If you’re dreading The Thanksgiving Food Coma this year, never fear. Yoga’s sister science, ayurveda, has some intriguing advice for creating a healthier holiday meal that will leave you feeling lighter and more nourished than you typically would at a Thanksgiving feast—without skimping on flavor. For the tastiest tips, we interviewed a few ayurveda experts about healthy eating at Thanksgiving. Here’s what they had to say.
Balance Your Vata (and Boost Your Immunity)
Vata is the predominant dosha, or subtle energy, that rises in the fall and charges into early winter. The qualities of vata mirror the qualities of the weather outside: light, hard, cool, dry, rough. One way to counterbalance vata’s qualities at Thanksgiving is to cook dishes that feature the opposite qualities: heavy, soft, warm, moist, and unctuous (think rich sauces, soups and stews, buttery vegetables, and creamy desserts).
The season’s cold, dry, windy weather has a drying effect on our entire system—from our sinuses and our skin to our digestive tract. Left unchecked, it can lead to vata-fueled imbalances such as dry skin, colds, constipation, and weak digestion. From an ayurvedic perspective, the byproduct of weak digestion is ama, a subtle toxic residue that is viewed as the breeding ground for disease. That’s what makes us vulnerable to colds, as well as flus and other viruses.
So if you want to keep your digestive and immune systems strong around Thanksgiving, you have to keep your vata in check. Here are six ayurvedic cooking tips to help you do just that.
Serve Ginger Nectar Before the Feast
Ayurveda expert Kathryn Templeton suggests offering each of your guests a demitasse of homemade ginger nectar about 20 minutes before your Thanksgiving meal. “This ayurvedic drink enhances the digestion, metabolism, and assimilation of food,” she says.
Here’s the recipe:
• 1 part fresh ginger juice
• 2 parts freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice
• 3 parts raw, unprocessed honey
• Put the ingredients in a mason jar, screw the top on securely, and shake vigorously. Then pour through a fine strainer and serve.
A little goes a long way, Templeton says. Pour about two tablespoons of the nectar into each demitasse and encourage your guests to sip slowly, savoring the flavors and preparing for the meal to come.
Say “Yes” to Vegetarian Fats
Scott Blossom, an ayurveda expert based in Berkeley, California, recommends including in your Thanksgiving dishes plenty of vegetarian fats—in the form of nuts, seeds, and oils such as coconut, olive, and sesame oil and ghee,. “Fat balances vata and feeds the digestive fire, which can be weak around Thanksgiving time,” he explains.
Serve More Sweet, Sour, and Salty Dishes
Ayurveda recognizes six tastes that are required to satisfy our tastebuds and bring balance to our system: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent. As ayurveda practitioner and educator Claudia Welch explains, the first three tastes—sweet, sour, and salty—“decrease vata by bringing moisture, bulk, and warmth to the body, which are the opposite qualities of vata.” These tastes tend to dominate the Thanksgiving table, but here are a few ways you can make them more ayurveda-appropriate.
Sweet (Veggie) Treats
Instead of loading up on sugar-laden desserts (which can supercharge vata), satisfy your sweet tooth with dishes that feature locally harvested root vegetables, sweet potatoes, and squash. Their earthy, grounding qualities will quell excess vata while satisfying your sweet tooth in a more balanced way.
Need a recipe? Scott Blossom, who offers yoga, ayurveda, and traditional Chinese medicine health consultations, suggests cooking yams with some orange juice, cinnamon, coconut oil or butter, and orange zest.
Gut-Healthy Sour Foods
Templeton tells us that, in moderation, sour stimulates digestion and creates heat and moisture, which can help counter vata-driven coldness and dryness in your system. Instead of, say, sour cream, Blossom suggests serving up a healthier fermented food at Thanksgiving.
He recommends tempeh, sauerkraut, kimchi, pickled daikon radish, yogurt, kefir, a cultured condiment such as fermented mayo or fermented horseradish, or a fermented salad dressing. These fermented foods are good for both the gut and the brain, he says.
Vata-Calming Salty Foods
Think outside the box when incorporating the salty taste into your Thanksgiving meal. Blossom suggests using sodium-rich ingredients like miso, celery, and tamari in your dishes. Gourmet salts like Himalayan rock salt can add extra flavor to your meal as well.
Don’t Forget the Lighter Tastes
Ayurveda classifies the bitter, astringent, and pungent tastes as light tastes, while sweet, sour, and salty tastes are classified as heavy. “If your Thanksgiving table has a few side dishes that are bitter and astringent (like brussels sprouts), and pungent (like a spicy chutney), you’ll come out of the holiday feeling less bogged down, with less indigestion,” says Kate O’Donnell, an ayurveda consultant in Boston and author of The Everyday Ayurveda Cookbook. For another bitter and slightly astringent dish, she suggests cooking up some local leafy greens with fresh lemon, pink Himalayan salt, and ghee. For pungency, add turmeric, black pepper, and/or ginger to a few of your side dishes.
Even though these tastes aren’t vata-calming, they will round out your feast’s flavor profile and balance out the richer, heavier dishes. Plus, as Templeton observes, “If you haven’t had one of the six tastes in your meal, you’ll go jonesing for that taste”—which means you’ll keep eating after you’re full. And that’s when The Thanksgiving Food Coma begins.
Try a Medicinal Dessert
You can’t have Thanksgiving without dessert, so why not make it ayurvedic? Templeton recommends baking cookies packed with chyawanprash, which is lauded in ayurvedic texts as an immune-boosting herbal tonic. The star ingredient in this medicinal jam is the vitamin C–rich amla fruit. Also present are vata-calming ashwagandha root, holy basil leaf, ghee, honey, and sesame oil. Just one caveat: because the following recipe (courtesy of the Himalayan Institute) features a potent herbal formula, it’s important for those on medication, with diabetes, or who are pregnant or lactating to consult a doctor before indulging in it.
Here’s the recipe:
• 1 cup butter (2 sticks)
• 2 cups dark brown sugar
• 2 eggs
• 1 jar (1.1 lb.) Chyawanprash
• 5 cups organic white flour
• 3 teaspoons aluminum-free baking soda
• ½ teaspoon salt
• ¼ teaspoon powdered ginger
• Your favorite type of natural sugar (raw cane sugar, coconut sugar, etc.)
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a mixer or large bowl, cream together the butter and brown sugar, then add the eggs (one at a time). Blend well, then add the chyawanprash and mix thoroughly.
3. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, salt, and ginger.
4. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, and mix until thoroughly combined.
5. Using a small ice cream scoop, make balls of cookie dough, roll them in the natural sugar to lightly coat, and place them on a lined cookie sheet.
6. Bake for 10-12 minutes. The cookies will be a light amber color when ready.
Former Yoga International editor-in-chief Shannon Sexton writes about food, travel, yoga, and natural health.