Happy Thanksgiving!

Despite U.S. Thanksgiving occurring unusually late in the year in 2013, it still somehow seems to have crept up without warning. Here in Canada of course, “Canadian Thanksgiving” is fading into a semi-distant memory now. We celebrate our fall feast in mid-October, well before Halloween.

Growing up and living in a border city, I’ve come to have an appreciation for both the Canadian and American versions of this indulgent holiday. I have numerous friends and coworkers who are Americans or have dual citizenship, and fraternizing with them over the years has helped to hone my understanding of the differences and similarities between the two celebrations. My stepmother (now a dual citizen) also originally hails from the USA. This has led to some years of observing both Canadian and American Thanksgiving, a tradition I highly recommend.

Living so close to America also affords some substantial fringe benefits when U.S. Thanksgiving rolls around. I can head across the border to take part in the madness of Black Friday sales if I want, and I can listen to Garrison Keillor wax nostalgic about the wonders of marshmallow casserole on the NPR station relayed out of Mount Pleasant. Oh, and the NFL games that air on the Thursday holiday generally have the potential to be actually entertaining.

While door-crasher sales, weeknight football games, and frustrating travel experiences are all essential to the American Thanksgiving experience, I think there is no question that the pulsing heart of the November holiday is found in the tradition of Thanksgiving dinner.

Now many of us who partake in this grand meal approach it with the mindset that it is one of a handful of occasions on the eating calendar where “calories don’t count.”  This is an attitude that, for the most part, I agree with. In 25 Principles I have a chapter devoted to special occasion meals like Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. The standpoint I adopt is to not agonize over something that happens once a year, and instead focus more on what we do every day.

But not everyone is able to indulge freely at turkey-time with an unburdened conscience.  Some diet-conscious folks agonize over the possible caloric damage that the holiday meal might be wreaking on them. For those who want to know, there are resources available. The Toronto Star runs a feature called “The Dish” where they send meals (usually restaurant or fast-food, but sometimes home-cooked items) to a nutritional lab for a calorie breakdown and nutrient analysis. The results are generally depressing.

In 2011, the overseers of the The Dish feature decided to train their guns on Thanksgiving Dinner. They dispatched a full plate of “Canadian Thanksgiving favourites” (turkey and gravy, mashed potatoes, commercial stuffing, green bean casserole etc.) and a slice of pumpkin pie to the lab for scrutiny.

The results that came back were professed to be “surprising.” It was determined that the whole-shebang (including the pie) clocked in with a total of 1,125 calories.

(You can read about the full nutrient breakdown, ingredients used, serving sizes, and methodology in the Star article.)

So a little over 1,100 calories for the core of a Thanksgiving dinner, is that a lot? Well…it’s a fair bit. Probably 40-50 per cent of many people’s daily caloric needs would be met by that one plateful of food (and follow-up slice of pie), and certainly many people would be going back for seconds. But considering that Thanksgiving is on the Olympic podium of big home-cooked meals, it’s hardly terrible, and maybe even surprisingly better than expected.  Even the authors of The Dish offered what was, by their standards, encouraging praise.

As I say in 25 Principles, it’s not hard at all to match or exceed the calorie totals of a meal like Thanksgiving with a trip to a fast-food joint or restaurant that few of us give any second thought to. It’s not rare outlier meals like Thanksgiving or Christmas that are causing us grief; it’s all the little “just because” food celebrations we have all the time that are the bigger problem.

For my American friends, relations, and readers, if you’re gearing up for a big feast today, or in the next few days, don’t sweat the possible dietary damage too much—because it might not be as bad as you fear anyways. And besides, Thanksgiving comes but once a year; there are 364 other days where you can be more frugal with your food choices.

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