Ten Tips for a More Meaningful, Healthy Thanksgiving

Family at Thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving has changed since the first celebration at Plymouth Plantation. For one thing, the menu: Some experts believe the pilgrims and Native Americans ate fish rather than turkey that day. In any case, it's a good bet they didn't put marshmallows on their newly harvested yams! The pilgrims gave thanks for having enough to eat; for many Americans today, having too much to eat is the problem, as evidenced by last year's Caring Right at Home poll, where almost 75 percent of respondents reported they gain at least a few pounds during the holidays.

The way our families get together for Thanksgiving also has changed. When Thanksgiving became an official holiday in 1863, most people who came home to celebrate only needed to take the traditional route "over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house." But these days, families brave crowded airports to get to Grandmother's house. Chances are Grandmother herself is still working—and with our increased longevity, she (like more than half of Caring Right at Home readers, according to another recent poll) may be providing care for her own parents or spouse, as well. So it's no surprise that some Americans feel less than thankful for the extra workload of cooking and cleaning.

If Thanksgiving sometimes feels more stressful than meaningful to you, it might be time to update your traditions. Here are 10 ideas to consider:

Time for teamwork. In the old days, Grandma often created that huge feast on her own, with no help until the moment when Grandpa carved the turkey. But back then, the menu was a more modest affair. If you're putting on a big feast, ask other guests to bring some of the side dishes. Decide whether you want to assign items or rely on potluck. Guests with food restrictions or allergies might want to bring a dish to share. And unless you are one of those "stay out of MY kitchen" cooks, invite others to help in the preparation. Cooking and cleaning up together can be a great way to enjoy the company of our loved ones.

Outsource the feast. While delicious home-cooked turkey dinners are the tradition, takeout holiday meals are becoming more popular. Many stores sell multicourse holiday meals, including the turkey (or tofu turkey for the vegetarians in the family), fully or partially cooked and ready to pop into the oven. You normally have to order these meals in advance and pick them up a day or two before the holiday. Many restaurants also offer a special Thanksgiving dinner.

Give your holiday meal a healthy makeover. A traditional Thanksgiving dinner has plenty of healthy ingredients: low-fat turkey, vitamin-rich pumpkin and yams, and cranberries, which have been found to lower the risk of cancer. But then there's the mashed potatoes with butter and gravy, carb-rich stuffing, and three kinds of pie with whipped cream … no wonder another Thanksgiving tradition is to collapse on the couch after dinner! Check out healthier versions of Thanksgiving favorites from the Mayo Clinic, Allrecipes, or the American Heart Association.

Handle food safely. No one is thankful to get food poisoning! Avoid foodborne illness by safely preparing the meal and storing leftovers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture offer tips for preparing and storing turkey and other dishes.

Don't overschedule yourself. How sad to have the whole family assembling from across the country, only to find yourself too busy in the kitchen to spend quality time with college students who've come home, extended family members having a rare reunion, and older relatives who might be meeting great-grandchildren and sharing memories of Thanksgivings past. Let others know that you're making family time a priority.

Forget Black Friday. These days, a lot of us try to start our Christmas shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, and many stores have extended hours and big sales. If you enjoy the thrill of the hunt, storming the mall on this busy day, go for it! But if big crowds aren't for you, remember that most of the sales will still be going on after the turkey leftovers are gone.

Go for a fall walk. November often features some lovely, bracingly brisk days. If the weather permits, invite the family for a stroll while the turkey is roasting to enjoy the last of the autumn leaves. Getting some exercise is a great way to recharge your energy level.

Express your gratitude. Don’t forget that the original purpose of the holiday was to be grateful for all we have. It’s a good time to think about all our blessings—and a good time to let others know that they too are a blessing in our life. And did you know that gratitude is good for our health? Studies show that feeling grateful improves our emotional well-being. And how appropriate that expressing heartfelt thanks has been found to reduce the risk of heart disease!

Do something for others. Volunteer at an organization that serves Thanksgiving meals to people who might otherwise go without. Invite people who have no place to go to join you. Make a donation of holiday foods or money to a food pantry. Taking time to give back improves our emotional health, and sets a good example for younger family members.

Mix it up. Some families today are opting to stay home and enjoy the four-day weekend in November, then having a "Thanksgiving" with family later on, when travel is easier and the weather is nicer. Others celebrate Thanksgiving at home one year, and the next year take a mini-vacation trip. A turkey sandwich on a warm beach might be something to give thanks for! This also is a good option when adult children and grandkids are spending Thanksgiving in the town of their other grandparents. Rather than sitting around a table with too many empty chairs, if you've got an empty nest, take the opportunity to fly the coop for a few days.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.