Thanksgiving is hands down one of the best days of the year. Showing gratitude and creating memories over a home-cooked meal with family and friends - what could be better? But for all of those health-conscious foodies out there (myself included), the holiday can also bring a dark cloud of internal conflict.

The good news? There's a way to enjoy your favorite Thanksgiving fare without overdoing it. It's called "Slim by Design".

Did you know that we make over 200 food decisions per day? On Thanksgiving, that number is sure to rise! Of course, many of these decisions are made subconsciously but it turns out, our environment has a significant impact on these choices - from the size of our plates, the color of our dishware, the shape of our drinking glass, all the way down to the dining room decor and ambiance.

Unfortunately, most of our food environments are often constructed in a way that promotes mindless overconsumption of low quality, nutrient-deplete foods. But what if we could renovate our environment in a way that silently nudges us toward healthier food decisions?

Below is a step-by-step guide on how to alter your food environment to work in your favor based on research from Dr. Brian Wansink & his team at Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab. These subtle tweaks can reduce over-plating and over-consuming food up to 20-30 percent, without feeling an ounce of deprivation. The result: You walk away from a delicious Thanksgiving meal with a well-nourished body, a full belly, a heart bursting with gratitude, and a peaceful mind where your foodie and health-conscious ambitions can live in harmony.

Dinnerware

Size Matters: Studies have found that consumers serve themselves 22 percent less food when using a 9-inch plate instead of a traditional 12-inch plate. Aside from the obvious fact that smaller plates simply have less surface area, there's actually more to it than that. An optical illusion known as the Delboeuf effect can trick us into plating more food.Both plates contain dots of equal size, but the dot placed on the big plate appears much smaller than the dot placed on the small plate. Why? The amount of blank space between the plate and the dot creates an optical illusion. This phenomenon explains how consumers judge their portion sizes. Studies have found that no matter the plate size, consumers prefer their plates to be about 75 percent full - anything less than that appears to be a skimpy portion.

Because a portion served on a smaller plate appears bigger, according to the Delboeuf effect, we tend to feel more satiated after a meal when using a smaller plate than if we were to eat the same amount of food off of a larger plate.

The Takeaway: Choose a small 9-inch plate: you'll serve yourself less food, the portion will appear more generous, and you will feel more satiated and satisfied - the perfect formula for enjoying more of less!

Color & Contrast: Color can also create "portion distortion". A study asked consumers to serve themselves spaghetti with marinara sauce on a white plate and on a red plate of equal size. The results? The consumers served themselves larger portions when using the red plate. Why? The red plate and the red marinara sauce blur together, making it difficult for the human eye to gauge how much food is on the plate. To confirm these findings, the researchers repeated the same experiment, this time using pasta with white alfredo sauce. As predicted, this time the consumers served themselves 30 percent more pasta when using the white plate.

The Takeaway: To reduce portion sizes, choose a plate that creates the highest contrast between the plate and your food. Conversely, if you are looking to increase a specific kind of food group, choose a dish that creates a low contrast with your food. For example, if your goal is to increase your salad consumption, consider using a green bowl.

Utensils

You guessed it - size matters again! Using smaller utensils forces you to take smaller bites.

This is beneficial for two reasons. First, taking smaller bites prolongs the duration of the meal, which allows for more time to digest and register your satiety level before going back for more. Second, the more bites you get to take, the more opportunity to chew, savor and enjoy your food!

*The takeaway: Rather than following the formal utensil progression course-by-course, choose the smallest option and stick with it throughout the entire meal.

Beverages

Feeling thirsty? Studies have found that we tend to give ourselves a bigger pour when using short and stout glasses versus a tall and slender glass of the equal volume. To prove this theory, Dr. Wansink and his team put our very own Philadelphia bartenders to the test! Each bartender was asked to prepare four different cocktails, serving each cocktail in both a tall glass, and a short glass. Across the board, the bartenders poured up to 30 percent more alcohol into the short and wide glass than when they prepared the drink using a tall and narrow glass.

The Takeaway: To increase water consumption, choose the largest glass you can find. As for your cocktails, if you are looking to keep consumption low, go for a tall and narrow glass. Drinking wine? Opt for a white wine glass, which tends to be taller and more narrow than their wide-mouthed counterparts. Studies have found wine drinkers to pour 12% less wine when using a white wine glass.

Meal Structure

How the meal is set up can also influence how you serve yourself and how much you eat. Studies have found that those who serve themselves from a counter or stovetop consumed 19 percent less food than those who sat at a table with the full spread sitting right in front of them.

So go buffet style for Thanksgiving! Here's how to do it properly:

We're all very familiar with the buffet booby-trap: We go through the line serving ourselves a little bit of everything so that by the end we are left staring at a very unbalanced and ambitious amount of food. To encourage more thoughtful and rational plating among your guests, try these tips:

  1. Plate Placement: Strategically place the plates at the far end of the buffet line, forcing guests to walk by each dish as they go to fetch their plate.  Doing a "drive by" will give everyone the opportunity to scope out their options, be proactive, and make more informed decisions on how they plan to allocate their plate's real estate.
  2. Order of Dishes: Place the vegetable-centric dishes towards the front of the line, as this encourages guests to commit their initial plate real estate to the healthiest choices right off the bat. One study showed that 86 percent of diners took fruit when it was offered first,  while only 54 percent of diners took fruit when it was offered last.
  3. Serving Bowls & Utensils:  Here's yet another example that good things come in small packages!  Studies have found that using a 3-quart serving bowl causes consumers to serve themselves 17 percent more food than from a smaller 2-qt serving bowl.  To prove that serving utensil size matters just as much, Dr. Wansink offered a handful of colleagues some ice cream. Half of the group was provided a small ice cream scoop, while the other half was provided a larger ice cream scoop. The group given the bigger ice cream scoop served themselves 31 percent more ice cream. We can't change our automatic ways, but we can change our environment.

The Takeaway: Downsize serving bowls and serving spoons for the rice and indulgent dishes, but supersize serving bowls and serving utensils for nutrient-dense vegetable dishes and salads.

Ambiance

Dine in the dining room. Or a room as far removed from the kitchen as possible, facing away from the buffet line. Research shows those who kept serving dishes away from the dining table ate 20 percent less. You know what they say… "out of sight, out of mind." If food at the table is a must, choose one or two veggie-centric dishes to bring to the table. When people are looking for seconds, the healthy choice will be the most convenient option.

Set the mood. Dim the lights, but not too much! Bright light (think fast food chains) promotes speed eating, while a softly lit room will encourage your guests to slow down and enjoy the meal. Avoid making it too dark, as studies have found dining in the dark creates a false feeling of "invisibility", causing guests to overeat as if they are hidden and nobody is watching.

And keep in mind that these hacks extend far beyond the Thanksgiving meal!

Lindsey Kane is a Registered Dietitian from Philadelphia. For more nutrition tips and recipes, visit her website at biteforchange.com.

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