It’s the most wonderfully stressful time of year! For me, it’s “Stay Away From Shopping Malls” season. It’s also a big time to celebrate family, life, and love. 

Over the years, I have drifted away from making a big deal about the holidays. As a zookeeper, I rarely had holidays off. This always made me snicker when friends outside the zoo would act shocked “You have to work on THANKSGIVING?” Well, yeah, I mean, they’re animals. They have to eat. And what goes in must come out, so…Yeah. I am used to working on Thanksgiving and other holidays.

I became accustomed to celebrating holidays with various friends and family over the course of roughly a week. Everywhere I worked, management staff would work hard to show how appreciated we were, coming in to work on a big family holiday. But work was family to me. And I always enjoyed making the day special for our animals as well.

I loved decorating pumpkins like turkeys for the elephants, and fixing a huge Thanksgiving feast for the polar bears. Since polar bears are opportunistic feeders, they could have everything from turkey to stuffing to cranberry sauce with no complaints from the vet staff. I mean, it was only for a day, was our argument.

While Thanksgiving isn’t the biggest deal on earth for me anymore, I do enjoy spending time with friends and family. We were invited to two Thanksgiving celebrations this week. One was with my old colleagues from the zoo, at an old tradition called “Orphan Thanksgiving”, for everyone who worked on Thanksgiving and wouldn’t be home with their human family (again, we consider our animals family, so I have to make that distinction). It’s a potluck style, where everyone brings a little something to share, and we talk about (work) life and everything.

I was also touched to be invited to my good friend in Oak Harbor’s dinner. Her dinner is what prompted me to write this post.

Thanksgiving is supposed to be a time where we reflect on all the things we are grateful for. It’s honoring the relationship between the pilgrims and the Native Americans when settlers first immigrated to America.

I don’t voice gratitude as much as I should. I mean, I tell people I love them, and I thank them for generosity. But as far as expressing overall appreciation and gratitude, I have a lot of room to improve. I have SO MUCH to be grateful for, though. I’m grateful Chris’ procedure went so well. I’m grateful we got on the list for a kidney so quick, and OMG! I am so grateful for our donor! There’s also my gratitude for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Even though it didn’t prevent kidney disease, it certainly helped us cope with it much better.

There is another tradition which has blossomed, so to speak, from the large family meals at Thanksgiving. That is the throwing diets out the window, just for the day. And this is what I REALLY want to talk about.

You know how I made a Thanksgiving meal for the polar bears, and vets weren’t concerned because it was just one day? This is because our polar bears were on a regulated diet. Since they didn’t have to hunt for their food, it’s easy for polar bears in zoos to become, well, fat and lazy. Enrichment and training are so vital for such strong predators to stay healthy, mentally and physically. But a controlled diet also helps with that.

A controlled diet is what helps most of us maintain our health and fitness level, too. We watch what we eat most of the time. Many of us follow a particular eating lifestyle, such as Paleo or Keto. We track our calories, our macronutrients, and our consumption of treats.

Then once a year (or maybe twice), we stuff our faces until we can barely move, and most of us feel guilty about it for the next week. Well, I’m here to say “STOP IT!”

Not the stuffing your face part, the feeling guilty part. If strict vets, who regulated our animals’ diets to ensure they ate only the healthiest food and only the proper amount of healthy food, were completely okay with us feeding polar bears a Thanksgiving feast, then you will be okay too.

It’s just one meal. Maybe two. It won’t kill you to let loose a little. Have some pie and some wine. Eat too much turkey. Stuff your face with stuffing and mashed potatoes. Unbutton your pants to make yourself comfortable. Enjoy yourself and be grateful.

Just get back to it the next day. The old joke “Calories don’t count on holidays” was just a little misinterpreted. What they meant was “Don’t count calories on holidays”.

But this encouragement does come with a small caveat. By all means, enjoy the hell out of Thanksgiving, but do so responsibly and within your limits. I’m not talking about alcohol, although it’s included in this. I mean know your body and set limits for what you will allow.

For instance, Chris is significantly better. We don’t have to watch every ounce of protein anymore, although we are still being careful. What we do need to watch is his sodium intake. And this is what made dinner at Deb’s so freaking amazing. Knowing she was brining her turkey in what even she considered to be a ton of salt, she went out of her way to make Chris his own cornish hen without salt. She made sure we knew what items had been made with so we could make informed decisions on what we would eat and not eat.

Chris went a little overboard on the protein. For tonight. But with limits on salt, we made smart choices for this national day of indulgence.

I also have adapted several recipes to make them cleaner. Not necessarily less calories or fat, but with whole ingredients instead of processed foods. For instance, my green bean casserole is one of my all time favorite dishes to make for potlucks or family dinners. The secret to this casserole is the cream of mushroom soup I invented. Okay, I didn’t INVENT it, but I created it without looking up any other recipe from the internet.

I was inspired to make my own cream of mushroom when a good friend, who is allergic to cow’s milk, wanted to try my broccoli casserole. Racking my brain on a non-dairy substitute for Campbell’s cream of mushroom, I decided to wing it. I got some mushrooms, almond milk, corn starch, and seasoning, and let the experimenting begin. Through a little bit of trial and error, I eventually came up with this little beauty of a recipe.

Cream of Mushroom soup  1 serving;105 calories Carbs: 4.8g, Fat: 5.6g; Protein: 3.5g

Ingredients

  • 1 cup coconut /almond milk
  • 1 package mushrooms (about 3 cups), diced/minced (use a ninja or food processor)
  • ½ teaspoon garlic
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ tsp black pepper
  • 3 Tbsp cornstarch

Directions

  1. Combine all ingredients except cornstarch in a small saucepan over medium heat.
  2. Simmer until well heated, stirring frequently.  
  3. Stir in cornstarch, one tablespoon at a time, stirring thoroughly after each scoop to mix well.
  4. Remove from heat and continue stirring.  Add teaspoon of cornstarch one at a time if needed until desired thickness and consistency of creamy soup is achieved.

    Use as a substitute for one can of cream of mushroom soup in any recipe. I use it for Green Bean Casserole, Broccoli Casserole, or add a little extra milk for a savory creamy soup.

So, happy thanksgiving, everyone. I hope you had a wonderful day. And I hope you had pie.