My Non-Traditional Thanksgiving Traditions

I‘ve never been much for big family traditions, other than my tradition of being non-traditional. Every holiday celebration, I wish to experience something new. With Thanksgiving, my birthday, Christmas, the New Year and the Lunar New Year all bunched together in a matter of weeks, the annual holiday season reminds me how much life is a gift and an adventure. That being said, I try my best to come up with different ways to celebrate each holiday from year to year.

Our Harvest Festival

Growing up, Thanksgiving was one of those odd holidays I didn’t know what to make of other than we had a long weekend, I saw my cousins from across town, and we celebrated in typical Pinoy fashion. When I got married, my husband and his family (of Polish descent) had their set of traditions which I adopted. It was American-traditional: Detroit Lions football, napping, Thanksgiving dinner, then more sleep.

Over the past few years, my Thanksgiving Day has become an ethnic hodge-podge of food and activity. I never really know what I’ll be doing or where I’ll end up until the day before. What I know for sure is I will eat Filipino food all day long, I will watch the Lions game, and I will participate in some event because I can’t keep still. The kids stay with me through the early afternoon then head to their dad’s for dinner. They enjoy eating cuisine from both cultures all in one day. I roast a turkey, but since I eat turkey all year long, it’s really not that big a deal to me.

Mostly, I look forward to the Filipino menu I cook only 3 times a year and something new to experience.

The Annual Trip to the Asian Market

The modern Filipino culture reflects much of the country’s history as a Spanish colony greatly influenced by Chinese trade. This is notable in the language and in the food. To be honest, as an American-born Filipino, I have few ties to my parents’ culture, but one thing I managed to learn was how to cook my favorite dishes.

It’s a half-hour drive to Orlando’s China Town and frankly, it’s scary to shop there which is why I’m glad I make this trek only once a year! The market is quite massive and always packed no matter when I go. The pungent smell is indescribable. I try not to read any labels or look at anything directly otherwise I may question why I’m there and never return. It seems many operation codes are being violated. Walking through the market is something you have to personally experience to truly understand what I’m talking about. I grab what I need and get out of there as quickly as possible!

Watch “Asians Eat Weird Things”

The Filipino Market likewise is 40 minutes away. It is a much smaller “mom and pop” shop with just a few aisles of imported products and the row of refrigerators against the wall, characteristic of a Filipino store. That is where I buy most of my ethnic pastries because I don’t know how to bake those. I also pick up the frozen Ube paste because there’s no where else to buy it.


If I don’t pace myself, I’ll easily be satisfied eating appetizers all day long. My three favorites are combinations of flavorful meats prepared with different wraps that give each dish a unique taste. They are addictive, and you can never eat just one.

Empanadas are a meat-filled pastry originating from Spain. Fried or baked in a pastry shell, my favorite filling includes beef, potato, and raisins. Siopao, literally translated “steamed bun”, has Chinese roots. The bun itself is plain in flavor which draws out the tangy-sweet meat filling. I prefer mine filled with pork asado, which is cooked with soy sauce and brown sugar.

A unanimous favorite at every Pinoy party is the Filipino Lumpia. Also of Chinese origin, the thinly wrapped, slow-fried rolls disappear in minutes after hours of prep. Their unique, dense flavor is a result of how thin and tightly rolled they are relative to traditional Chinese egg rolls. Dipped in sweet chili or duck sauce, they are heavenly. When I was a kid, I despised rolling them because we had to literally make hundreds for a party, but they are worth the labor.

Main Dishes

One of the national dishes of the Philippines is Lechon, a full roasted pig. It is common to see one as the center piece of the buffet table. I didn’t post a picture of it because honestly with my lifestyle change, I can’t stand to look at one anymore. You may have noticed pork is a common meat in the Filipino diet. I limit my intake to the holidays.

Chicken Adobo is also considered a national dish. The chicken is slowly stewed over several hours in a rich marinade of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic powder, bay leaves, and black pepper. The sweet, sour, and salty flavors combine well with a side of plain white rice.

My mom’s speciality was Rellenong Manok, a deboned and stuffed chicken. To be honest, I don’t know what exactly was in the stuffing… a concoction of ground meat, vegetables, raisins, and hard boiled eggs. Sounds odd, but it is quite tasty. I’ve never actually cooked it myself because I know my kids would not eat it simply because it looks weird.

Considered a side but hefty enough to stand on its own, Filipino Pancit Canton is my favorite noodle dish. The noodles are very bland and fragile to cook. They are traditionally mixed with a shredded chicken, stir fry vegetables, and splashed with fresh squeezed lemon.

Visit my cousin’s cooking blog for some popular and easy-to-cook Filipino Recipes!

Candies and Desserts

I won’t go into listing all the sweets I grew up eating. This is only a fraction of them, and most of them are pure sugar. The candies in particular are unique, and I find it amusing when my friends take their first bite of any of them.

I will mention the alluring purple yam called Ube (pronounced ooh-beh) that is an ingredient for many of our desserts including cheesecake, ice cream, cookies, and flan. My personal favorites are Ube Cake, Ube Hopia, and Ube Halaya. I could easily eat them all day, every day, if they weren’t so difficult for me to make.

Ube is a purple “sweet potato” originating in the Philippines that has long been a staple in our treats. As of the last few years, Ube has become a hip new food trend in the United States, even taking over Instagram food posts! This cracks me up since I’ve been eating it all my life. I would open a chain of dessert stores in Florida if I remotely enjoyed cooking it that much. I suppose it’s something I should consider since no one else is doing it.

Watch LA Cafe Makes Ube Everything

Burning My Calories Throughout the Day

I don’t worry about what or how much I eat on Thanksgiving (or any holiday for that matter) because I’m constantly in burn mode! Whether it be running a 5K Turkey Trot, spending a few hours at the AdvoCare NCAA Basketball Invitational, or hitting the dance club for a night of salsa, it is rare for me to stay at home all of Thanksgiving Day. If I do, I am planting my buds for my winter garden or starting the New Year cleaning process. If I decide to sit still for a few hours, chances are I’m at the beach.

If you find yourself at a traditional dinner with family and feel obligated to partake in a sit-down meal, here are a few pointers on how to enjoy the food and the company without the guilt or fear of packing on extra pounds:

  1. Mentally and emotionally prepare. Remember, it’s only ONE DAY! You aren’t obligated to eat like this every day so don’t shame yourself before the season has even begun. The holidays are a time to ENJOY friends, family, and food you normally wouldn’t eat on a daily basis.
  2. Exercise before hand. The dinner doesn’t take up all 24 hours of the day. Get a solid workout in prior to heading out to meet up with the family. If you happen to be hosting dinner, a 5K or a 30-minute circuit of body weight exercises is quick and easy to fit in before getting freshened up for dinner. Recruit your family members during that time to help out so you can focus on yourself for a little bit!
  3. Don’t worry about tracking (it’ll be near impossible anyhow if you didn’t do the cooking) but watch your portion sizes. I eat a little bit of everything, I eat slowly as I normally would and wait before going back for seconds (and thirds)! I also drink a lot of water. When you feel full, STOP EATING! I know, I know… if your family is anything like mine, they will insist you eat more as if it’s the last supper. Trust me, it’s not. They may tease you for being on a diet or watching what you eat. All I know is I’m pretty proud of how I look, and I have several holiday dresses I’d like to fit in before the year ends!
  4. Dance and play games! I know Latinos never throw a party without dancing. Filipinos are also known to get down! The last thing you want to do is eat all that food and plop yourself on the couch. Get your family to participate in a game even, like old school Charades. It can get crazy fun!

This Year’s Plans

It’s been a pretty tumultuous year with a lot of changes happening in my life. Being my first holiday season in my new apartment with the kids moved out, I’ve decided to lay low tomorrow. I may stop by the AdvoCare Invitational Basketball Tournament since my family has VIP tickets (thanks to the ESPN tournament coordinator who was a former player of mine!) but to be honest, taking a day to slow down and reflect on what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown this year is not a bad idea.

In retrospect, as difficult as the year was, all-in-all, I love my life. I’m blessed with my health, my family, and my time freedom. My kids have done very well this year, and I’m very proud of them. I recognize I had a lot of growing to do in this season, and God has been with me every step of the way. I continue to stay faithful in my journey and know that many great things are to come in the new year.

My hope for those of you reading is that you found this year to be one of growth as well.

I wish you and yours a very Happy Thanksgiving!


About the Author:

Melinda Rocha is a leadership coach and fitness professional based in Washington, DC. She graduated from the University of Michigan with her B.S. in Cellular/Molecular Biology and completed doctorate coursework at the University of St. Augustine Health Sciences. Her passion is helping others overcome obstacles of their past in order to live fully in their present and achieve their fullest future potential.

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