aunt. Listen to old family stories. Take a walk with a cousin. Dance. Watch the game. Hopefully you’re not sitting on the couch with your stretchy pants unbuttoned promising to never eat again. But if you are, that’s okay too. Try not to harshly judge yourself. Harsh judgments only lead to further overeating. Try to practice non-judgmental acceptance towards yourself and your eating. I wish you all a happy and mindful Thanksgiving holiday! 

Alexis Conason, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in practice in New York City and a researcher at the New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital.

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