Turkey Day is as much about gobbling rich dishes as it is about spending quality time with your loved ones, and who are we to rob you of that pleasure? Still, your day of indulgence doesn't have to put you in beached-whale mode afterward.
These 10 tips from Michelle Dudash, RD, a professional chef and recipe developer in Phoenix, AZ, and Keri Gans, author of The Small Change Diet, give you a chance to indulge in family favorites without overdoing it.
1. Eat something before dinner
"Some people skip breakfast and lunch if they have a feast ahead of them, and then end up overeating later," Gans says. "Make sure you follow your normal eating routine. Don't skip meals and even have a snack before you head out so you're not starving," she says.
2. Make time for exercise
"Why not make the day about more than eating?" Gans says. "Try to make the day active." Go for a walk or run before dinner or integrate some fitness into your family gathering (and run your town's Thanksgiving turkey trot).
Instead of just watching football, throw around the pigskin or play some Ping-Pong with your loved ones. Just think: An hour of touch football will burn off about a serving of mashed potatoes and a slice of pie, and a leisurely hour-long walk will melt off a serving of stuffing.
3. Socialize away from the food
"Stay busy socializing away from the food. Instead of planting yourself next to the bowl of Chex mix or spinach dip, sit farther away," Dudash says. Even better, keep the food out of your sight until it's time to sit down for dinner.
Cornell researchers found that people ate more when they were near food, and more so when it was visible. In the study, which monitored how much office workers ate from candy dishes, subjects were likely to eat an average of 2.2 more candies each day when it was visible and 1.8 more when the candies were placed close to them.
4. Make smart food swaps
If you prepare the meal, you have a number of opportunities to cut calories and fat. In mashed potatoes, add a spread made with canola oil instead of butter and use milk instead of cream.
"[A butter replacement] has half the saturated fat, but still has that yummy buttery taste," Dudash says. For green bean casserole (try this baked casserole recipe), use low-fat cream of mushroom soup, fresh or frozen green beans—which have less sodium than canned beans—and make your own "fried" onions. Just slice shallots, dredge them in panko crumbs, and bake them. Double the vegetables in your stuffing to add vitamins and antioxidants and dilute the calories you get from the bread cubes.
5. Integrate new, healthier dishes into your repertoire
It's never too late to start a new, healthy tradition. "You'd be surprised at how many people appreciate having healthier choices," Gans says. "It gives them an opportunity to fill up on vegetables, which can help control portions of higher calorie foods."
Offer crudités and dip made from Greek yogurt as an appetizer, or serve roasted vegetables as a side dish. "Carrots, fennel, and Brussels sprouts are all in season and taste great," Dudash says. Try any of these 7 unexpected ways to eat Brussels sprouts, or just toss the veggies in olive oil and season with salt, pepper, and thyme before roasting them at 450°F.
6. Use a smaller plate
The size of your plate affects how much food you put on it, and changing your place is one of the easiest healthy eating habits to help you slim down. A Cornell University study found that people misjudged the amount of food they ate based on the size of the plate. Research participants who received larger bowls consumed 16% more cereal than those who had smaller bowls, but estimated that they were eating less food than the group eating from the smaller bowls.
If you're going to use a regular-sized plate, keep your food within the plate's inner rim instead of filling it all the way to the edges, Dudash suggests.
7. Stay hydrated
Over the course of the day, sip water or alternate between water and caloric beverages. "[A glass of water] will keep your hands occupied without piling on calories," Dudash says. Plus, research shows that drinking water can be an effective way to control your appetite.
In one study presented at an American Chemical Society meeting, dieters who drank 2 cups of water before meals over 12 weeks lost about 5 pounds more than dieters who did not increase their water consumption.
8. Stick with one dessert
With potluck meals, you're often faced with an array of tasty, high-calorie desserts. You can have your cake and eat it too—you just can't have your cake along with cookies, chocolates, and pie. "You've got to pick and choose," Gans says. "Go in there saying, I'm eating one dessert, and stick with it."
9. Don’t leave with leftovers
At the end of the night, kindly decline any leftovers, and, if you're hosting, send all high-calorie leftovers home with your guests.
"Don't keep the pie, because you'll feel like you have to finish it," Dudash says. It's one thing to splurge for one day, but it's another thing to feast for the next week on rich dishes. If you're forced to take food home with you, bring the leftovers to the office for your coworkers, Gans suggests. "Regift all desserts."
10. Ditch the guilt
Even if you go a little overboard on Turkey Day, keep in mind that it's just one day of the year. As long as you don't keep eating these high-calorie foods through New Year's, one day shouldn't make a huge difference for your diet, Dudash says.
"If you feel guilty and restrict your food intake the next day, you start going down a road of disaster," Gans says. Just resume your healthy eating behavior the next day and go to the gym.