How to Practice Mindful Eating at Thanksgiving

BIPOC child eating dinner with family at Thanksgiving

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We would all probably say we’d like to eat more mindfully—but it seems like applying principles of awareness and intention to our food choices is harder on some days than others. Thanksgiving Day may feel like the ultimate mindful eating Olympics, with its copious portions and sometimes stressful distractions.

Ready for a plot twist? With the right mental framework, it’s possible to see Thanksgiving as a unique opportunity—not a minefield—for mindful eating. While a day of feasting may present some challenges, it’s also a chance to put into practice a conscious, compassionate mentality toward yourself and your eating—and feel great about doing so. Here is what you need to know about mindful eating on Thanksgiving.

Mindful Eating Versus Intuitive Eating

If you’re new to the idea of mindful eating, you may have questions about how it compares to intuitive eating. Are they two names for the same thing? Not quite. While these two approaches share many similarities, they have some key distinctions, too. 

Mindful eating is any effort to bring the principles of mindfulness to our food consumption. Being in the present moment as we eat, savoring tastes and textures, and reducing distractions are all hallmarks of a mindful meal.

Intuitive eating, on the other hand, is a trademarked program developed by dietitians Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole. It revolves around 10 key principles, such as rejecting the diet mentality, respecting your body, and making peace with food. These practices aim to unravel and heal unhealthy relationships with food.

As you approach Thanksgiving this year, here are seven ways to incorporate both mindful and intuitive eating so you can truly enjoy the day and all its edible delights. 

Slow Down and Savor 

Tuning in to the tastes, textures, and aromas of Thanksgiving menu items promotes the important act of savoring. Taste the hint of cloves in Grandma’s pumpkin pie or ponder the mouthfeel of tender green beans alongside crispy fried onions

According to the University of California Davis, savoring leads to more pleasure from food. More pleasure results in more satisfaction—sometimes from fewer bites. The more you can focus on the physical experience of eating, the better for mindful, moderate eating.

Granted, with conversation buzzing around you and kids interrupting to ask for more stuffing, it’s probably not possible to simply bliss out at the Thanksgiving table. Try starting a group activity where everyone shares which food they are enjoying most and why. 

Ditch the Guilt

Believe it or not, one day of overeating isn’t likely to make a major impact on your weight or other measures of health. In fact, even with plus-sized portions of mashed potatoes and apple pie, you aren't likely to gain even a whole pound. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that, on average, people added only 0.2% to their body weight over the Thanksgiving holiday.

While this isn’t an excuse to go overboard on Turkey Day, it may help relieve a sense of guilt you might usually feel about the feast. Remind yourself that Thanksgiving comes just once a year, and that celebrations are a time to find joy with family and friends. Times like these call for special foods in abundance.

Tip

If you end up eating past fullness, give yourself some grace. Beating yourself up over something you can’t change will only lead to a negative cycle of self-punishment. Instead, enjoy the happy memories of delicious food shared with loved ones.

Remove the Labels 

There’s incredible freedom in stripping away labels like “virtuous” and “sinful” from foods—and from yourself for eating them. According to intuitive eating principles, you should challenge the food police. Try not to judge yourself as "good" for eating certain foods and "bad" for eating others.

Try asking yourself: “What would I eat if I had permission to enjoy whatever I wanted at Thanksgiving?" Fill your plate based on your answer to this questions, rather than what you “should” eat to be “good.” 

Check in with Hunger and Fullness

Both mindful and intuitive eating emphasize the importance of clueing into your hunger and fullness at mealtimes and throughout the day. After all, it’s when we aren’t paying attention to our own physical signs that we usually overdo it. 

On Thanksgiving Day, schedule some check-ins where you can assess your appetite. You can do this by setting alarms on your phone or designating certain points throughout the day (or the meal). At these times, get up from the table, stretch, or walk around for a few minutes. Are you still feeling the need to nosh? If so, dig in! If not, take a break. 

It’s also critical, especially for those who struggle with disordered eating, not to get overly hungry in anticipation of eating a large meal. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, when you’ve gone without calories too long, it’s even harder to make wise decisions or react appropriately to your hunger. Prevent excessive hunger on Thanksgiving by snacking or having a light early meal. 

Make Movement a Priority

One of intuitive eating’s 10 tenets actually doesn’t have to do with eating. Instead, this key principle emphasizes physical activity. As we all know, the balance of hunger and fullness is modulated by our activity level.

But Resch and Tribole encourage thinking of exercise in terms of how it makes you feel, not how much food you’ve “earned” by working out. They encourage shifting your focus to how it feels to move your body, rather than the calorie-burning effect of exercise.

Tip

On Thanksgiving Day, boost your mood and work up an appetite by participating in some form of exercise you enjoy. A morning walk, impromptu football game, or family hike can all start the day off right.

Find Other Releases for Stress

Even under normal circumstances, tensions can run high at holiday gatherings, especially with family. When a sense of overwhelm threatens your mental health, try to mindfully direct your response away from stress eating and toward a healthier coping strategy.

Keep in mind that food won’t solve the problem. Instead, call a friend to talk out your emotions, hop in a soothing bath, or take a kickboxing class where you can jab and punch away some aggravation.

Really Give Thanks

Theoretically, Thanksgiving is all about giving thanks. Yet it’s all too easy, in the rush of preparing food or putting on your battle armor for run-ins with difficult relatives, to forget its true meaning.

This year, give the day its due. Incorporate some type of gratitude practice, whether writing down things you’re thankful for, saying a prayer before the feast, or having everyone around the table offer appreciation for something good in their lives.

These thankfulness check-ins don’t just bring warm fuzzies. They harness our awareness, bringing us back to what’s good in our present moment.

This can actually lead to healthier eating. In fact, a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that gratitude facilitated healthier eating behaviors in teens and young adults.

A Word From Verywell

Applying mindfulness and intuitive eating principles during your Thanksgiving Day meal is a great way to take the pressure off allowing you to relax and enjoy the day without worrying too much about what you are eating or how much. While it is important not to overdo it, you also do not want to have a restrictive mindset either.

Remember, Thanksgiving Day is a chance to count your blessings. It also should be a day to ditch the tendency to label foods good and bad and instead savor your food—and your day. This Thanksgiving, may the gratitude that permeates the day make a difference in your mental health—and your eating.

 

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Intuitive Eating Organization. 10 Principles of intuitive eating.

  2. University of California. The science of savoring every bite.

  3. Helander E, et al. Weight gain over the holidays in three countries. N Engl J Med 2016; 375:1200-1202. doi:10.1056/NEJMc1602012

  4. National Eating Disorders Association. Incorporating intuitive eating into Thanksgiving festivities.

  5. Fritz M, et al. Gratitude facilitates healthy eating behavior in adolescents and young adults. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 2019:(81)4-14. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2018.08.011

By Sarah Garone, NDTR
Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a freelance health and wellness writer who runs a food blog.