Diet Optimization Food Psychology Healthy Holidays Portion Control Weight Loss Strategies

Healthy Thanksgiving Tips: 3 Simple Steps for Success!

This article outlines 3 simple healthy Thanksgiving tips that will help you balance enjoying your favorite festive foods with your goals.

Food is the cornerstone of Thanksgiving celebrations for many people (along with the post-meal nap while watching football!). The purpose of this article is to outline 3 simple healthy Thanksgiving tips that will help you balance enjoying your favorite festive foods with your goals.

Your Environment Has Influence!

“Cues” for food and eating are all around us in our environment. Food cues include pictures in advertisements or seeing and smelling foods around you. Science has shown that being around food cues can cause cravings and motivate overeating (Bailey, 2017; Meule et al., 2014). In addition, food cues are such powerful motivators that they can override biological hunger and fullness signals (Belfort-DeAguiar & Seo, 2017)!

So, don’t underestimate the power of your environment in influencing your eating. Instead, set yourself up for success this Thanksgiving!

If You’re on a Weight Loss Journey…

I strongly recommend setting the goal of maintaining your weight over the holiday weekend rather than losing weight. Then, you have a better chance of achieving this more realistic goal. Many people experience frustration when they don’t hit goals they set for themselves, which can serve as a trigger for overeating.

For instance, one of my patients recently set a goal of weight loss on vacation and instead ended up gaining 0.5 pounds– basically maintaining their weight, which is incredible! However, they didn’t see it this way. Instead, they felt disappointed they had “failed” to lose weight. Then, they slipped into the mindset of “I might as well eat whatever I want now and get back on track next time I see Erica.” So, we discussed their experience, and it was a lesson learned in setting realistic expectations.

3 Simple, Healthy Thanksgiving Tips

Now, let’s dive into the three steps you can take to set yourself up for a balanced, healthy Thanksgiving.

Tip #1: Start the day with enjoyable physical activity.

This is helpful for two reasons. First, including physical activity in your day can offset a few of the calories you’re eating (a 20-minute walk burns about 100-150 calories). But, that’s not the magic of why I recommend being active on Thanksgiving Day.

The second (magical) reason I suggest including some enjoyable physical activity in your Thanksgiving day schedule is that being active will challenge the “all-or-nothing” thoughts you may be having. Examples of these all-or-nothing thoughts are:

  • “It’s Thanksgiving, so I have permission to eat whatever I want today!”
  • “There’s no way I can stick to my healthy eating goals (or calorie budget) today, so I might as well just start fresh tomorrow.”
  • “I’m going to feel deprived if I don’t eat all of the Thanksgiving foods I only get once per year, so I’m just going to eat them and then will eat healthy next week.”
  • “Everyone else is eating whatever they want, so I will too.”

Sound familiar? These common thoughts drive overeating during the Thanksgiving holiday. So, it is important to recognize them, call them out, and talk back to them!

Including physical activity on Thanksgiving day is a way of talking back to these all-or-nothing thoughts. So, say, “NO! Today isn’t an excuse to let all of your hard work and healthy habits go out the window. Instead, let’s balance the food you’re going to enjoy with an activity you enjoy.”

Remember to make time for yourself on Thanksgiving morning to set the tone for a balanced day. Even better, invite your family or friends to join you during a break in the cooking. Or, round everyone up for a 15-minute stroll after eating that will help lower your blood sugar levels.

Tip #2: Remember that Thanksgiving is one meal.

Thanksgiving is a well-deserved break that begins Wednesday night and goes through the weekend. But, our brains like to think the Thanksgiving meal also lasts from Wednesday to Sunday!

Recent estimates show that a Thanksgiving meal can range from 3000-4500 calories (Billings Gazette, 2019). So, it is essential to keep Thanksgiving to one meal.

Continue to follow your healthy eating plan up to the moment your Thanksgiving meal begins. Then, return to it the very next meal (or snack) after the Thanksgiving meal ends.

Specific strategies for keeping Thanksgiving to one meal:

  • In the three days leading up to Thanksgiving, prioritize meals and snacks that are high in lean protein, fiber, and vegetables. These nutrient-dense foods will give your body with the best fuel leading up to Thanksgiving Day.
  • Before Thanksgiving, plan out exactly what you will eat Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Having your game plan will take the guess work out of making eating decisions, which are harder when you’re around friends or family who are continuing to eat whatever they want.
  • On Thanksgiving Day, eat high-protein foods before the main meal. This will prevent you from showing up ravenous and overeating the appetizers before the meal even begins. High-protein breakfasts include egg whites and turkey bacon or Catalina Crunch protein cereal with unsweetened almond milk.
  • After the Thanksgiving meal, follow the plan you created for eating healthily on Friday thru Sunday. You can incorporate leftovers, but be more intentional about portion control. For higher calorie dishes (stuffing, mashed potatoes, etc.), measure your portions using a digital food scale. Even if you don’t typically log your calories, it may be helpful for these three days to stay aware of your eating choices.

Tip #3: Be choosy at the Thanksgiving meal.

Growing up in a Jewish family and marrying into an Italian family, I understand that food can be a love language. For many, eating home-cooked foods shows appreciation and love to those who cooked.

However, this is an easy way to rack up calories that you may have not even wanted. But, the calories you didn’t want to eat are the obvious choice for where to cut back.

I encourage you to be choosy when you are selecting which foods to eat at Thanksgiving and which to pass on. If you know that pumpkin pie is your top priority, pace yourself through the appetizers and dinner. If stuffing is your jam, go easy on the mashed potatoes.

To enjoy a bit of everything, try a “tapas” style approach. Take a tablespoon or two of each food and sample a small portion.

Consider openly sharing your goals with your family members or friends. This can help the food-pushers in your family recognize that you’re not trying to make them feel unloved or unappreciated by not eating seconds of the dish they prepared. The more transparent you can be, the fewer questions you’ll get about your choices.

Remember, you don’t owe it to anyone to eat foods that you didn’t want to eat. This is the easiest place to reduce your calories and find balance on Thanksgiving Day. So, be choosy and help your loved ones understand your decisions.

Dr. Schulte’s Summary

Go into this Thanksgiving feeling confident that you can find a balance between enjoying the food being served and honoring the goals you have for your health and lifestyle. Follow my three simple steps for success:

  1. Start the day with enjoyable physical activity.
  2. Remember that Thanksgiving is one meal.
  3. Be choosy at the Thanksgiving meal.

In addition, three other articles that may be useful reads ahead of Thanksgiving are:

You’ve got this!

What are your top strategies for maintaining your healthy habits over Thanksgiving weekend?

Click here to get my free guide that outlines the first three specific steps you should take ASAP to kickstart your weight loss journey!

Follow me on Instagram @drericaschulte and the Weight Management, Optimized Facebook page!


Bailey, R. L. (2017). Influencing eating choices: biological food cues in advertising and packaging alter trajectories of decision making and behavior. Health communication32(10), 1183-1191.

Belfort-DeAguiar, R., & Seo, D. (2018). Food cues and obesity: overpowering hormones and energy balance regulation. Current obesity reports7(2), 122-129.

Meule, A., Lutz, A. P., Vögele, C., & Kübler, A. (2014). Impulsive reactions to food-cues predict subsequent food craving. Eating behaviors15(1), 99-105.

Disclaimer: all opinions are my own and are not affiliated with my employers. Please seek medical guidance before pursuing weight loss or making significant changes to the way you eat or your physical activity routine.

6 replies on “Healthy Thanksgiving Tips: 3 Simple Steps for Success!”

Thank you very much for your help on this. I started a healthy lifestyle during the pandemic. But I didn’t have to deal with Thanksgiving last year. However, the test has come. I will follow your suggestion and plan out exactly what we will eat Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. And enjoy my beautiful family’s company!

I hope it went well, Ann! 🙂 Congratulations on making healthy lifestyle changes during the pandemic, too!

This article is much needed. Individuals tend to eat however they want to eat and forget about their fitness journey during the festive season. I know for a fact that a lot of people will use Thanksgiving as a cheat day and will struggle to go back to their diet after Thanksgiving. So I will be sure to share this article with my family 

You’re so right, Daniel! I hope that these tips may be helpful reminders for your family as well!

Thank you for this article on 3 simple steps for success at Thanksgiving, I am sure going to need these tips haha! One of the tips about making sure that you remain on your weight, instead of trying to diet on that day, is what I apply as well. During festivities it is quite impossible to stick to a diet anyway. And the morning routine is a very good tip, thanks!

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