My maternal grandfather, who was born in the century before the last one and ancient by the time I came along, was a man of few words. When he did speak, it was with the gravitas and pulpit-honed poetry of the two circuit-riding Methodist preachers for which he was named.
There was one thing he said every Thanksgiving when my grandmother (whose motto was “No one leaves my table hungry”) would press him to eat another bite of corn pudding or another piece of pumpkin pie. Where a lesser man might have uttered, “No thanks, I’m stuffed,” my grandfather stated, “No thank you, I have had a gracious plenty.”
I love that phrase, as much as I love Thanksgiving. It seems the perfect combination of words to express what the holiday means—a time of giving thanks with a grateful heart for the blessings of friends and family and all good things.
But for people with diabetes, the Thanksgiving meal, and other holiday meals, are often so heavy on carbs that we can sometimes feel a little deprived while celebrating the bountiful harvest as we pass the stuffing and the hot rolls and the sweet potato pudding and the cranberry sauce and the turkey gravy with little bits of crackly fat for seasoning.
The first Thanksgiving after my diagnosis, I found myself staring at a plate full of nothing but sliced turkey, because everything else on the table was guaranteed to send my blood sugar skyrocketing. Fortunately, I am really good at pushing food around to make it look like I’m eating—a skill I perfected in childhood when my mother served coleslaw or shrimp curry—so no one really noticed that first year that I didn’t really touch the cranberry sauce. And since I didn’t have any pie, that meant someone else at the table got an extra piece. No one complained about that.
Since then, I have devised ways to partake in the plenty and still keep my numbers under control. Here are some strategies I have evolved over the years:
Take your own appetizer. I know…it’s crazy that people often serve appetizers before a meal that will contain enough calories to fuel a marathon swimmer crossing the English Channel, but putting a Thanksgiving meal on the table is also a delicate dance of time and oven space management. It’s not unusual for a meal that was planned for 2 p.m. to actually begin 2 hours later, and for people who have “left room” for dinner to start getting hungry. When children get cranky their parents pull out the juice boxes and animal crackers, so no one will blink if you come similarly prepared. My go-to plan? A can of lightly salted or unsalted nuts. You can pour them into a bowl so others can partake, and just a handful will keep your blood sugar from crashing.
Bring the salad. There was a time, and not so long ago, when Thanksgiving tables weren’t complete without a jewel-toned molded salad quivering between the mashed potatoes and the candied yams. Nowadays most families at least try to counterbalance the surfeit of starch with something green and crisp. Some relatives, however, inevitably use bottled dressing with a sugar count so high that it’s as if one were pouring maple syrup over the lettuce. Bring a big bowl of salad and a container of homemade dressing to pass around.
Bring a side dish. And make it something so delicious that nobody will think you brought it because you “can’t eat anything good.” I like to make green beans almandine, sautéing slivered almonds in butter and drizzling them over steamed green beans. So decadent. So good. I’m also fond of roasted Brussels sprouts, but they need to be served hot, and if the cook is coming down to the wire to bring everything to the table at once, monopolizing the stove with your side dish is a good way not to be invited back. The side dish that has brought me the most praise is also the simplest — roasted root vegetables (onions and carrots, maybe a turnip or two) with olive oil and Herbes de Provence. You can make it ahead of time and serve it at room temperature and people will be scraping the side of the serving dish to get the last bits of yumminess out.
Bring dessert. I don’t actually like pie very much, but I do like a little something sweet at the end of a meal. My solution? Chocolate-covered strawberries. They’re festive. They’re delicious. And depending on how big they are, just one or two will satisfy that craving. Make your own with bittersweet chocolate or buy the high-end ones with dark chocolate. Be prepared to share. And then, when someone asks if you want a piece of persimmon pudding, just smile and say, “No thank you. I’ve had a gracious plenty.”
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