The Absolute Essentials for a Healthy Thanksgiving

You’ve made it through Halloween, and you might still be working on that last bag of fun size Snickers bars, but you haven’t yet reached the point where every day includes a plate of Christmas cookies. Thanksgiving is the next big temptation hurdle when you’re trying to maintain healthy habits during the holidays. 

For too many of us, it’s the point where we give up on eating right or staying fit. We decide to drop all that and go on a diet in January. That means we spend a month reinforcing bad habits instead of working on our good habits.

Fortunately, you can make good decisions. You need to focus on just three important things.


Experts tell us that the average Thanksgiving dinner averages 4,500 calories. Since eating is actually the main activity at a traditional American Thanksgiving celebration, it’s hard to avoid excess without spoiling your day and possibly the fun of your entire family and all your friends if you focus on trying to restrict eating.

The Plate Method can be your friend. It’s intended for diabetics, but it works for everyone.

The Plate Method for Diabetics

Fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables. That might be green salad, raw veggies like carrots and cucumbers, or simple steamed vegetables with as little bacon, brown sugar, and cream sauce as possible. Roasted or steamed vegetables are a better choice than vegetable casseroles that add in carbohydrates and fat. 

This is going to be easier at some homes than others, but it will be easiest if you take it on yourself to bring along a vegetable dish to share.

Turkey is a healthy lean protein. Fill one quarter of your plate with turkey. That’s the easy part. 88% of us eat turkey on Turkey Day, so most of us can do this.

Now you have one quarter of your plate left for carbs. At the typical Thanksgiving dinner, there are lots of dishes in this category: stuffing or dressing, mashed potatoes, corn, macaroni, vegetable casseroles, sweet potatoes (maybe with marshmallows), candied yams, cranberry sauce, pie, cake, white rolls, cookies, candy, and maybe chips and dips and soda.

You can’t fit all these things into one fourth of your plate. 

Choose your favorites, including things you don’t have at other times of year, and enjoy them. You will probably eat more than just that one quarter of your plate from this category, but if you eat half a plate of veggies and one quarter of a plate of protein, you will be satisfied with a reasonable amount of the other goodies.

If you are the host for the meal, plan to make the Plate Method easy for your guests. You don’t have to tell them about it, but some will probably appreciate your choices. 

Portion size

One eighth of a standard pecan pie gives you about 456 calories, 21 grams of fat (including some healthy fat), 4.5 grams of protein, 65 grams of carbohydrates, and 32 grams of sugar. That’s a luxury, from a health standpoint. 

A one-inch sliver of that same pie gives you 58 calories, 2.66 grams of fat, half a gram of protein, 8 carbs, and 4 grams of sugar. You can have that along with mashed potatoes, corn, and dressing.

You can enjoy a few bites of any of your favorite dishes, or several of them, without any negative consequences.

If you need to count macronutrients, take the time to do your research and calculations before you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner and make a plan. Commit to the items you really want to enjoy and get a mental image of the portion size that you want to stick with. 

Then just follow through. 


For most people, it is not possible to burn an extra 4,500 calories in one day. When we say activity is important, we are not saying that you can make up for a gigantic Thanksgiving feast by taking a post-dinner constitutional.

Being active on the big day can, however, break up your day so that it doesn’t turn into 12 hours of lolling around grazing on gravy-soaked leftovers. It can make you feel happier and less stressed. And it can cement those healthy habits you want to keep during the rest of the holidays. 

A walk around the block, a game of touch football or boules, or a ten-minute stretching session once everyone goes home can make a big difference in how you feel.

After your celebration, clear up the food, pack up leftovers to send home with guests, and take a little time to move around. 

Follow these three essential tips and you can enjoy Thanksgiving with no regrets.