This article was co-authored with Alissa Stoltz, Certified Health Coach, blogger and founder of The Simply Wholesome Kitchen. Her comments and recipe recommendations are included in the second part of this article.
Jews have a special relationship with food. It's the subject of countless books, blogs, conversations, meals, and most of all holidays.
For many Jews, love is conveyed (and perceived) through food. Instead of a hug, have a hamentaschen. Instead of a kiss, have a knish. Instead of a smile, have a pickle. Instead of a snuggle, have some farfel. Or, of course, it can be a both/and proposition.
There is a moment that still warms my heart (and makes my mouth water). I was in fifth grade and had just become a vegetarian. I was at the home of my great aunt and great uncle for the first night of Passover, and we were ensconced in the seder. Gradually, as the meal approached, I found myself filled with anxiety: what if I couldn't eat the matzah ball soup this year? What if there was no main course for me at a sacred meal with such delicious food?
My food anxieties were calmed when my great aunt turned to me with a wide smile and told me not to worry. A cousin had also become a vegetarian that year. So, my great aunt went to the trouble of making a whole second pot of matzoh ball soup -- not to mention an alternative entrée -- for us.
What joy, what love, what food!
Though perhaps hyperbolic (at least in retrospect), food was such an important part of my experience as a 10 year-old at Passover that I was crestfallen at the prospect of losing a key part of the special meal at the seder. I was truly experiencing love, as well as connecting with my family and tradition, through food.
This year, for what is said to be the last time in tens of thousands of years, a national and religious holiday will coincide for American Jews. What has been termed "Thanskgivukkah" is a coincidence of two widely celebrated holidays, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving. Both holidays also involve copious amounts of food, time with our families, and celebrations of hope for our people.
Unfortunately the confluence of two holidays so intimately associated with food can also become an occasion for stressful planning, overwhelming preparation, and excessive eating that can take away from the joy of the experience. Are we really getting the most out of our celebration if we leave the table exhausted, lethargic, and with a stomach so full it feels like it's about to burst?
Yet, as I learned from my friend, health coach, and fellow blogger Alissa Stoltz, such gastrointestinal distress is hardly inevitable. If some Jews equate food with love, wouldn't it be nice for this to be the kind of love that makes us feel good, even at the end of our holiday meals?
Below, Alissa shares some menu-planning tips that will help keep the spirit and meaning of both holidays alive while leaving us feeling well enough to actually enjoy ourselves. Here are her insightful recommendations for a happy (and healthy) Thanksgivukkah:
When it comes to planning holiday meals, tradition tends to trump our attempts at healthy eating, and that's as it should be! We should try to eat well most of the time so that we can enjoy special celebrations with friends and family. That being said, it seems silly to equate holiday enjoyment with eating until we're too uncomfortable to move -- where is the enjoyment in that?
To find the right balance, we can return to the roots of each holiday to figure out what's most important, and use that to build a menu that we can feel good about and is not overwhelmingly heavy.
For Hannukah, the underlying theme is the celebration of the oil that lasted 8 days while the Temple was being rebuilt -- this is thought to be the miracle of Hannukah, and it should be remembered. We represent this miracle by eating foods that are fried in oil -- latkes and sufganiyot (jelly donuts) in particular.
Thanksgiving, on the other hand, is about celebrating and expressing gratitude for what is hopefully a bountiful harvest. Its timing in the late fall comes as most crops are finishing up for the year, and serves as a last hurrah before hunkering down for the winter.
And what about the fact that these two holidays, with different meanings, are overlapping this year? With a little creativity, the true meaning of both holidays can be honored without a doubly heavy menu. Here are some ideas.
Find ways to combine traditions
- Sweet potatoes are a seasonal favorite that are also great as latkes -- sweet potato latkes can do double duty as a Thanksgiving staple that also incorporates something fried in oil for Hannukah! But if your holiday will not feel complete without the traditional white potato latkes, be sure to skip your Thanksgiving mashed potatoes, just for this year, so that you're not tempted to double up.
- Another seasonal favorite is apples -- consider combining the traditions of Hannukah sufganiyot and Thanksgiving apple pie by serving apple cider donuts for dessert! If you're not into making your own, farm stands are bursting with these delicious donuts this year of year.
Make it colorful
Do you spend a lot of time (and money!) finding the perfect centerpiece, table linens, and dishes for your Thanksgiving feast? Don't forget that seasonal, colorful foods add to both the beauty and healthfulness of your table! All too often Thanksgiving menus revolve around meat (turkey) and carbs (stuffing, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, dinner rolls, cornbread, biscuits, etc.). But an easy way to lighten up the meal while still keeping it festive is to pick just one or two important carb-based dishes, and focus more energy on the fruits and veggies that are so fresh this time of year.
- Red: cranberries are traditional and bright, but consider making a simple homemade cranberry sauce that doesn't rely on tons of sugar and additives.
- Orange/yellow: pumpkin, butternut squash, and sweet potatoes are all seasonal favorites. Try a pumpkin or butternut squash soup, or simply roast butternut squash with some butter and maple syrup, and top with almonds for a special meal. Sweet potatoes are great mashed with a touch of cinnamon, coconut oil, and honey or maple syrup.
- Green: Broccoli, green beans, kale, and spinach are all in season and delicious this time of year. A dish like roasted broccoli tossed with olive oil, salt, and pepper is so easy, will make the table pretty, and helps us fill our plates with foods that won't weigh us down. Or sauté green beans in olive oil with salt and pepper, and sprinkle with toasted almonds and a squeeze of lemon.
- Purple: Pears and grapes are also seasonal -- make Spiced Red Wine Poached Pears for another seasonal dessert.
And most important of all, remember to enjoy and savor every bite!
Holiday meals are indeed special, and if we stick to their core meaning, we can leave plenty of room in our hearts and our bellies to feel the love that comes with a home cooked meal.
Follow Rabbi Joshua Stanton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JoshuaMZStanton