Does turkey really make you tired? Chefs share the best time to host Thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving is only days away, and families all across America are in the midst of building their dinner menus for the feast. While you’re heading to the grocery store to pick up your turkey and sweet potatoes, there’s one aspect of Thanksgiving that’s important to consider while planning out the big day: When will dinner be served?

Over the years, Americans have opted to host their dinners at different times, with many families starting the meal at 3pm on the fourth Thursday in November. On the other hand, some people decide to eat dinner as they normally would, by hosting Thanksgiving at 6pm or 7pm.

The question of when to have your Thanksgiving dinner may be tied to one major factor - that large meals can make you a bit sleepy. There’s constant discussion surrounding the star of Thanksgiving, turkey, and how it makes you tired. Turkey contains tryptophan, an amino acid in our bodies that helps make melatonin to regulate sleep schedules, according to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

There’s no arguing that eating a Thanksgiving meal full of turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes would make anyone ready for a nap. Still, the question remains as to whether the chemicals in turkey actually make us susceptible to tiredness, or whether other factors are at play in our post-meal slumber. Speaking to The Independent, professional chefs have discussed the drowsiness that comes from eating a hefty meal, and how that feeling can affect your upcoming Thanksgiving plans.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, tryptophan is an essential acid that’s found in food containing high levels of protein, such as chicken, eggs, cheese, and fish. Since there’s tryptophan in turkey, the amino acid can affect our body’s levels of both melatonin and serotonin, neurotransmitters that control our moods.

Speaking to The Independent, California-based chef Brendan Collins acknowledged that the tryptophan in turkey is an amino acid that affects our sleep schedule. However, he clarified that turkey isn’t the reason for the drowsiness, and rather our eating habits on Thanksgiving could be the culprit. “I think the truth is that we can end up overeating on Thanksgiving, in comparison to our normal eating schedule, and we get food comas,” he explained. “We need to sleep because of that. Not because of the small amount of tryptophan found in the turkey itself.”

 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

John Carpenter - an executive chef at Signature Restaurant at La Cantera Resort and Spa in Texas - agreed that stuffing our faces with food on Thanksgiving may be more likely to blame for our tiredness. He noted that it’s easy to feel sleepy after a big meal and specified that a range of foods and beverages can contribute to the drowsiness, from pumpkin pie to wine.

“Thanksgiving dinner is quite heavy, between stuffing and large amounts of meat we eat, whether that be turkey or ham,” he explained. “It’s also usually surrounded by friends and family, and there’s some alcohol drinking usually involved, which isn’t exactly known to keep us awake.”

With the side effects of eating a big Thanksgiving meal in mind, chefs have shared their advice on when to plan your dinner. It’s important to note that the day before Thanksgiving can be relatively busy, from buying your ingredients to decorating your home. In addition to managing physical tasks, Carpenter said there’s another routine he usually takes on to prepare for the holiday - changing up his eating habits.

“For me personally, I definitely prefer to change my eating schedule, leading up not only the day of Thanksgiving, but also a couple of days before,” he said. “I always eat a little bit lighter, leading up in anticipation of a big meal. And personally, I normally don’t even eat breakfast on Thanksgiving because I know I’m going to eat so much.”

The morning of Thanksgiving tends to be quite hectic, so Collins urged families to give themselves enough preparation time before dinner. He recommended giving yourself a good two and a half to three hours of cooking time, when you can prepare all your vegetables while the turkey is in the oven.

So, when is the best opportunity to serve the food to your guests? Professional chefs recommend the daytime, rather than evening, as the best time to host your dinner, taking both meal preparation time and drowsiness into account.

“Normally for me, it’s early in the afternoon or early in the day,” Carpenter explained. “I have two children so I prefer earlier because it gives us the rest of the day for them to wind down from a big meal and all that. And then you have more time during Thanksgiving day to be with your family.”

 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

When you decide to host your Thanksgiving dinner is entirely up to you, but Collins acknowledged that the age of your guests is another factor to consider. He noted that children are generally accustomed to having their meals earlier in the day, even though that might not be the case for adults. “I think if there’s a lot of children under 10 years of age, having your dinner at 2pm or 3pm would be good,” Collins said. “If it’s more towards the adult scene, then I think it’s more of an early dinner, late lunch kind of thing. I’d personally go for 4pm or 5pm.”

Thanksgiving aside, studies have found that late-night dinners may not be the best idea. In a 2022 study published in peer-reviewed journal Cell Metabolism, researchers examined 16 patients who were overweight and obese as they ate the same exact meals on two schedules - one group eating as late as 9pm. Results showed that eating later had a large effect on how patients regulated their “energy intake, expenditure, and storage”.

Since there’s so many different types of food served on Thanksgiving, eating dinner on the earlier side could ultimately be better for your physical health. “Personally, I know you shouldn’t be eating a huge meal later at night, especially the size of a normal Thanksgiving meal,” Collins added. “So definitely give yourself the time for your food to settle down.”

Although there are various factors to consider when planning the timing of your Thanksgiving dinner, it’s important to remember not to let the stress of it ruin the day.

“Don’t stress out too much about the food,” Collins said. “I know sometimes Thanksgiving is one of the first times you’ve seen friends or family in a long time. So I think the idea is that it’s celebratory, and make sure you do that. Buy really good wine or champagne and enjoy yourself.”