With travel restrictions and public health concerns, most people are not going to be able to spend time with their family and enjoy the classic Thanksgiving feast this year. Even if you have a Zoom meal scheduled, you likely only have to make enough food for your immediate household group, which is much less than you might be used to.
There are many ways you can incorporate Thanksgiving flavors into a smaller meal, and maybe give yourself some room to experiment. Here are some ideas for how to celebrate Thanksgiving with a smaller meal this year.
Let’s talk turkey
Perhaps the biggest challenge for downsizing Thanksgiving is figuring out what to do with the turkey.
Jay Demers, department chair of culinary arts and restaurant food service management at Eastern Maine Community College, said that you should usually plan a pound and a half of bird weight per person. However, if you only have a few people celebrating with you this year, you might not be able to find a turkey that small.
“Usually the smallest birds you will find are around 12 pounds,” Demers said. “I have read that smaller birds are in short supply this year given people having smaller gatherings.”
If you cannot find an appropriately-sized bird for your Thanksgiving table, you can purchase portions of turkey instead of the whole bird.
“I would suggest just picking up a turkey breast or a turkey thigh,” said Stephanie Enjaian, culinary arts department chair at Kennebec Valley Community College. “If it has the bone, it will maintain moisture really well.”
However, if you only purchase portions of the bird instead of a whole turkey, you will miss out on the opportunity to make delicious turkey broth or stock. Rob Dumas, food science innovation coordinator at the University of Maine, recommended purchasing a whole bird — even if it seems too big — and breaking it into individual components, much in the same way you would break down a chicken.
Each part of the bird will require different cooking techniques. The legs and thighs, which are frequently used by the ground-based bird, should be cooked “low and slow,” through braising, smoking or just slow cooking, until they reach an internal temperature of 185 degrees Fahrenheit. Tender breasts can be seared and cooked more quickly, to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.
“With that [difference] between the two temperatures, it’s actually hard to cook the whole turkey and have both parts turn out perfectly,” Dumas said. “One of the ways I have done [it] in the past is to put leg quarters on a flat sheet pan and then put my breast in a little bit later.”
Once you have the turkey broken down, you can cook only what you want to eat on the day of Thanksgiving, saving the rest for later. Or, store your leftover turkey. Enjaian said that cooked turkey stores well in its own broth in a vacuum sealed bag, or even a freezer bag with the air pressed out.
Consider alternatives to turkey
You can opt for a different centerpiece to your meal, like a roasted chicken.
“So many people dry turkey out because it’s a larger bird,” Ejaian said. “[Chicken] is going to be more juicy if you don’t have a ton of experience in working with poultry.”
Enjaian recommended searing your chicken in a cast iron pan, then finishing it in the oven with your vegetables.
You could also get creative with your bird. Demers recommended a Thanksgiving grouse for hunters taking to the woods this season.
Skip some sides
One of the easiest ways to shrink a Thanksgiving feast is to cut back on the number of side dishes. Spare yourself from cooking things that guests who won’t be present usually like to eat.
“You might not need both cranberry sauce and cranberry relish to appease both sides of the family,” Demers said. “Perhaps the nephew isn’t coming that needs to have the green bean casserole topped with French’s Fried Onions.”
Some sides also do not keep as well the next day for leftovers.
“Stuffing freezes fine, cranberry sauce freezes fine, even roasted vegetables can freeze ok, but some of the pureed items will lose texture as you reheat him,” Enjaian said. “[Mashed potatoes] kind of disintegrate once you heat them up again.”
When choosing which sides you want to make, Dumas said to create a balanced plate: protein in the form of your turkey or another bird, starch like mashed potatoes or stuffing, a sauce (“Turkey is lonely without gravy,” he insisted, but cranberry sauce also works well) and vegetables.
“Look at your local farmers markets and build your side dishes there, especially as it pertains to vegetables,” Dumas said. “The traditional Thanksgiving is based on the New England seasons. You’ll see all the greatest hits of Thanksgiving right there.”
Enjaian suggested roasting a variety of vegetables together on a single sheet pan, adding vegetables to the pan incrementally based on their cooking times.
Shrink and save dessert
Certain desserts are easier than others to portion or save for later. Apple or apple-cranberry crisp is a tasty seasonal option that is easier to portion (cook your crisp in ramekins for souffle cups instead of a larger dish) and stores well to eat later.
“Crisps freeze really well and reheat really well,” Dumas said.
If you are willing to buck the classics, Enjaian said that another good option is mousse or chocolate lava cake in ramekins.
If you simply must have a pie, you can also freeze it in portions for later.
“I’ll cut it, wrap individual pieces in plastic wrap [and] stick it in the freezer,” Enjaian said. “Let it sit on the counter for like an hour and eat it later. Apple and pumpkin [are] both great to do.”
If you really can’t resist going whole hog (er, turkey) this Thanksgiving, the chefs all agreed that embracing leftovers is a perfectly reasonable approach to a “small” Thanksgiving.
Demers said he won’t make many changes to his Thanksgiving menu. He said that “cooking is as easy for 12 as it is for two.”
“I always have a sandwich, soup and turkey pot pie for the freezer,” Demers said. “Sometimes I will whip up some crepes and stuff them with the turkey and any leftover veggies, but top it with a béarnaise sauce to bring an entirely different flavor to the game.”
Enjaian said that she is partial to turkey and vegetable stir fried rice, or anything that takes a new “theme” on the Thanksgiving components with different spices than you would normally use on the day.
“An Asian influence as opposed to American [gives it a] different flavor profile without having to do a lot of work,” Enjaian said.
Plus, having leftovers gives you a chance to give back in this uniquely challenging holiday season.
“Package [it] up some nice containers [and] drop off a thanksgiving dinner for a lonely neighbor,” Dumas said. “There’s nothing wrong with reaching out to folks that might not have anyone and might not be comfortable enough to eat with others.”