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The First Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving dinner is the largest eating event in the U.S., eating more than any other day of the year. There are healthier versions of some of our all-time favorites that won't make you feel deprived.


Thanksgiving dinner, just over a month away, is the largest eating event in the United States. People eat more on Thanksgiving Day than any other day of the year. How did this tradition get started? We have our early Pilgrims and Indians to thank for this tradition. Without the joining of the Pilgrims and Indians, we may not have had a Thanksgiving to enjoy.

You likely remember the story of how the Pilgrims set sail on September 6, 1620 for the New World on the Mayflower. 

They set ground at Plymouth Rock on December 11, 1620. Their first winter was devastating. The cold snow and sleet were exceptionally heavy, interfering with the workers as they tried to construct their settlement. Many died during the hard, long winter.

Thanks to an Indian brave who taught the Pilgrims how to tap maple trees for sap, how to plant Indian corn, and other crops, the harvest of 1621 was a bountiful one. It has been said that they would not have survived without his help.

The Pilgrims decided to celebrate their bountiful harvest with a feast, by including the Wampanoag Indians who had helped the Pilgrims survive their first year. The feast, which lasted three days, was more of a traditional English harvest festival than a true "thanksgiving" observance.

The Pilgrim Governor, William Bradford, proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving to be shared by all colonists and neighboring Native Americans. It is not certain whether wild turkey was part of their first feast. It is suggested that the first turkey added to Thanksgiving dinner was after 1800. By 1857, turkey had become part of the traditional dinner in New England. However, it is certain that they had venison, ducks, geese and even swans.

One of the staples at Thanksgiving is pumpkin pie. It is unlikely that the first feast included that treat. The supply of flour had been long diminished, so there was no bread or pastries of any kind. However, they did eat boiled pumpkin, and they produced a type of fried bread from their corn crop.

There was no milk, cider, potatoes, or butter, as well as no domestic cattle for dairy products. The newly discovered potato was still considered by many to be poisonous. But the feast did include fish, waterfowl, clams, berries, watercress, lobster, dried fruit, clams, venison, pumpkin and plums.

In 1789, George Washington proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving, in honor of the ratification of the Constitution of the United States. Later, in 1863, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November Thanksgiving Day. 

After the war, Congress established Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Although other countries celebrate their own Thanksgiving, it is seen as a time in the United States to focus on the home and family, with friends and traditional foods.

For more information, contact the Miller County Extension Office, 870-779-3609. We're online at, on Facebook and Twitter @MillerCountyFCS or on the web at

Now that we know a little about the history of the first thanksgiving dinner, here are healthier versions of some holiday favorites you might want to try this Thanksgiving. They are sure to be a hit. 

Cranberry Salad

9 oz crushed unsweetened pineapple, juice packed

3 oz sugar free cherry gelatin

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/4 cup sugar substitute equivalent

1 cup fresh cranberries, ground

1 small orange, ground

1 cup chopped celery

1/2 cup pecans, broken


Drain pineapple, reserving juices. Set pineapple aside for later use. Combine pineapple juice with water to equal 2 cups liquid. Prepare gelatin according to package label using juice-water mixture for the liquid. Once gelatin is dissolved, stir in lemon juice. Chill until partially set. In a separate bowl, combine pineapple, sugar substitute, cranberries, orange, celery, and nuts. Pour into large mold or 8 x 8 pan and chill until set.

Nutrition information: Servings:  8, Calories: 80, Carbohydrates: 11 g, Fat: 3 g


Light Pumpkin Pie

2 cups canned pumpkin

1/2 cup egg substitute or 4 egg whites, slightly beaten

3 Tbsp. brown sugar

12 packets aspartame (Equal)

1/4 tsp. salt (optional)

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp. ginger

12 ounces evaporated skim milk

10 in. unbaked pie crust

Preheat oven to 425° F. Combine first 8 ingredients beginning with pumpkin and ending with evaporated milk. Pour into pie shell. Bake at 425° F for 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 325° F and continue baking for another 45 minutes or until knife inserted into center comes out clean. Cool. Serve with whipped topping if desired.

Nutrition Information without whipped topping: Servings: 10, Calories: 163, Carbohydrates: 22 g, Fat: 7 g


By Carla Due
County Extension Agent - FCS
The Cooperative Extension Service
U of A System Division of Agriculture

Media Contact: Carla Due
County Extension Agent - FCS
U of A Division of Agriculture
Cooperative Extension Service
400 Laurel Street, Suite 215 Texarkana AR 71854
(870) 779-3609


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