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How to Plan a Weight-Neutral Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday – by far. I love starting to plan the menu a month in advance, waking up early Thanksgiving morning to spend the day alongside my mom in the kitchen and enjoying a cozy day inside a house filled with my multi-generational, blended family to enjoy delicious food and meaningful conversation.

But as both a dietitian and a weight-conscious, 40-something woman, part of my planning process involves crafting a strategy to avoid packing on extra pounds.

To be clear: I fully expect that my – and everyone else's, for that matter – calorie intake on Thanksgiving Day is going to be significantly higher than on a typical Thursday. But in order to prevent this caloric outlier from translating into longer-lasting weight gain, I try to follow these tips – and you can too:

1. Time the meal right.

I'm increasingly compelled by the research supporting breakfast or lunch as the "main meal" of the day, as opposed to saving your biggest plate for dinner. More and more studies are demonstrating the benefits of "front-loading" calories for weight loss, blood sugar control and cholesterol levels. So, if I were hosting Thanksgiving dinner in an ideal world, I'd call for the meal to start between noon and 2 p.m., with a break between the meal and dessert, with the latter concluding by 4:30 p.m. or 5 p.m. Then, I'd pass out minty sugarless gum, turn off the kitchen lights and call it a day on eating.

2. Don't skip breakfast or show up starving.

Plenty of people skip breakfast – and sometimes lunch, too – on Thanksgiving Day in order to "save all their calories" for the main event: dinner. From a weight perspective, this game plan is likely to terribly backfire. Skipping breakfast has been shown to result in a more dramatic blood sugar spike following a high-carb lunch or dinner compared to when people eat the same meal on a day they ate a normal breakfast. This spike has implications for weight gain and metabolic health. What's more, showing up at the Thanksgiving dinner table starving – with a feeling of entitlement to indulge – is a recipe for social disaster.

If you do Thanksgiving lunch, don't skip breakfast. If you do the main meal at dinner, don't skip lunch. If you do a mid-afternoon (3 p.m. or 4 p.m.) meal, I'd suggest a light lunch or large snack – such as a large apple with peanut butter or a vegetable omelet – a few hours before the meal to help tame that raging appetite before arriving at the table.

3. Start with soup.

If you're hosting and in control of the menu for Thanksgiving, I might consider serving a vegetable-based soup as a cozy appetizer to greet your guests rather than a tray full of high-calorie nuts, cheese, chips and dips. Soup is mostly water, so it fills you up with relatively few calories, making you more likely to cry "uncle" at the Thanksgiving meal before Aunt Hilda manages to place a second serving of mashed potatoes on your plate. Conversely, setting out a tray full of very calorie-dense appetizers will tempt your guests into eating up to an entire meal's worth of calories – before the meal even begins. I recommend setting up a tureen of a self-service, seasonal soup – think low-fat pumpkin, roasted cauliflower, curried butternut squash, mushroom barley or carrot ginger – as a delicious way to kick off the Thanksgiving meal that will help your guests regulate their eating in a more healthful way.

4. Balance your plate.

It will be much harder to completely overdo it at Thanksgiving if you give yourself one single goal: Make half of what goes on your plate – and in your mouth – a non-starchy vegetable. Rather than trying to resist the temptation of eating your seasonal favorites – such as mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, stuffing or gravy-drenched turkey – focus your efforts on leaving no more than half of your plate's real estate to these foods. The other half should go to other seasonal vegetable favorites such green beans, roasted Brussels sprouts, carrots and squash, collard greens, vegetable soup or whatever other holiday veggies your family offers. If you decide to go back for seconds of something fatty or carb-heavy, make sure you balance those seconds with an equal portion of veggies.

5. Take a walking break between the meal and dessert.

Taking a break after the meal before diving into dessert will give your stomach and brain time to catch up with one another. In other words, you'll be able to register your true level of fullness before it's time to decide how much dessert to go for. Using this break time to take a brisk walk around the neighborhood with that favorite cousin you don't see often enough is an even more beneficial use of the time, since the exercise helps your muscle cells handle the energy dump of the meal without using too much of the hormone insulin. And, the higher circulating insulin levels are, the more likely you are to store energy as fat and the harder it is to burn fat for energy. Returning to the table after a walking interlude, however, may sway you to decide to downsize that slice of pie you had been planning – or choose a slice of that lighter pumpkin pie over pecan.

Whether your Thanksgiving dinner went as planned or went horribly awry, the best way to recover from Thanksgiving indulgences is to get right back on track to your normal eating pattern the very next day. One meal – even an egregiously high-calorie meal – can only set you back so much on the scale. But an extended holiday weekend of Thanksgiving meal reruns is going to leave a mark. Rather than succumbing to the "I'm never going to eat again" instinct before going to sleep on Thursday night, plan yourself a completely normal, healthy day of eating for Friday – starting with your usual healthy breakfast – to get right back on the health wagon.

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