In the weeks before Thanksgiving, the cultural messages around the holiday can be enough to make even the most self-assured person feel anxious about what's supposed to be a fun, relaxing holiday where we get to catch up with loved ones. Granted, we may not be excited to see every single one of our relatives, but we can at least tolerate those people for one meal. Managing the mixed messages about food, however, is harder.
Starting on November 1, friends, family, strangers, and the media bombard us with comments, lamentations, and information meant to assign moral value to our food choices during Thanksgiving dinner. From tallying how many days' worth of calories we're going to eat in one meal, to "light" versions of all our favorite Thanksgiving dishes, to suggestions for how to use exercise to "earn" a slice of pie or burn off the turkey, the "food is bad or good, and indulging is shameful" theme is pervasive—and harmful.
[Quick note from the editor here, before we go any further: It's no secret that SELF has published a good deal of stories just like these examples in our 37-year history. We've changed our approach for many reasons, some of which writer Brittany Risher has articulated in this very article!]
These negative messages "create anxiety, and you start to dread Thanksgiving,” says psychologist Sofia Rydin-Gray, Ph.D., behavioral health director at Duke Diet and Fitness Center. “There's this fear of 'what's going to happen?' and instead of exercising to feel good and honor your body, it becomes a need to burn off calories because we did something 'wrong.'” Or perhaps in part because we're already stressing over a dinner that hasn't even happened yet.
Why do we keep doing this to ourselves? We don't need to feel this way! This year (and every year), let's forget what we've read or we've heard from friends, coworkers, and complete strangers. Instead, let's go into the holiday with the mindset that it's just one meal—one that we should aim to enjoy fully.
Let's start by being honest about those “light” recipe alternatives for our favorite Thanksgiving sides.
I'm sorry, but cauliflower mash isn't a Thanksgiving classic. And I say that as a cauliflower mash fan. If you love it, sure, go for it. But if you'd prefer real mashed potatoes made with cream and butter—and especially if you don't like cauliflower posing as potatoes—don't eat it!
Because we often have them only once a year, Thanksgiving dishes, like sweet potato casserole and stuffing, are comfort foods. If you exclude comfort foods from the holiday, you can feel robbed and resentful, says Cassandra Forsythe, Ph.D., R.D., professor of exercise science at Central Connecticut State University. So cook your traditional takes on the dishes you absolutely love—you know, the ones that scream “Thanksgiving” to you. And then enjoy them.
This doesn't mean that you need to eschew all healthier options altogether, of course. Feel free to make health-swap adjustments to dishes you feel meh about or don't have any emotional attachment to. All the better if the healthier options are also delicious and bring you joy.
The bottom line is that when you sit down to dinner, you should fill your plate with the foods you love.