My inner schoolmarm told me to write about a healthier Thanksgiving table for this month’s column. But when I started scouring my favorite cookbooks and blogs for fresh ideas, I started listening to my inner child. Mashed potatoes with kale stirred in? Seriously? The only healthy objective that dish will achieve is to discourage kids from eating the starchiest dish on the table. Though I unearthed several ways to enhance the appeal of Brussels sprouts, I fear only adults will recognize the beauty of browning the cut sides of the little cabbage heads in (not-so-healthy) bacon fat. Normal children will hold their noses.
Thanksgiving: A Healthy Spread
Besides, when you look at what’s on the Thanksgiving table, item by item, it’s really not bad. Turkey? Lean protein. Sweet potatoes? Packed with fiber, vitamin A, potassium, and low-glycemic sweetness.
Cranberry jelly? Call it Supersauce for its antioxidant powers. Yes, kids (and adults) might overload on stuffing, white potatoes, and gravy. To give greens, beans, or salad a better shot at getting eaten, you might take advantage of sharp appetites and ample plate space by serving these first.
Then there’s the question of pie. Lighten up! Apple pie, sweet potato pie, and pumpkin pie are made with fruits and vegetables. Even the nuts in pecan pie are a source of healthy fats. And come on. It’s only one day. Okay, maybe more, if you get lucky with leftovers.
Of course, there are other ways to think about health. Soundness of mind and body don’t depend merely on what we ingest. For children and adults, exercise and outdoor time are crucial, but so are habits of mind. Research shows that gratitude in particular has great benefits, especially for adults.
Gratitude: Food For the Soul
The November 2011 edition of the Harvard Mental Health Letter summed up studies that demonstrated that for us grownups, “gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” It was even associated with more exercise and fewer doctor visits.
However, these effects weren’t apparent in kids. “Another study found that children and adolescents who wrote and delivered a thank-you letter to someone who made a difference in their lives may have made the other person happier — but did not improve their own well-being. This finding suggests that gratitude is an attainment associated with emotional maturity.”
My family’s experience bears this out. We’ve tried listing “gratefuls” at bedtime or in place of grace at supper, but the kids react to the heaviness of it. They don’t feel the lift that gratitude can give; instead they’re burdened by guilt.
So does this mean we don’t work on it? Of course not. We’re building adults, aren’t we? And what better time to start than the holiday devoted to giving thanks?
Here’s an idea. A friend of mine — one of the most serene people I know — recently shared a practice she’s developed over the years. When negative thoughts take root in her mind, she turns them towards gratitude. Not for the giant gratitude items that we’re all conditioned to focus on — food, shelter, family. Instead, she lists the most mundane, even silly things: her nose, breath, sidewalks, donuts.
I brought this idea home to our dinner table. These “goofy gratefuls,” as we’ve taken to calling them, feel much lighter, more playful, healthier. Expressing gratitude for toes or licky dog kisses makes the kids dissolve into giggles; but we’ve seen those giggles turn into questions. “Some kids don’t have toes, do they?” It’s just a spark, but starting with the facts of our existence turns out to be one way to instill the attitude of gratitude.
And what about that Thanksgiving dinner? A local scholar (okay, it’s my son) has shown that kids like the healthy stuff on the table about as much as the naughty stuff.