An Ayurvedic Thanksgiving: Designing a Holiday Feast with All Six Tastes

by Shannon Sexton

Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate nature’s bounty and nourish our loved ones with fresh, tasty food. But how do we design a feast that leaves everyone feeling happy and satisfied rather than bloated and bogged down? Ayurveda has a secret formula: Balance your meal with the six tastes: sweet, salty, sour, pungent, bitter, and astringent.

“One of the tenets of Ayurveda is to incorporate each of the six tastes into every meal,” says Erin Casperson, Dean of the Kripalu School of Ayurveda. “These tastes work in symbiosis to create satiation, and to improve our ability to digest food.”

As Erin observes, the Thanksgiving table is typically overloaded with sweet tastes. (Think root vegetables, sweet potatoes, most desserts. Even grains, meat, and dairy are considered to be “sweet” according to Ayurveda.) Salt is definitely represented, and we usually throw in a little bit of sour: cranberry relish, sauerkraut, or a dollop of sour cream in or on our mashed potatoes.

But the tastes that are usually missing from the holiday table are pungent, bitter, and astringent—the lighter tastes that can help balance out the heavier, indulgent dishes on your holiday table. Here are some simple ways Erin suggests you can add them to your meal.

To add the pungent taste, cook a few dishes with ginger, garlic, and onions. Add pungent spices to your dishes, such as turmeric, black pepper, or a dash of cayenne.

To add the bitter and astringent tastes, try cooking up “a super-green dish” with seasonal leafy greens such as kale, collard greens, and broccoli rabe. Spice a dish with basil, oregano, thyme, sage, and/or rosemary. You can also try adding turmeric, cumin, and/or coriander to a protein or vegetable dish.

Eating meals with the six tastes nourishes us at a deeper level, says Ayurvedic expert Kathryn Templeton, who runs the Ayurvedic Yoga Specialist trainings at the Himalayan Institute in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Here’s why: Each taste is a combination of two pancha mahabhutas, which can be translated as the five elements: earth, water, air, ether, and fire, she explains. According to Ayurveda, every tissue (or dhatu) in your body is nourished by different elements. So, by incorporating all six tastes in your meal, you nourish every tissue in your body. “That’s when food becomes your medicine, helping you endure the cold weather and ward off winter maladies like colds and flus,” says Kathryn.

Kate O’Donnell, a graduate of the Kripalu School of Ayurveda and author of The Everyday Ayurveda Cookbook, suggests that you boost your intake of healthy fats: nuts, seeds, and oils such as ghee and coconut. We need more healthy fats during the holiday season, she says; they hydrate our tissues when it’s cold and dry out. She also recommends choosing cooked food over raw; it’s easier to digest, and its soft, warm qualities counterbalance the cold, hard qualities of the season, Kate says.

I love this holiday recipe from Kathryn, which features all six tastes in one dish.

Spiced Squash and Sweet Potatoes with Pecan-Rosemary Topping

For vegetables:

1 large butternut squash (2–3 pounds), peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
3 large sweet potatoes, unpeeled, sliced 1/4-inch thick
4 tablespoons ghee, coconut oil, or olive oil
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon clove powder (optional)

For topping:

1/2 cup roasted, chopped pecans
Pinch of salt
1/2 tablespoon ghee
A few sprigs of fresh rosemary

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, and spread the sweet potato chunks and butternut squash cubes in a single layer on the sheet.

In a bowl, combine the ghee, maple syrup, brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, black pepper, and clove powder. Drizzle the mixture over the vegetables, and bake for 15–20 minutes, turning once or twice, until they are tender.

In another bowl, combine the rosemary, roasted pecans, salt, and ghee. Sprinkle the topping on the vegetables and cook for another 5 minutes. Remove from oven and toss in a serving bowl. Serve warm.

Shannon Sexton is the former editor-in-chief of Yoga International magazine and a freelance writer, editor, and strategist based in Madrid.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail