How to Practice Mindful Eating at Thanksgiving

BIPOC child eating dinner with family at Thanksgiving

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We’d 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.

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 

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

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 says which food they’re 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 2016 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that, on average, people added only 0.2 percent to their body weight over the Thanksgiving holiday.

While this isn’t an excuse to give in to gluttony 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.

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. As Intuitive Eating’s fourth principle, “Challenge the Food Police” states, “Scream a loud no to thoughts in your head that declare you’re ‘good’ for eating minimal calories or ‘bad’ because you ate a piece of chocolate cake.’” 

Try asking yourself: “What would I eat if I had permission to enjoy whatever I wanted at Thanksgiving? How much would I eat to be satisfied?” Fill your plate based on your answers to these 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. “Shift your focus to how it feels to move your body, rather than the calorie-burning effect of exercise,” explains principle nine.

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. Add in a global pandemic and an election cycle like no other and you’ve got a recipe for serious stress this year.

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. “[Food] may comfort for the short term, distract from the pain, or even numb you. But food won’t solve the problem,” goes principle seven of Intuitive Eating.

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. A 2019 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that gratitude facilitated healthier eating behaviors in teens and young adults . 

Even in a year as difficult as 2020, Thanksgiving Day is still a chance to count our blessings. This Thanksgiving, may we all let our gratitude make a difference in our relationships, our mental health, and our eating.

 

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  2. Helander E, et al. Weight Gain over the Holidays in Three Countries. N Engl J Med 2016; 375:1200-1202. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMc1602012

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