My favorite day of the year is the night before Thanksgiving. On that Wednesday evening after our little boy has gone to bed, my wife and I pour a glass of wine, put “It’s A Wonderful Life” on the kitchen television and start cooking for the next day’s celebration.
Actually, we don’t start cooking, we continue on with what we started days before.
You see, in our house, and in the traditions of both of our families, the Thanksgiving feast is homemade everything from scratch. This is a labor intensive endeavor when more than a dozen people will be at your table – but we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Other households are different. Some do everything store-bought and many have their feast in a restaurant.
There is really no right or wrong to how one chooses to enjoy the day, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t cherish and zealously defend their Thanksgiving traditions.
This is especially true when you consider regional and ethnic differences for Turkey Day fare. Beyond those traditions are the considerations of cooking time, cost, and health that figure in to how people choose the food for this annual feast.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some Thanksgiving Day staples and compare the different choices people make for their table:
My absolute favorite food on the plate. With plenty of gravy and a glass of red wine, that would be enough for me. But since the turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce are there, I might as well eat them too.
- Homemade – In my opinion, homemade stuffing is the best tasting, and possibly the healthiest – if all fresh, whole ingredients are used. In our case we use packaged croutons and lots of sweet and hot Italian sausage, so we’re definitely going for flavor over health.
- Stove Top – The most popular of store bought stuffing mixes. Full of preservatives and sodium, probably not the best health choice and, in my opinion, not even close to homemade, taste-wise. But, honestly, for the easy prep and okay taste, I can understand why people go this route, though I never would.
- Cornbread Dressing – In the south they call it dressing because it is baked in a dish and not in the turkey. It is a very different flavor and delicious. But since it is not cooked in the bird it is just not resplendent with that rich, turkey flavor that I love. Usually cooked from scratch, but there are store bought versions as well.
In my household growing up my dad was the cook. He made a huge Thanksgiving feast. Everything was homemade from scratch, except the cranberry sauce. That was pushed out of the can intact and sliced into serving-sized half-moons. I guess he just didn’t want to bother. My wife, on the other hand, insists on homemade and often experiments with a new recipe. I was never a big fan but now I definitely prefer homemade. If you guessed that my wife will read this and I am not crazy you would be correct.
- Canned – About as easy as preparation can get. Just open both ends of the can, push it out onto a plate and slice into servings. Predictable taste and consistency. Cheaper than homemade but sweetened with HFCS, so definitely does not pass the health test.
- Homemade – Takes a little work bit not a lot. More like the consistency of chutney or relish with more complex flavors.
The Green Vegetable
This is the “one-legged stepchild” of the Thanksgiving dinner table. With all that turkey, gravy and three or four different mounds of carbohydrates clogging the plate, the vegetable often gets relegated to the leftover dish. Still, each year I try and have found one particular offering that works on my table. Of course there is also that most inexplicable of Thanksgiving dinner favorites. . .
- Green Bean Casserole – I am a pretty darn good cook and an inveterate foodie so, to me, this dish is a blasphemy. Cream of mushroom soup and French fried onion rings – you’ll never see me lifting that serving spoon. Yet, it is a popular dish, has inexpensive ingredients and is very easy to make. And, I am told, many people actually eat it and like it. That’s the beauty of this feast; there are no rules, except to indulge.
- Roasted Brussels Sprouts – I was never a big fan of this vegetable until I tried them done this way. Tossed in olive oil, dusted with coarse salt and cracked pepper then roasted in the oven, this vegie passes every test. It’s cheap, easy to make and as healthy an item as you will eat on that day. I even find room on my Thanksgiving plate.
That massive pile of white heaven with a pool of brown gravy gracing the middle is part of what make this holiday worth having (at least for me). Without a doubt, in my kitchen, it’s homemade all the way, especially if my wife’s mom is making them. But there’s more than one way to skin a potato on this day.
- Homemade Mashed Potatoes – More work to make, better flavor and consistency than instant (imho), but a little more expensive than the instant kind from the box.
- Instant Mashed Potatoes – Easy, cheap, taste okay with gravy on them. A glycemic index nightmare but, hey, that’s pretty much the whole meal.
- Roast Sweet Potatoes – Probably the healthiest choice. They are easy to prepare and low-cost as well.
- Candied Yams – A traditional favorite. Relatively easy to make but definitely for the person who prefers sweet to savory.
- Sweet Potato Casserole with Marshmallows – Easy to prepare and very popular. About as likely to appear on my table as the green bean casserole. But, there’s no accounting for taste.
The Pie Wars
In the south, pecan pie is the popular dessert. In the northeast it’s pumpkin. Over much of the rest of the country apple and pumpkin compete for the title of “most popular Thanksgiving dessert.” In my house we believe in diversity, so we serve all three!
- Pumpkin Pie -Rich in beta-carotenes, but who cares, it’s Thanksgiving. This custard style pie is a love it or hate it dessert. I love it, so it is always my first choice to finish off the dinner. Have a wedge.
- Apple Pie – The “Great American Pie” for the great American holiday; that is how many people feel. Especially those who don’t like pumpkin pie. If you’re like me, as you eat your pumpkin pie you are eyeing the apple. Go for it, you’ve got room.
- Pecan Pie – Super sweet with a jelly-like consistency to the filling, this pie is an acquired-taste. I like to mix dark chocolate chunks into the filling before baking. What the heck, you’re already 6,000 calories in, acquire some.
As you may have surmised, I take a very indulgent view to the Thanksgiving holiday. I am a lifetime fitness advocate and nutrition geek. That being said, I also believe in the health benefits of celebrations, of which this holiday is one of the best.
Food is celebratory and on these occasions I believe it is better to indulge than to deprive. But remember this concept only works if you remember and follow the cardinal rule: It’s Thanksgiving Day, not week.
Return to normal eating habits on Friday and you can enjoy the day without guilt or long-term effect on your weight or your health. And however you choose to celebrate this holiday. . .Enjoy!