By Elissa Fink 2008/11/24

Thanksgiving is just 2 days away and kicks off a whole season of eating. And it's easy to rationalize the high calorie content of my favorite foods because the facts are just numbers floating around in my head.

I know that pictures are easier to recall so I thought a few analytical visualizations would stay in mind as I fill my plate. So I decided to do a little data visualization with Tableau Desktop of the typical Thanksgiving dinner replete with images of turkeys, brussel sprouts and pumpkin pie. I grabbed all the ingredients for dinner favorites, put them into a spreadsheet and started visually analyzing caloric and nutritional content. And because the economy is in such peril, I added in ingredient costs too. While nothing surprised me, seeing it in pictures really puts it in perspective.

Looking at the first scatter view below, the first thing I noticed was that the salad you often find on Thanksgiving dinner tables is not as innocent as you'd think. It's second only to pumpkin pie with whipped cream in terms of calories. And it's also one of the higher cost items. O.k., so the fact that there's cheese and nuts sprinkled throughout along with a fat-rich dressing should have made both of these conclusions obvious. Nonetheless, even though you think "salad" and thus "load up", you should think "what am I putting on this lettuce!".

It's also worth noting that there are some clear winners in terms of low calorie and low cost tasty items: gravy (at least the way I make it), cranberry sauce and brussel sprouts. Not really a meal on their own but definitely worth including for variety. And don't forget the turkey! While it by far is the most expensive item, it's also pretty healthy.

Another option is to turn to foods that are fiber-rich and low(er)-calorie. The fiber will make you feel full faster and longer. The scatter view below shows two decent alternatives: mashed potatoes and green bean casserole. Personally, I've never had green bean casserole but I may just give it a try this year. And who doesn't love mashed potatoes?

Two other options if you modify them slightly right there at the table: 1) the fancy salad if you avoid the nuts, cheese and dressing and 2) pumpkin pie. Pumpkin pie is a pretty fiber-rich food but unfortunately, that whipped cream makes it high calories. So scrape that off and you can add it to your list of "gorge" foods.

Well, so will I be more conscientious at the dinner table now that I've visualized my Thanksgiving Dinner? (And even though I've basically rationalized every item except stuffing)? Actually, I think I will. And I hope you will be too!

By the way, if you're interested in doing your own data visualizations of your Thanksgiving Dinner, please feel free to use my Tableau Packaged Workbook with Tableau Desktop as a start. Or use Tableau Reader to see all the visualizations I did of my dinner.



I was a bit disturbed about my fave, the pumpkin pie. So I added the ingredients as a Quick Filter, and removed some of the ingredients. Now the picture is more acceptable. Yum! Ok, it won't taste the same, but now I can have two pieces. And the salad is really too much now; don't think I'll have room for it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Peace and All Good!
Michael W Cristiani

Hi Michael,

Wow - nice work - you practically made the pumpkin pie a health food! Thanks for the adjustments. Now I just need to make sure I make it your way. I guess no whipped cream for sure, right?

Thanks for the comment and image.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Where did the sweet potato with Marshmallow casserole go? Even though, I can pretty much figure where it'd go (the way I make it....).


Why sum of calories per serving and not average calories per serving (same goes for the other measures)? I've not looked at the underlying data, but is this based on several dinners, or one has everything been whittled down and in fact "average" and "sum" are the same?

Or is the sum of the calories the sum of all the individual ingredients that make up an item? That would make sense.