- Most Of What You Know About Thanksgiving Dinner Is Dead Wrong
- 6 Ways to Feel Awesome on Thanksgiving and Avoid the “Holiday Slide”
- 2. Embrace healthier food choices
- 3. Portion size is key
- 4. Make smart swaps
- 5. Slow down and savor your meal
- 6. Fight the “food coma.”
- Stephanie Eng-Aponte
- Briana Rodriquez, RDN
Most Of What You Know About Thanksgiving Dinner Is Dead Wrong
Thanksgiving is that wonderful time of year when we gather with friends and family, test the limits of butter consumption, eat an inordinate amount of potatoes and regurgitate trivia that may or may not be true.
While we can’t help you with the obscene amount of butter you’re about to go through, we can lend a hand with some of those trivial Thanksgiving tidbits that have been clawing at you over the years. Let’s get started with the debunking: Here are some popular myths about cooking techniques, nutrition and tradition.
Just because you eat turkey at Thanksgiving doesn’t mean you do it correctly. The target temperature for safety is 165 F, and that’s universal. But the journey to completion is the important step.
The USDA recommends cooking the turkey at no lower than 325, and you will often see recommended temperatures ranging below 400, such as here, here and here.
Experts advise turning up the heat to yield a far juicier bird.
Head butcher and chef Rob Levitt of Chicago’s butcher shop and cafe Publican Quality Meats sets his oven to 500 for the first half-hour before turning it down to 325.
Ian Rynecki, executive chef of the Tasting Room at Pippin Hill Farm and Vineyards in North Garden, Virginia, is here to save your day: “The longer [it takes to] cook, the drier the bird gets ― typically, you’re not braising here ― so I suggest a slightly higher temp, 425.”
We all know the rules. Don’t talk politics. Don’t double-dip and don’t ever, under any circumstances, stuff your turkey. (Undercooking stuffing ― which contains raw eggs ― inside a raw bird can result in some nasty food poisoning.)
Try Jake Cohen's recipe for the ultimate Thanksgiving stuffing.
Kyle Bailey, executive chef of Washington, D.C.’s The Salt Line, has a simple fix for those who want the benefit of juicy stuffing.
“Because the stuffing needs to reach a safe temperature, the breasts of the turkey become dry in the process,” he told HuffPost. “You can still use stuffing in your turkey. I would recommend warming it up in advance so that it’s not as cold when you stuff the bird.”
And the stuffing itself doesn’t have to be the dish everyone passes around the table without trying.
“Stuffing tends to get a bad rap due to the ‘easy bake’ stuffing mixes,” Rynecki said. “You’re not buying instant or premade mashed potatoes are you? Treat your stuffing in the same way. Use quality leftover bread, season it with homemade protein stock (chicken, turkey, beef, mushroom) and add a lot of fresh herbs.”
Tradition is nice and all, but nobody is eating the entire turkey as if it were a giant drumstick anyway. That bird is going to get sliced and diced, so you might as well use that to your advantage.
“I think the only way to cook a Thanksgiving turkey is to spatchcock it — I do it every year,” said chef and partner Tony Mantuano of Chicago’s Spiaggia and Maddon’s Post. “This basically means you take out the backbone, butterfly the turkey open, and crack the breastbone so it lays flat and cooks evenly. I just think the process of spatchcocking makes it cook really, really evenly.”
Sébastien Giannini, the executive chef of Kingbird at The Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., echoes that sentiment. “Break it down,” he implores. “A full cooked turkey is a nice visual, but cooking it all the way through can lead to dryness. It’s better to break it down and allow everything to cook more consistently.”
Eating a ridiculously huge bird can sometimes seem less of a tradition and more an exercise in going through the motions, especially when we take dry turkey for granted.
“Turkey should never be bland or dry,” said executive chef Eric Lees at Spiaggia. “The problem is that people take it the oven way too soon. Make sure your oven thermometer is calibrated and you’re cooking the bird long enough.
Don’t cut into it right away, either — let the turkey rest for at least 25 minutes after cooking, no matter how large the turkey is.
Another hack is to use those nice pan juices and baste over the sliced meat (versus basting before cooking) to avoid soggy turkey skin.”
Levitt has a carefully crafted turkey schedule, and it includes taking the bird out for plenty of carry-over cooking. He recommends that you “roast until the thermometer registers 155 degrees F.”
And then the most important step is to walk away. “I to cook my turkey very early in the day and let it rest until it is room temperature.”
There are two givens at any holiday dinner. Someone will inevitably push away from the table in defeat and remark at how they are not only full but feel enjoying a nice food coma. That is when another person, tipsy on wine and food trivia, will chime in, “You know that’s the tryptophan that’s making you sleepy.”
This is your cue to be the “well, actually” person at the table. Turns out, tryptophan making you sleepy is a bit fat lie.
“While tryptophan deserves some of the credit for post-meal slumber, as the body converts it to melatonin, there are other factors that play a more significant role in this Thanksgiving tradition,” explains nutritionist and Candida Diet expert Lisa Richards.
“First, eating a large meal requires a significant amount of time to digest,” Richards told HuffPost. “The body sends a great deal of oxygen-carrying blood to the digestive tract to help speed along the process.”
This means there’s less blood to go around for places that brain of yours that’s now shutting down. And don’t forget that when you overindulge you see a noticeable spike in blood sugar, which precedes an epic crash.
“This crash in blood sugar, as a result of increased insulin production, makes us very tired post-meal,” Richards said.
What you just did at the dinner table, while highly commendable on a competitive eater level, isn’t the end of the world from a diet standpoint.
Check out our list of the Thanksgiving pie recipes you've been waiting for all year.
“One big meal will not make you fat, and one good workout will not make you fit,” explains celebrity chef and author of “Eat You Give a Fork: The Real Dish on Eating to Thrive,” Mareya Ibrahim. “It doesn’t work that way.
I talk about in the book, the 90/10 rule encourages you to eat a couple hundred extra calories a few times a week to ‘exercise your metabolism’ and stoke the fire as a 10% to the 90% of the time you’re eating whole, nutritionally balanced foods.”
Ibrahim placates that holiday guilt: “That Thanksgiving binge is not going to break the bank, because it’s such an infrequent occurrence.”
Ibrahim actually recommends flipping the script on how many calories you take in on a regular basis: “You need to mix it up to get results.”
Richards has a similar thought on this indulgent holiday.
“Having one meal a year, or multiple, where you allow yourself to indulge your cravings and satisfy your sentimental food desires will not lead to weight gain,” she says.
“In fact, allowing yourself to indulge occasionally, and by this I mean very rarely, will ly make your healthy eating pattern more sustainable, leading to better overall health and maintaining weight loss throughout the year.”
It’s cute and all that you think the pies are the worst part of the meal, because the entirety of your Thanksgiving menu is a gantlet of culinary landmines just waiting to demolish all the commendable steps you walked that week.
When asked what to watch out for, Richards states, “In a word: casseroles.”
The reason is simple. “Most casseroles are loaded with refined carbohydrates and very little in the way of nutrient-rich ingredients,” she said. “They are typically all on the same color scheme, light brown and are loaded with fat from creams and butter.”
“The desserts are usually where the calorie glut happens, because it’s heavy carbohydrates combined with sugar,” Ibrahim notes. “But there are also suspects lurking in the veggies. Bacon drippings in the gravy. Deep-fried Brussels sprouts. Lots of melted cheese in the au gratin potatoes.”
And when it comes to white versus dark meat, a poorly cooked bird can do you in.
“There are more fat and saturated fat in the dark meat, but usually, people add more fat gravy and butter to the white meat to make it moist since it tends to be more dry,” she said.
So help your guests’ diets and cook a delicious turkey.
From the moment we made those silly paper turkeys to take home to our parents in grade school, we were told that the first Thanksgiving was a festive gathering between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians at the Plymouth Colony in 1621.
Harvest festivals in one form or another predate that fine occasion. It was common for Europeans to gather and give thanks to a bountiful harvest prior to any Pilgrim landing. When it comes to the date we have all been told, food historian and proprietor of the A Taste of History website, Joyce M. White, explains that the famed meeting was, “certainly not the first on North American soil.”
One event that precedes the Pilgrims’ meal is that of the settlers at Berkeley Hundred in Virginia, which took place two years prior.
“Much the Pilgrims at Plymouth, they had a very rough journey to get to the Chesapeake Bay area. And they landed there in 1619,” White said.
As for what they may have had for that epic feast, White explains, “whatever was left over from the journey, which probably wasn’t much.” But it would have included local fresh oysters among other locally sourced proteins. Hey, just your favorite farm-to-table restaurant.
If you’re going to consider the Pilgrims and 1621 as the quintessential Thanksgiving beginning, then you should know that the menu was all over the place.
It’s difficult to track down exactly what was had, but thanks to sources Plymouth Gov. William Bradford’s writings along with musings by settlers Edward Winslow in Mourt’s Relation (1621), there is some inkling as to what was enjoyed. And it wasn’t solely turkey, although that would have been present with the caveat that the birds today are larger.
“It would have been very common to have three or four, maybe even more, proteins on your table,” White said. Beaver, otter and myriad fowl would have played a role.
But if you want to replicate the awe and grandeur of that historic meal then get out and hunt some deer. Venison and the act of hunting the meat would have been the apex of celebration.
“Deer meat at that time for British people was a luxury item. In England that was something that royals were only really allowed to have,” White said. “You would pay for your life if you poached a deer.”
In the New World, things were different; deer were abundant and there were no royals in sight.
We are waist-deep into decorative gourd season. For the span of a couple of months we go pumpkin insane, attempting to cram every last vestige of the rotund gourd into our coffee, pasta and, yes, pies.
But it’s all because those early harvest celebrations were centered around agrarian bounty and the specialty of the pumpkin that was ubiquitous at the time. Well, not so much.
Pumpkins took a long, winding road to end up on our tables and doorsteps and in our pies. But when it comes to the pumpkin, there is a reason we associate this squash with the season.
“Americans have relied on the pumpkin for a really long time to maintain their connections to rural farm life, which they always kind of held in the back of their minds as this idyllic way of making a living,” explains Cindy Ott, an associate professor of history at the University of Delaware and the author of “Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon.”
Ott started her work with a simple quandary: What’s the deal with pumpkins? As it turns out, it has less to do with Pilgrims and more to do with our national inclination to romanticize agrarian life.
Colonial settlers had to eat whatever was available to them, and often that meant squash, pumpkins or melons — a term that was interchangeable for either.
But it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that pumpkins finally had their day.
“People move into cities and they get stressed about losing their connections to farm life,” Ott said. “Pumpkin has no economic value in the marketplace but then it starts to appear in Harper’s Weekly and then Winslow Homer paintings, and then it becomes the center of this new national holiday that’s created.”
Around that same time, families were used to eating squash, but pumpkins were relatively useless: “Now the round, orange pumpkin, that was bigger, more awkward, wasn’t quite as sweet, so it never became the same as a market crop in the city.”
Rather, pumpkins were used as cheap and bountiful livestock feed, the crop that was left on the farm. And this is where it slowly but surely saw its status rise from also-ran gourd to the symbol of autumnal bounty.
6 Ways to Feel Awesome on Thanksgiving and Avoid the “Holiday Slide”
Most of the festivities kick off in the afternoon, with many Americans dishing up their Thanksgiving meal between 1-3:00 p.m.1 While it might be tempting to put off breakfast and lunch to get the most your dinner, skipping meals will ly leave you feeling tired, cranky and hungry.
2 Waiting all day to eat may also make you more ly to overeat when the food is served. Avoid feeling “hangry” by having a healthy breakfast and lunch earlier in the day.
If you have a snack between meals, try a nonfat plain Greek yogurt, a hard-boiled egg or a handful of carrot sticks to help you feel more satisfied.
2. Embrace healthier food choices
Ready to build your Thanksgiving plate? Rather than thinking of the holiday as an all-you-can-eat feast, create your plate the way you would any other time of the year.
Focusing on plenty of veggies, a portion of lean protein, and a moderate amount of healthy fats and starches are great ways to make a nutritious and satisfying meal.
But before you reach for an extra dinner roll, try this strategy. Ask yourself:
“Is this something I can have year-round?”
If you answered “yes,” feel free to move on to the next item. Carb-heavy, sugary and deep fried foods are a dime a dozen, especially during the holidays. Pursuing your goal weight doesn’t need to be restrictive — by making mindful choices, you’ll eat the foods you actually want and are special to that specific holiday, and probably enjoy them even more.
3. Portion size is key
How many calories are in a typical Thanksgiving dinner? The results may surprise you: Americans may eat upwards of 4,500 calories during their Thanksgiving dinner alone, according to the Calorie Control Council.3 But that doesn’t mean you have to skip your favorite foods.
Pay attention to your portions and refer to our helpful Portion Size Guide as a reference. To keep your portions under control, try filling the majority of your plate with a variety of non-starchy vegetables and fresh salad from the Fresh & Free Additions list.
Also, before considering seconds, allow yourself 20-30 minutes to start digesting before putting any other food on your plate — it can take at least 20 minutes for you to begin feeling full.4
4. Make smart swaps
Enjoy your Thanksgiving favorites in new, delicious ways by making simple substitutions. Try these:
Spiced sweet potatoes: Skip the marshmallows and turn up the volume on these naturally sweet veggies with aromatic spices. Heat the oven to 375 F.
Sprinkle a little cinnamon and nutmeg, a dash of vanilla extract and a spritz of olive oil over sweet potatoes cut into 1-inch cubes. Toss gently to coat. Spread evenly on a foil-lined baking sheet and roast for 25-30 minutes until golden brown and tender.
Mash roasted sweet potatoes and serve. If you're on the Jenny Craig program, a serving of 1 cup of spiced sweet potatoes equals 2 starches.
Healthy green bean casserole: Make two servings with Jenny Craig’s Green Beans with Garlic & Olive Oil and top it with crispy onions. To make the onions, peel and slice a small onion into 1/8-inch rings.
Dip rings into an egg white and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of grated Parmesan cheese along with salt and pepper to taste. (1 tablespoon of Parmesan counts as 1 limited food, if you're on Jenny Craig.) Place onions into an air fryer and give them a quick burst of cooking spray. Flip rings over and spray again.
Fry at 400 F for five minutes, or until crispy.5 Heat green beans according to instructions, top with onions and enjoy immediately.
For the Main Event: And if you are on the Jenny Craig program, you can skip laboring for hours in the kitchen and have Thanksgiving dinner ready in less than 10 minutes with Jenny Craig’s Turkey and Wild Rice! Tender turkey, savory wild and brown rice, sweet potatoes and rich gravy make a quick and easy meal.
Sweet treat alternatives: Want to end your meal with dessert? Check out these 10 treats that will satisfy your sweet tooth without sidetracking your weight loss.
5. Slow down and savor your meal
If you’ve ever sat down to watch TV with dinner in-hand, gotten distracted by your favorite show and suddenly noticed your plate was empty, you’ve experienced distracted eating. Distracted eating is one of the easiest ways to accidentally overindulge. However, being present and paying attention to your food may make you less ly to overeat during and after your meal.6
Trying mindful eating techniques can help: Use your senses as you eat. Savor the taste, aroma, texture and appearance of the food in front of you.7 Take note of the sensations you experience when you begin to feel full and when you feel completely full.
Eating mindfully doesn’t need to be impractical. Between catching up with friends and family and watching the Thanksgiving Day Parade, you’ll encounter some distractions during the holiday.
And if you’re gearing up for the big game on Thanksgiving Day, try creating a portion-conscious plate so that when you’ve finished eating everything on it, you’ll feel less inclined to go back for seconds.
6. Fight the “food coma.”
Ever eaten a big meal and wanted to take a nap immediately after? You’re not alone. Feeling drowsy after eating is common, especially after a large meal.
Don’t just blame the turkey — your body’s natural circadian rhythm, or your body’s internal clock, might also be making you feel sleepy. At around 1:00 or 1:30 p.m., your body may automatically start to feel tired, whether you’ve eaten or not.
8 Add this to a hefty meal, and you’re almost guaranteed to want to take a nap.
To avoid feeling extra drowsy, enjoy a light meal with plenty of non-starchy vegetables, skip the alcohol, and consider sipping a cup of coffee if you’re ready to snooze before the festivities are over.6 Shake off any food fatigue by taking a brisk post-meal walk — you’ll get to appreciate the beautiful fall weather while staying active.
While food is a big part of Thanksgiving Day, there are plenty of wonderful ways to enjoy yourself that don’t revolve around the dinner table.
You have enough on your mind during the holidays: what you eat shouldn’t stress you out! Try these six tips to get the most your holiday meal, while still maintaining your weight loss goals. And remember — one meal won’t make or break your weight loss.
If you feel yourself moving toward the holiday slide, be kind to yourself and take the time to get yourself back on track the following day.
Ready to learn more about healthy eating strategies for the holidays? Contact a Jenny Craig consultant today to book your free appointment!
Stephanie Eng-Aponte is a copywriter for Jenny Craig, based in Carlsbad, CA. Stephanie has focused on writing within the health and wellness space for the last several years, but has dabbled in the tech and environmental industries.
Stephanie employs a “eat first, write later” approach to food blogging and enjoys the occasional Oxford comma. Outside of writing, you can find Stephanie photographing a muttley crew of rescue pups, brewing kombucha, or exploring San Diego.
Favorite healthy snack: Green apple slices with sunflower butter
Briana Rodriquez, RDN
Briana is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer for Jenny Craig, based in Carlsbad, California. She is passionate about utilizing food as functional and preventative medicine.
Guided by a simplistic and optimistic approach, Briana’s philosophy is to help people improve their health and achieve their goals through the development of sustainable habits to live a healthy life.
In her free time, you can find her strength training, indoor cycling, coffee tasting, and at local eateries with her husband and two dogs. Favorite healthy snack: peanut butter with celery alongside a grapefruit-flavored sparkling water (so refreshing!).
This article is scientific research and/or other scientific articles and is written by experienced health and lifestyle contributors and fact-checked by Briana Rodriquez, RDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Jenny Craig.
Our goal at Jenny Craig is to provide the most up-to-date and objective information on health-related topics, so our readers can make informed decisions factual content. All articles undergo an extensive review process, and depending on topic, are reviewed by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) or Nutritionist, to ensure accuracy.
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