Here’s the best holiday cooking tip I can possibly give you: No matter how accepting or adventurous your Thanksgiving guests might be, serving a salad of diced sweet potatoes, nuts, and fruit instead of the butter-and-cream-filled (and sugar-topped) sweet potato dish they’ve come to expect isn’t going to be a crowd-pleaser. I know because I’ve tried it.
The dish—roasted sweet potatoes, dried cranberries, pecans, and lots of herbs—tasted great, but a part of me knew that on Thanksgiving it just didn’t seem like the right thing to make or serve. And I guess it didn’t feel right to anyone else either—it was far less popular than the bowls of stuffing, mashed potatoes, and buttery turnips surrounding it. Can you imagine the humiliation of being a food writer whose Thanksgiving dish was less popular than turnips? I remember feeling annoyed that so few people even wanted to try it.
I tried to make healthy swaps a thing for a few more Thanksgivings. Heck, I even wrote some “healthier” Thanksgiving recipes. But it always felt forced, and even little things—purposely adding less butter and cream to mashed potatoes, making pumpkin pie with a whole-grain crust—seemed like a lot of trouble to go to (and a bummer) on Thanksgiving, a day all about relaxing around a table piled high with sumptuous comfort foods. After three or four Thanksgiving dinners that included those disappointing healthy swaps, I started to wonder why I was going out of my way to make a “healthier” sweet potato dish (that people didn’t seem to want or love) instead of just rolling with my tried-and-true classic. Was it worth the trouble? What was the difference? And was it really the healthier move?
The more I thought about it, the clearer it became that my relationship with food maybe wasn’t all that healthy. I loved cooking (enough to have gone to culinary school and worked as a restaurant cook for a few years post-college) and was always excited to experiment and try new things, but beneath that were some pretty troubling thought patterns. There’s nothing inherently wrong with sweet potato salad (or cauliflower rice, or zoodles, or whole-grain pie crusts), but there was something wrong with my feeling that I had to make those things instead of going with familiar, tried-and-true Thanksgiving dishes that I actually wanted to make and craved eating. My interest in these “healthier swaps” wasn’t driven by internal curiosity, but by an external pressure to make the “healthier choice.”
For example, I think back on how I used to meal prep religiously on Sundays, cooking up sheet pan after sheet pan of roasted vegetables and chicken, and I realize now that it wasn’t as much about convenience or a love of food and cooking as it was about control. I had internalized diet culture’s message that food is something to be vigilant about, and I was using meal prep as a way to avoid eating things that I deemed “bad”—processed food, fast food, bread, pasta, cheese, etc. I remember signing up to do Whole30 and telling everyone that I was doing it because I thought it would be a fun challenge to cook without dairy, grains, beans, sugar, and everything else that the restrictive rules don’t allow. Really, I did it because I thought it might make my stomach flatter, my skin clearer, and my life better. In the end, it didn’t do any of that, and instead just made me more fearful of the “bad” foods I had already been trying to avoid.
It’s one thing to realize that this kind of diet culture thinking isn’t good. It’s another thing to actually step away from it, which I finally started to do in 2015. I wasn’t sure where to start, but Thanksgiving seemed like as good a time as any. So I dug up a twice-baked sweet potato recipe I’d developed years prior, which called for hefty doses of butter and cream, plus a sugary pecan topping. I made a double batch and watched as the little sweet potato boats disappeared from their serving dish. I ate one, alongside dark-meat turkey (the only kind worth eating, IMO), buttery white-bread stuffing, canned cranberry sauce, roasted Brussels sprouts, creamed onions, and whatever else was on the table. I followed it up with pumpkin pie, apple pie, and whipped cream. And that was that.
In many ways, it was like every other Thanksgiving I’d ever had: The “too many cooks in the kitchen” moments; the piles of leftovers; the many, many pies brought by guests. But also, it was so, so different. I was cooking because I wanted to make something that people would like, and that I would genuinely look forward to eating, not because I needed to know that there was something “healthy” on the table.
Knowing I probably wasn’t alone in these feelings, I reached out to two registered dietitians to ask if they could shed some light on this journey I’d taken, from healthy food swapper to someone who basks in the glory of making and serving Thanksgiving food based first and foremost on how tasty it’ll be. Turns out, both of them had had similar experiences.
Taylor Chan, M.S., R.D., L.D., a dietitian and personal trainer in Baltimore, M.D., says that she started making “healthier” versions of foods—cauliflower rice, zoodles, etc.—while studying nutrition in college. “Everything they teach you is about how to enjoy your favorite foods, but with a healthy twist. The message I internalized was, Oh, in order to be a good dietitian, in order to be ‘healthy,’ I have to make all these modifications to these foods,” she says.
Eventually, this got tiresome. “Whenever I would try to ‘healthify’ recipes, they just wouldn’t taste as good,” Chan says. “I would never feel satisfied, I would just feel really let down. If you cut out all the sugar, all the fat, all the carbs, of course something won’t taste as good. You tell yourself that it will still be delicious, but it doesn’t meet the expectation in your head, the one that’s based on the real version.”
This is a good time to add that, in all my years of ‘healthifying’ Thanksgiving, I never actually ended Thanksgiving dinner feeling less full, despite all my efforts to serve and eat food that’s lighter or better for you. Unlike someone who might be making ingredient swaps for health reasons (allergies, chronic conditions that are managed partly through diet, etc.), I was doing so because I thought I should, and because I thought it would make me feel better in some nebulous way. Of course, it didn’t. Instead, it left me wanting. By taking fat out of a dish, I was making it less satisfying, in terms of the actual satiety it could provide. And by taking out the salt and sugar (also known as the flavor), I was making it psychologically unsatisfying.
We eat because food is fuel, but also because food tastes good and makes us feel satisfied—when it doesn’t taste so good, we often keep eating in search of that taste satisfaction. So I usually ended up picking at leftovers (and all those pies still on the counter) for hours after dinner, and going to bed feeling pretty damn uncomfortable. When you’re doing a lot of healthy swapping, that’s normal, Chan says. “You’re not getting the same satisfaction and enjoyment out of it. And when you’re unsatisfied, you try to overcompensate by eating more.”
There’s an emotional dissatisfaction that comes with healthifying holiday foods too. Food is such a big part of the way we bond and celebrate with each other, especially over the holidays. “Part of holiday eating is the nostalgia, because food is very connected to memories,”Amee Severson, R.D., L.D., a dietitian based in Bellingham, W.A., tells SELF. “Whenever I speak to groups about this, I ask who actually likes pumpkin pie enough to eat it all the time, and maybe two people raise their hands. And then I ask who loves pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, and almost everyone raises their hand. It’s the nostalgia. It’s not that you’re eating the food, it’s that you’re experiencing the food. Having steamed green beans instead of green bean casserole, or serving only one kind of pie, is really selling the experience short.”
My family has always been a food-focused one. Some of my favorite holiday memories are of things like eating prosciutto-wrapped melon at the same Greek restaurant every Christmas Eve (because we lived abroad and couldn’t celebrate with extended family), and picking up a Haagen Daz ice cream cake for every family birthday because my mom didn’t particularly like to bake. On the other hand, I also remember feeling worried about those ice cream cakes later in life, and how my worry about sugar and artificial food coloring made a once festive, fun occasion feel stressful. And, of course, I remember championing the sweet potato salad that no one actually wanted while overthinking the ingredients in every dish, instead of just enjoying them. In the first memories, food was a purely happy experience. In the latter ones, it was isolating and emotionally draining. Getting excited about the food on the table makes a holiday so much better, and trying to “fix” said food really ruins that excitement.
Now seems like a good time to point out that, of course, not everybody will feel this way. Some people might make healthy swaps at Thanksgiving, or any other time, and really enjoy them. That’s great, and just more proof that food means different things to all of us. My real beef with making healthy food swaps, especially for big, celebratory food-based events like Thanksgiving, is that I was doing them because of pressure to be healthier, or thinner, or some nebulous combination of both. Not because I enjoyed making, serving, or eating them.
All of this to say, Thanksgiving is so much simpler now that “healthy eating,” as narrowly defined by diet culture, doesn’t have a place at my table. There’s a difference between being excited about the food (which I am now!) and being anxious about it (which I used to be!). Now I volunteer to cook dishes because I love to cook, not because I want to be in charge of certain recipes so I can control what’s in them it. Only when I bowed out of the fight did I realize just how much it had been taking out of me. Food used to trigger a sense of vigilance in me, particularly at Thanksgiving. Now, cooking (and eating) is a way to relax. It’s calming.
If you find yourself where I was years ago—planning Thanksgiving menu that’s a little “healthier,” thinking about it a little too much, and wondering why everything feels a little off—I suggest you just say, “Screw it,” and see what happens. Throw an entire stick of butter into that sweet potato casserole, cover it with sugar or marshmallows, and be thankful for the privilege to make, share, and eat delicious, filling food. You’ll leave the table feeling so much happier.