No single holiday is as directly connected to food as Thanksgiving Day. If we look at what “food” means for this special day, there’s an undercurrent theme of sweets, treats, indulgences, and overeating to the point of discomfort. And, for those with fibromyalgia and/or other health challenges, this can create an unwelcome flare of symptoms.
Not that there is ever a welcome flare of fibromyalgia symptoms.
The media loves to perpetuate the tribulations inherent in holiday get-togethers. Sitcoms and movies show family members and guests moaning in pain after the Thanksgiving meal. Children become hyper. Some seniors may be snoring before they even leave the table.
While this can get some good laughs on TV or the big screen, it doesn’t have to represent real life. But, some of it is true, right?
For example, we’ve all heard of the tryptophan effect. Don’t we typically see Uncle Bill and Grandpa headed for their recliners immediately after dinner?
Thanksgiving Dinner Myths and Truths
Let’s explore a few Thanksgiving dinner myths and truths below. Some may surprise you!
- MYTH: You have to deprive yourself and feel excluded from family fun if you’re trying to stay healthy on this holiday. TRUTH: Having a taste or small portion of a variety of foods is just fine. After all, Thanksgiving isn’t every day (thank goodness)! Be selective about the favorite offerings you’d like to try, but don’t deprive yourself of what you really want. Total deprivation never works. At least, it doesn’t work in the long term.
- MYTH: Because of the tryptophan, eating turkey will make you fall asleep after dinner (or make you wish you could). TRUTH: The fact is, “There’s as much tryptophan in other foods if not more,” says Robert Rosenberg, DO.(1) These foods include milk, milk products, cheese, other meats, soybeans, as well as some fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. So, if you’re feeling sleepy, it’s probably not the tryptophan. Instead, point your finger at the creamy foods, alcohol, and the plethora of grain-based carbohydrates. Perhaps most importantly, overeating them all in one sitting, is the likely culprit for sleepiness.
- MYTH: All holidays end up in a family squabble or brawl. TRUTH: Okay, so I have no proof to the contrary on this one, but I don’t think knock-down-drag-out fights at family festive events are very common. I think that most families can get together and behave with a modicum of respect and decorum. At least for one day. That is, unless the gathering includes both the Hatfields and the McCoys.
- MYTH: Holiday meals can’t be healthy. TRUTH: Just as with your daily meals, a few simple tips and swaps can make all the difference in the world. You can still enjoy your holiday favorites, but make them better. Upgrade your nutrition!
I hope you enjoy the following collection of tips and swaps. I’ve gathered them together for you to spark your creative juices. Here’s how you can amp up the nutrient value of your holiday favorites.
Thanksgiving Dinner Recipe Tips and Swaps
Thanksgiving Turkey and Stuffing
Turkey: Since turkey is often the only “healthy” item on the Thanksgiving table, you may wonder what there is to upgrade. If it fits within your time and financial resources, choose a turkey that’s grass-fed, organic, and locally-raised. Ask at your favorite health food store if they’ll have them available this year for you to purchase or special order.
Stuffing: Wait, isn’t stuffing a forbidden food since grains are problematic for many of us with fibromyalgia and/or autoimmune conditions? Don’t be discouraged. If stuffing is a must for you, there are many options to try.
You may choose to simply swap out a gluten-free variety of bread in your favorite recipe. When choosing a packaged bread or mix, be sure to read the ingredients. Just because it says gluten-free does NOT mean it’s healthy. Beware of flours that may still be inflammation-causing such as bean flour, potato flour, rice flour, and some nut flours. And, as with any other packaged product, read the label for additives and other ingredients that can cause intestinal irritation.
Or, you may wish to choose recipes that have nothing to do with bread or bread crumbs at all. There are many tantalizing options available that might be just the thing for a change of pace. Here’s a link from Mark’s Daily Apple with six wildly different stuffing options to try.
Thanksgiving Side dishes
Think the creaminess and flavor of mashed potatoes are a thing of that past? Considering that dairy is a common problem for most of us, and white potatoes belong to the nightshade family, the mashed potatoes we may have grown up with can leave us with intestinal cramping and gas (or worse) for the rest of the day.
Here’s an idea — have you ever tried cauliflower “mashed potatoes?” You’ll never look back. Try the following recipes or search online for dozens (or hundreds) more.
This one from Nom Nom Paleo has the added bonus of being a “make ahead” recipe. We need every shortcut we can get on Thanksgiving Day! (Tip: You do not need a food processor to make mashed cauliflower. You can always chop the florets into smaller pieces to begin with and then use a regular blender or a hand, immersion blender. Your results may not be completely smooth, but many of us prefer a chunkier texture.)
This Creamy Mashed Cauliflower recipe from Every Day Maven is garlic-free.
Looking to replace that ubiquitous green bean casserole with a non-dairy and healthier version? Check out this option from Grass Fed Girl.
My favorite addition to the Thanksgiving meal is a simple butternut squash soup. The squash can be roasted and cooked ahead of time, and then heated with the remaining ingredients and thrown together before serving. Alternatively, throw the ingredients in the crock pot and allow them to cook all day and then whiz with an immersion blender or use a regular blender before serving.
My favorite butternut squash recipes include green apple for a bit of sweetness and tart flavor. Try this version from Paleo Grubs, or perhaps this one from All Recipes. Before serving, you may wish to stir in some canned coconut cream or coconut milk to add a delightful creaminess.
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If there’s anything that you can find in abundance online, it’s dessert recipes. Healthy dessert recipes are no exception. However, sugar is still sugar – even if it’s in a healthier form.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that just because each ingredient may be “healthy,” these recipes are desserts and are therefore treats. If you decide to have a slice of pie –– go right ahead. If, in the past, you’ve found yourself grazing mindlessly through the sweet leftovers after the guests are gone –– do yourself a favor and send the leftovers home with them.
For many, it’s not Thanksgiving without Pumpkin Pie. Here’s a great Grain-Free Pumpkin Pie recipe from Wellness Mama. Or, you may wish to peruse this simple version from Cook Eat Paleo. For something other than pie, you may wish to try this Pumpkin Pie Cupcake recipe from My Whole Food Life.
For some simple cookies, here’s a great recipe from my friend, George at Civilized Caveman Cooking. These Carrot Cake Cookies are sure to be a hit with your guests. And, for another lemon-flavored option, check out George’s Lemon Bars.
Looking for more inspiration?
For more meal-time ideas, recipes, tips, and swaps I give a hearty recommendation to Pinterest. If you haven’t checked it out, it’s worth taking a look. They’ve recently added some amazing search options that make it even easier to laser-target your results.
And speaking of laser targeting, did you notice something in common with many of the recipes I suggested above? Many of the blog chefs mentioned here cook in what’s called, a Paleo lifestyle. Using the term “paleo” in your recipe search can be very helpful.
The Paleo lifestyle is known to be mainly whole foods (not processed), grain-free and dairy-free. While you may not follow the Paleo diet to the letter (I don’t follow any diet to the letter), the great thing about adding this term to your recipe search, is that you’re far more likely to get results that are free from many ingredients that trigger inflammation (i.e. pain).
Inflammation-causing foods include grains, dairy, alcohol, sugar, caffeine, soy, beans, lentils, artificial sweeteners, packaged and processed foods, artificial chemicals/additives, etc.
It’s also important to address food sensitivities that affect YOU. For many with fibromyalgia and autoimmune health challenges, foods that belong to the nightshade family may be a problematic. The main nightshades to consider are — tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, hot peppers, goji berries, paprika, potatoes (other than sweet potatoes), etc.
The Best Thanksgiving Day Tip
Last, but definitely not least, do you know what the greatest health-inducing and pain-relieving gift that Thanksgiving Day has to offer?
The opportunity to express gratitude.
Feeling a deep, heart-felt sense of thankfulness and gratitude has been shown to elevate the “happiness hormones” that give us a sense of well-being. It’s been proven to increase our sense of joy and optimism, strengthen our immune system, and help us feel more connected to others.(2)
Before the busyness of Thanksgiving Day arrives, I encourage you to take a moment to write a gratitude list. For tips on how to begin (even if you don’t feel particularly grateful), check out this “How to Write out a Gratitude List” article.
Need a few more reasons to make your gratitude list? Read this “10 Reasons Why Gratitude is Healthy” article from the Huffington Post.
My wish to you is that your Thanksgiving Day be filled with healing foods, soul-affirming activities, and supportive relationships and conversations. That’s the best healthy recipe you can follow for any occasion.
This article, originally published November 12, 2014, was updated on November 23, 2019.
Sue Ingebretson is becoming a most sought after symptom-relief expert in the fibromyalgia and chronic illness communities. She’s known for getting to the root of her client’s health challenges and delivering long-term results using a light-hearted approach without quick-fix remedies that only mask symptoms. You can find out more and contact Sue at Rebuilding Wellness.
1. Rosenberg, Robert. “Food and Sleep…Fact vs Fiction.” Everyday Health. November 26, 2013.
2. “Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude.” Greater Good. Retrieved 11/11/2014.