How to Practice Mindful Eating at Thanksgiving

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We’d all probably say we’d like to eat more mindfully — but it seems like applying principles of awareness and intention to our food choices is harder on some days than others. Thanksgiving Day may feel like the ultimate mindful eating Olympics, with its copious portions and sometimes stressful distractions.

Ditch the Guilt

Believe it or not, one day of overeating isn’t likely to make a major impact on your weight or other measures of health. In fact, even with plus-sized portions of mashed potatoes and apple pie, you aren’t likely to gain even a whole pound. A 2016 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that, on average, people added only 0.2 percent to their body weight over the Thanksgiving holiday.

If you end up eating past fullness, give yourself some grace. Beating yourself up over something you can’t change will only lead to a negative cycle of self-punishment.

Instead, enjoy the happy memories of delicious food shared with loved ones.

Check in with Hunger and Fullness

On Thanksgiving Day, schedule some check-ins where you can assess your appetite. You can do this by setting alarms on your phone or designating certain points throughout the day (or the meal). At these times, get up from the table, stretch, or walk around for a few minutes. Are you still feeling the need to nosh? If so, dig in! If not, take a break. 

It’s also critical, especially for those who struggle with disordered eating, not to get overly hungry in anticipation of eating a large meal. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, when you’ve gone without calories too long, it’s even harder to make wise decisions or react appropriately to your hunger. Prevent excessive hunger on Thanksgiving by snacking or having a light early meal. 

Remove the Labels 

There’s incredible freedom in stripping away labels like “virtuous” and “sinful” from foods — and from yourself for eating them. 

Try asking yourself: “What would I eat if I had permission to enjoy whatever I wanted at Thanksgiving? How much would I eat to be satisfied?” Fill your plate based on your answers to these questions, rather than what you “should” eat to be “good.” 

Slow Down and Savor 

Can you taste the hint of cloves in Grandma’s pumpkin pie? What’s the mouthfeel of tender green beans alongside crispy fried onions? Tuning in to the tastes, textures, and aromas of Thanksgiving menu items promotes the important act of savoring.

According to the University of California Davis, savoring leads to more pleasure from food. More pleasure results in more satisfaction — sometimes from fewer bites. The more you can focus on the physical experience of eating, the better for mindful, moderate eating.

Granted, with conversation buzzing around you and kids interrupting to ask for more stuffing, it’s probably not possible to simply bliss out at the Thanksgiving table. Try starting a group activity where everyone says which food they’re enjoying most and why. 

Find Other Releases for Stress

When a sense of overwhelming threatens your mental health, try to mindfully direct your response away from stress eating — and toward a healthier coping strategy. “[Food] may comfort for the short term, distract from the pain, or even numb you. But food won’t solve the problem.”

Call a friend to talk out your emotions, hop in a soothing bath, or take a kickboxing class where you can jab and punch away some aggravation.

Really Give Thanks

Theoretically, Thanksgiving is all about giving thanks. Yet it’s all too easy, in the rush of preparing food or putting on your battle armor for run-ins with difficult relatives, to forget its true meaning.

 Incorporate some type of gratitude practice, whether writing down things you’re thankful for, saying a prayer before the feast, or having everyone around the table offer appreciation for something good in their lives.

These thankfulness check-ins don’t just bring warm fuzzies. They harness our awareness, bringing us back to what’s good in our present moment.

This can actually lead to healthier eating. Thanksgiving Day is still a chance to count our blessings. This Thanksgiving, may we all let our gratitude make a difference in our relationships, our mental health, and our eating.

Source: University of California. The Science of Savoring Every Bite. Nov 28 2016.

Helander E, et al. Weight Gain over the Holidays in Three CountriesN Engl J Med 2016; 375:1200-1202. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMc1602012

Fritz M, et al. Gratitude facilitates healthy eating behavior in adolescents and young adultsJournal of Experimental Social Psychology. 2019:(81)4-14.

Author: Devika

Devika, M.Sc, NET Qualified is passionate about helping people discover the power of nourishing real food. She specializes in weight management, therapeutic nutrition, food allergies and intolerances, inflammatory diseases, gut health, and functional nutrition. Her approach blends a conventional health care and nutrition background with natural and science-based therapies.