Based on an unofficial and extremely imprecise survey I started about ten years ago, if you love Thanksgiving Day and you are more than six years old, you are most likely one of a very small minority. Oh, sure, if your kids are coming home from college or you’re going to spend the day with a beloved aunt, even if you aren’t crazy about the festivities, you do have something to look forward to. But for many of us, anxieties about preparing a perfect meal, concerns about making a good impression and/or coping with family tensions, sadness about spending the day alone, or worries about job, home and family security can make it hard to enjoy the day. If you’re troubled by any of these worries, it’s going to be hard to feel thankful about anything except that the celebration will be over by Friday.
On top of everything else, there’s the problem of eating. You know it’s selfish to worry about, when there are people who can’t afford to make the kind of meal your family will be sharing and others who are starving to death. But okay, say you send money to UNICEF and Doctors without Borders to help them feed children starving all over Africa, you still have to figure out how to get through the outrageously huge meal your mother is going to prepare, without gaining back every ounce of weight you’ve ever lost.
You’ve tried proposing a smaller meal, volunteering at a soup kitchen, and really, really working at controlling what you eat and drink. But if past experience is anything to go on, chances are awfully good that you’ll end up eating too much. And not just on Thanksgiving. I mean, really, even if you manage to be amazingly controlled with the turkey and fixings, who’s going to be able to resist turkey sandwiches and leftover pie on Friday? And of course you don’t want to hurt your mother’s feelings by rejecting any part of her delicious meal!
But there’s hope yet! As a psychotherapist who has worked with and written about eating disorders for many years, I have a couple of suggestions that can help you get through the day with less stress. And with less stress, guaranteed you’ll eat less!
First, recognize that you are not alone or bad for having these concerns. Thanksgiving may be the ultimate family festivity, but the truth is that many Americans find it more distressing than pleasurable. It’s normal to worry about guest lists and obligations to go to dinners with people you really don’t want to spend time with. In the week before Thanksgiving every year I listen to worries like these, plus anxious descriptions of dishes, tablecloths and flower arrangements. I’ve helped clients figure out how to get their apartment clean enough to appease Mom’s (or Grandma’s or Mother-In-law’s) critical eyes, and I’ve even discussed the best way to roast a turkey.
And yes, I see all of these worries as legitimate topics for psychotherapy. Not only do they lead to valuable discussions of family dynamics, self-esteem, and personal values, but they also address two of the major issues that cause eating disorders: difficulties coping with feelings and “self-regulation.”
I’ve written about this in my blog on Psychology Today and in some of the articles on my website. Over the years I’ve compiled a list of suggestions for managing feelings, coping with stress and eating well on this not-always-happy holiday:
1. Try to get some sort of light exercise before the celebration starts – take a walk, go for a run, do a few sun salutations at home.
2. Eat something before the celebration. The worst possible plan is to starve yourself throughout the day in preparation for gorging at the meal.
3. Once the day begins (whether you are host/hostess or guest) start with a glass of ice water or seltzer and a slice of lime or lemon. The ice and citrus add a festive touch, and the drink gives you time to socialize and nibble any goodies available prior to the meal; and it helps take the edge off your appetite. Refill throughout the day and evening.
4. Taste what you like, but don’t worry about eating things you don’t particularly care for. This isn’t a day for trying to make sure you eat from all the food groups. If you want to eat pie, stuffing and potatoes, go for it. Cross everything else off your list and keep it out of your mouth.
5. On the other hand, if you like salad and green vegetables, try to eat at least some of the lower calorie offerings on hand. But go lightly on heavy duty additions (chickpeas, corn, bacon bits, and cheese) and salad dressing, unless that’s really what you love and want to have for your meal.
6. Compliment all of the cooks liberally. It’ll make them feel good and make you feel better. And the better you feel, the less you’ll eat!
7. And remember that the meal doesn’t have to be all about the food. Try to find out as much as you can about the other people who are there – even relatives you think you know really, really well. Ask questions – lots of questions – about what they’re doing for work, for entertainment, what movies they’ve seen and books they’ve read recently, what’s happening with their home or apartment, and what they’re hopes and fears are for the coming year. Ask couples where or how they met (sometimes even couples you’ve known for a long time can have a great meet-up story you’ve never heard).
8. You can even ask about politics! Although it used to be taboo to bring up politics at a polite meal, these days you can ask what people think about the Occupy movement, the Tea Party, or how the president’s doing. Be prepared for fireworks, and if it gets too hot for comfort, be ready to go escape – maybe out to the kitchen to help make coffee! Or out for that walk you suggested earlier!
9. If talking about politics makes you too anxious, of course, don’t bring them up. But a little excitement isn’t a bad thing. And here’s the real key to a good day: in whatever ways that you can, try to take your focus off the food!
10. When the meal’s done, help clean up. Washing dishes is a good way to keep your hands busy, and when they’re busy (especially when they’re dunked in soapy water) it’s harder to nibble at the leftovers.
11. And finally, remember that one day (even two) of overeating does not have to affect your weight over the longterm.
Beating ourselves up for overeating is, one of the main causes of more overeating. If you ease up on yourself, get a good night’s sleep and even a little exercise the next day, and eat sensibly (not even dieting) on the “day after,” it is highly likely that your weight will go right back to where it was before Thanksgiving.
Don't believe me? Try it! And please let me know what happens!