Planning Beyond Stretch Waistbands

A whimsical consideration of Thanksgiving's after effects

Posted Nov 22, 2012

A reader of my blogs asked if it was alright to skip breakfast on Thanksgiving so he could eat more at the big meal. “I figure that I can save at least 450 calories by fasting until our 2 p.m. dinner, and that will allow me to eat another piece of pie.” My answer (although it was probably ignored) was not to skip breakfast, but instead walk or jog off the calories of that second piece of pie.

His question however seems to reflect our attitude toward Thanksgiving dinner which is:

a) Put on the table as many dishes of food as possible; and

b) Eat until a culinary coma sets in.

Neighbors of mine, who for the rest of the year use the kitchen only to feed their dog, make a Thanksgiving for 25 of their family and friends. A friend whose cooking endeavors are usually limited to putting a coffee containing pod into a coffee maker drags out all her pots and pans to make a meal straight out of the pages of a gourmet cookbook.

Magazines and newspapers are full of recipes for squash, Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes on the assumption that those whose normal vegetable intake is limited to an occasional parley sprig will embrace these traditional Thanksgiving side dishes. Carbo-phobes who shun anything containing sugar may allow themselves the delights of home cooked pumpkin pie, sweet potato casserole and cranberry sauce. And even adherents of restrictive food plans such as the cleanse, Paleolithic, high protein, raw or Dukan diets will put away their raw nuts or lemon juice so they can eat traditional foods , prepared at home, not in factory kitchens.

Thanksgiving seems to be an opportunity to consume as many calories as possible in the company of people you like, dislike or could do without. Years ago, a French friend who was struggling with bulimia, told me with astonishment, ”Thanksgiving is a national binge day!” I know people who look in their closets for baggy pants or skirts with elastic waistbands to wear to the meal, as these clothes are forgiving when too much has been eaten. And many of us welcome the colder weather because we can wear bulky sweaters that hide a bulging post- dinner tummy.

Why are we tempted to eat as much as possible and then more at this meal? I don’t believe that the reason is gluttony or prior starvation. The Thanksgiving dinner represents for many of us one of the few times during the year when we are eating at home, with our family and friends in the dining room. The meal is served on a table, not a kitchen counter and care is taken to make the table pretty and appealing. Thanksgiving food is not delivered by the local pizza shop, prepared in 45 seconds in the microwave or thrown on a grill for ten minutes. The foods have been prepared over hours, with labor, with care and also with love. Often the menu evokes family tradition or, for newcomers to the country, a chance to combine foods from their home culture with the ubiquitous turkey and ‘American foods” such as pumpkin pie and sweet potato casserole with marshmallows. And since the day is a holiday, you are allowed to sink into a postprandial stupor after the meal, becoming alert only when asked if you want a turkey sandwich or leftover pie.

Such a meal may not come around for another 364 days. And so we revel in the eating, the company (for the most part) and the knowledge that we are not alone in feeling stuffed and satisfied when the meal is over.

But for those who worry that the holiday will leave them with excess weight as well as a stack of dirty dishes, is there a way to avoid Thanksgiving-eating-to-excess? The most obvious solution is to ditch the stretch pants and bulky sweaters and wear something that tugs at the waist as the tummy gets filled up . But perhaps a more gentle solution is to prolong the holiday feast into the evening or the next day via leftovers. The company may be gone along with the drumsticks, but it is almost unknown to end a Thanksgiving feast without having a lot of uneaten food. Indeed a friend of mine told me yesterday that guests at her meal come prepared with plastic bags or containers to they can take home the leftovers of their choice. I suspect that many guests at a Thanksgiving meal would be willing to leave the table a little less overly stuffed if they knew that they could eat that third helping of turkey or pie at home the next day. Those debating whether to keep eating even though quite full, might be induced to halt if they had a plastic ‘doggy’ bag with their name on it besides each plate . Then instead of filling their stomachs, they could fill the bag.

Thanksgiving food seems to take on an even better taste when eaten later on, perhaps standing around in the kitchen or for an early lunch the next day. Maybe it is not just the food but the food plus the good memories of the meal and guests. It really is a win-win situation: only moderate overeating at the Thanksgiving meal, bountiful leftovers the next day and no weight gain. That is a lot to be thankful for.