The Family Meal: Tips for Staying Sane and Sated

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Holiday time is stressful for a variety of reasons, particularly when it comes to eating. Worries about overeating, family conflicts and dinner guests with special dietary needs are enough to make you want to cancel the holiday meal altogether!

But don’t worry. The experts at Well, the Times’s online heath section, have tackled some of your toughest holiday dining questions and are here to help. Here’s a roundup of holiday health advice to keep you sane and sated.

How much do we really eat at Thanksgiving?

The food police (also known as the Calorie Control Council) claims we each eat more than 3,000 calories on Thanksgiving. To check this math, I created a hypothetical and gluttonous Thanksgiving feast of traditional foods, piling my virtual plate with a generous six-ounce serving of turkey, with the skin and more white meat than dark (299 calories); a not-so-healthy sausage stuffing (310 calories); a dinner roll with butter (310 calories); plus two kinds of potatoes — a big serving of mashed sweet potato casserole made with butter, brown sugar and topped with marshmallows (300 calories) and a half-cup of mashed potatoes with butter and gravy (140 calories). I added a two-thirds cup of green bean casserole (110 calories), a dollop of cranberry sauce (about 15 calories) and roasted brussels (83 calories), finished off with one slice each of pumpkin pie (316 calories) and pecan pie (503 calories) with generous dollops of homemade whipped cream on each slice (100 calories). I feel full just thinking about it, but the grand total is 2,486 calories — more than 500 calories shy of the Calorie Council’s warnings.

So yes, if you want to binge on Thanksgiving it’s certainly possible, but most of us will stop eating if we start to feel sick. After about 1,500 calories in one sitting, the gut releases a hormone that causes nausea. Average stomach capacity is about eight cups of food, although it can range from four to 12.

Is there an immediate health risk to eating too much?

The average meal takes one to three hours to leave the stomach. But a large meal can take eight to 12 hours, depending on the quantity and fat content. Eating too much can lead to indigestion and flatulence. Another reason to avoid a gluttonous binge is that big meals can raise the risk of heart attack, blood clots and gallbladder problems, and can make you a dangerous, drowsy driver on the way home. One study of 2,000 people showed a fourfold increase in heart attack risk in the two hours after eating a big meal. Israeli researchers reported a sevenfold increase. Eating three times the normal calories of a regular meal creates extra work for the stomach, intestines and heart, which may explain the higher risk of heart attack after overeating.

Here’s some good news: Although your stomach may feel as if it will burst, gastric rupture is extremely rare and usually only happens in a small percentage of people with severe eating disorders.

One of my guests does not drink. Can I still cook with alcohol?

Many people wrongly believe that it’s O.K. to cook with alcohol because most of the liquid will have evaporated by the time a dish reaches the table. But cooked food can retain from 5 to 85 percent of the original alcohol, depending on how the dish was prepared and how much alcohol was used. Fast cooking methods, like flambéing, leave about 75 percent of the alcohol behind. A dish that has been baked or has simmered for 15 minutes contains about 40 percent of the original alcohol. After two hours of cooking, roughly 10 percent of the alcohol remains.

If you have a holiday guest who doesn’t drink because he or she is in recovery, choose non-alcoholic substitutes in your cooking. In savory dishes, substitute wine with a combination of broth, juice and two tablespoons of lemon juice or vinegar. In desserts, replace wine with fruit juice mixed with a dash of vinegar.

For health, does it matter if I eat dark meat or white?

White meat contains less fat and fewer calories than dark meat, but the differences are small. Many people choose white meat over dark because of its lower caloric content. But according to the Department of Agriculture, an ounce of boneless, skinless turkey breast contains about 46 calories and one gram of fat, compared with roughly 50 calories and two grams of fat for an ounce of boneless, skinless thigh. But dark meat has its benefits. Compared with white meat, it contains more iron, zinc, riboflavin, thiamine, and vitamins B6 and B12. Both have less fat than most cuts of red meat, so you can’t go wrong either way.

With so much good food, how do you keep from overeating at the holiday table?

Simple strategies can help minimize the gluttony:

• Keep the serving dishes in the kitchen, so you won’t take extra helpings mindlessly.

• Use smaller serving spoons and plates.

• Stick to foods that require utensils — we eat finger foods faster than those that require a fork.

• Eat your vegetables first.

• Go for second helpings of protein (turkey) rather than the potatoes.

• Drink water with your meal.

• Take small bites and put utensils down between bites.

Mindful eating is also a good strategy to prevent overeating, and it has the added bonus of calming holiday stress. Mindful eating is not meditating on food — it’s simply pausing and bringing full awareness to the experience. When dinner is served, take a moment privately (or invite the whole table) to pause before eating to contemplate everything and everyone it took to bring the meal to your table, from those who planted and harvested the ingredients to those who prepared it. Think of the cultural traditions, handed down over generations, that brought this food to your plate. Silently express your gratitude for the food and the companions you’re enjoying it with. As you eat, bring all your senses to the meal, being attentive to color, texture, aroma and even the sounds of different foods.

Finally, be mindful of the people at the table and contribute to the dinnertime conversation. The more you talk, the less you’ll eat.

Speaking of talking, how do you handle politics at the holiday table?

If you’re worried about partisan divisions ruining your holiday meal, you can ban the topic of politics altogether or create a seating chart that is the least likely to result in combustible conversation. But if political conversations sneak in between servings of turkey and pie, here’s one simple strategy that can help: Ask your guests to talk in a more personal way about politics.

“Don’t try to represent or defend a political party or class of people,” says Parisa Parsa, the executive director of Essential Partners, a nonprofit organization based in Cambridge, Mass., that uses strategies developed in family therapy to structure conversations between Americans on contentious topics. “Speak for yourself. We ask folks to tell stories about their own life experience and how they have come to the views that they hold.”

In her experience, discussing politics based on personal experiences “helped people have a 360-degree view of the other person rather than just seeing a position.” Nobody’s mind is changed, but the dialogues can “foster respect and affection where once we had seen an adversary,” she said.

With contributions from Anahad O’Connor, Elizabeth Yuko and Richard Schiffman.