Perhaps it's time to reestablish relations with the Puritan branch of your family. Or maybe you should finally accept that invitation from the co-worker you don't especially like -- or go whole hog and snag a Thanksgiving invite to your boss' house?
Perhaps this is a place where Thanksgiving revelers can make a contribution to science. Try one strategy or the other -- and take careful notes of the result.
* Pick the right plates and glasses. The size and shape of crockery and glassware have a large effect on how much people eat.
Some of this has to do with our brain's natural tendency to focus on the height of objects rather than its width. Sip that beverage from a short, squat glass and you will drink more than if you drink it from a tall, skinny glass -- and your estimation of how much you drank will be shockingly inaccurate. Wansink's group showed this in an experiment with children at a New England summer camp: Teens given skinny glasses in a cafeteria poured themselves 5.5 ounces of beverage, whereas those given squat glasses took 9.6 ounces -- 74% more. Yet they estimated they'd only taken 7 ounces. (And this doesn't just apply to kids. Musicians at a Massachusetts jazz camp committed the same crime.) The lesson for the Thanksgiving table: Use really tall, skinny glasses.
Small plates and bowls and spoons are a must for the dinner table too -- again, because of optical illusions. Objects of the same size appear smaller when placed on a larger background, such as the behemoth dinner plates available in stores these days. In one notable study, Wansink's lab invited a passel of nutrition professors and students to an "ice cream social." Little did they know that they were guinea pigs. Some were given a 17-ounce bowl, others a 34-ounce bowl. Scoop sizes varied too. Cameras were secretly rolling.
The result: These nutrition-savvy guests served themselves 31% more when presented with larger bowls, a 127-calorie difference. When big bowls were paired with big scoops, the damage was even worse: 57% more.
So adorn the festive table with small plates and serving spoons -- perhaps Aunt Millie's pretty (and smaller) antique china, crafted in the days before the invention of the mega-plate. "The bird's not going to fly away. You can go back for seconds," says Milton Stokes, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Assn. "Do we have to use the plates that are the size of Texas?"
* Dress carefully. Formal or casual? That's your choice. Make it a bright orange prison jumpsuit for all we care. Just make sure it's a tight bright orange prison jumpsuit. Though there is a dearth of hard data on this point, an investigation at a Midwestern jail showed that prisoners gained between 20 and 25 pounds during their average stay of six months, even though they had opportunity to exercise, access to visitors and the food was unappetizing. When questioned after release, they pointed a finger at the loose jumpsuits they'd worn during their stay -- accusing the slackness, day in and day out, of failing to give them feedback on their paunch.
Evidence for a tight-clothes effect also comes from a survey of 322 dieters, more than half of whom reported that clothing snugness is a major way they gauge their progress. On Thanksgiving, "one of my members wears her most form-fitting pants with zipper and buttons," says Weight Watchers support group leader Lori Fusaro of Culver City. "When she overeats, she can feel the stomach starting to push on the waistband."
Doesn't that sound like fun? Maybe not. But it beats some of the other strategies Fusaro has encountered over the years -- such as the member who drank a gallon of prune juice before the festive meal ("she had a horrible time") and the one who canceled Thanksgiving altogether.
* Turn up the lights. "The brighter the light, the more aware you are of what you eat," says Nanette Stroebele, a psychology researcher at the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado at Denver. It's kind of like having a spotlight shone on you. Warm light, however, releases your inhibitions, relaxes you, makes you linger longer at the table, grab another dollop of mashed potatoes -- and oh, sure, why not some more stuffing, it's so good -- and pour another glass of wine. That's why high-end restaurants are dim (studies show you'll linger for dessert and other expensive goodies), while the move-'em-along fast-food places are bright.
And lest you think it's the quality of the food that makes the dimly lighted trattoria folks linger and eaters at the glaring-bright fast-food joint flee -- think again. Scientists have tested this. The difference is seen even if the same menu is served in different settings.
So if you want to eat less, turn the Thanksgiving table, if not the whole world, into a brightly lighted stage.
* Stock the groaning board -- out of arm's reach. There's a lazy kind of grazing that human beings do: If the food's right there in front of us, we'll eat it. If we have to get up and walk 2 yards for it, we'll think twice. In another sneaky experiment from the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, secretaries were slyly supplied with Hershey's kisses -- in dishes placed on the corner of their desks or 6 feet away. Each night, the Food and Brand lab pixies would sneak around the office, counting the numbers of candies eaten and replenishing the dishes. When candies were placed just 6 feet away, "people ended up eating four candies rather than nine candies a day," Wansink says. "That's 120 calories less a day -- or 12 pounds of candy a year. Amazing."
The lesson from this for Thursday: Use a bull's-eye approach to laying on the feast. Put the healthiest stuff front-and-center and make people get up to get the most scale-damaging dishes. Same logic applies to drinks: Water on the table, cola in the fridge. Or simply put all the food on a separate table. It will keep people from eating reflexively when they're no longer hungry.
* Eat in stony silence. We never said this article was about maximizing pleasure. It's just a fact that any distraction -- mirth, merriment, football on the TV -- will make you less mindful of just how much pie you're shoveling down. Even listening to an NPR special on the linguistic origins of the word "turkey" will incite you to thoughtlessly eat more of the bird.
Insistent upon music? Bear in mind a 1985 study in which diners were exposed to different tempos of music -- and chewed at a rate of 4.4 bites per minute when exposed to fast music, and 3.83 bites per minute when exposed to slow music. Other studies have shown that loud, raucous rock music increases the number of drinks people downed in a bar, and that fast music incited faster drinking.
But again, we're faced with the flip side: Slow, serene music slows down the feast but people will linger longer, giving them more time to eat prodigiously. We'd imagine that these dueling effects are a dilemma for restaurant owners. For dieters though, it appears that silence is golden.