So many of our readers and friends are asking about what to make for a smaller Thanksgiving this year. While this may be the prudent choice, I know it still comes with a lot of feelings. So many of us are skipping travels plans and raucous gatherings with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and lots of little cousins running around underfoot. And while I know most of us will adjust just fine to smaller Thanksgiving celebrations, you may be wondering if you should still go “all out” on a giant turkey showstopper for the table.

Because while I know some families with always-hungry teens will make quick work of a Butterball in just a couple of days, for many of us, a big turkey centerpiece is just too much food, even factoring in leftovers.

Or, maybe you’ve never cared for turkey in the first place and don’t see the point — what a great excuse not make 20 pounds of something you don’t all love!

If this sounds like you too, I’ve rounded up some ideas for what to make for a Thanksgiving main-dish when you’re cooking for a smaller crowd. Whether that includes turkey or not, your dinner can still feel special and of course, taste delicious.

Top image: Gabriel Garcia Marengo on Unsplash


Consider turkey…just not a whole turkey

Turkey breast recipe from Dinner at the Zoo for a smaller Thanksgiving dinner

I’m with our Recipe Rescue community commenter, Denise F. who asked,. It’ll just be me & my DD eating turkey. She really wants to cook a classic turkey to learn how to do it. But, I’m wondering if that’s too much. Is it worth it to get a whole turkey?

Some commenters suggested, sure! Make a whole turkey, just plan for lots of leftovers throughout the week. (This post on turkey leftover ideas is a big help.)

Another option: If your family normally clamors for the white meat of the turkey above all, consider preparing a simple turkey breast, like this Roasted Turkey Breast recipe from Dinner at the Zoo. It gives you more of what you all really like — and in less time than a full bird takes to cook. Plus, the smaller size means less cooking time and less stress to prepare. Of course there may still be leftovers, and they’ll make prime sandwich fixings.

Related: How to choose the turkey that’s right for you: What do all those different terms mean? Argh!

Winner, Winner, (Thanksgiving) Chicken Dinner

Thanksgiving chicken recipe from Gimme Some Oven for a smaller family gathering

There is no rule that you have to eat turkey on Thanksgiving, right? In fact, my kids pick chicken over turkey as the star of the plate any other day of the year, so why not go with their preference?  It’s a lot easier to roast a whole chicken, especially for those of us who have never tackled a turkey (raises hand) — but there’s still help for you.

This recipe for Crispy Roasted Garlic Chicken from Gimme Some Oven looks so easy to make, and features plenty of butter and garlic to insure that dinner is indeed a winner winner.


How to spatchcock a turkey or chicken for Thanksgiving, as shown by our own Stacie Billis of Cool Mom Eats

If you are okay with a slightly different presentation for your smaller Thanksgiving dinner, try former CME editor Stacie Billis’s handy tip for spatchcocking a chicken (or turkey, quail, or duck) which cooks the meat quicker and more evenly than as a whole bird. Bonus? All the sides–stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce–taste delicious next to chicken as well, so you can have all your traditional fixings too.

Speaking of which, if you don’t  Stacie’s very helpful cookbook, Winner Winner Chicken Dinner, this is a good excuse!

Go easy with a casserole

Chicken and stuffing casserole from The Modern Proper for a smaller Thanksgiving meal

Another way to serve a bird that’s festive, but not made for 20, is with a delicious Thanksgiving-type casserole like this One-Pot Chicken & Stuffing Casserole from The Modern Proper. It has all the ingredients of a Thanksgiving dinner, but can bake while you play a board game with the family, watch movies, or go for a walk around the neighborhood. It’s a nice, simple alternative if you need ideas for a smaller Thanksgiving dinner.

Or, prepare something extravagant you’d never make otherwise

Baked Lobster Tail recipe from The Recipe Critic for a smaller Thanksgiving dinner

With fewer people around the table, there’s a lot less pressure to go with a tried-and-true (or even basic) recipe. So why not take advantage, and try out a Thanksgiving dish that’s a little splurgy — and maybe even a little tricky!

Consider showstopper dishes like the gorgeous Beef Wellington recipe from What Should I Make For, individual cheese soufflés from Serious Eats, or baked lobster tail like this one from The Recipe Critic which could make Thanksgiving so special. Of course they may take a little more skill than tossing a turkey in the oven, but the finished results will likely make all the effort worth it. Low risk, high reward.

(Plus, you can tell the kids that lobster may have been served at the first Thanksgiving, seeing as how they were on the East coast of Massachusetts where I live.)

Try a “Sidesgiving”

Photo © Squire Fox for WW Norton & Co

Stand by, friends! We’re about to share some of our favorite Sidesgiving recipes and ideas. Because what could be wrong with skipping the main course entirely, and just filling the table with the family’s favorite Thanksgiving sides? Like maybe start with this apple squash gratin recipe by Amy Traverso, from The Apple Lover’s Cookbook. Yum.

In the meanwhile, also check out these posts for lots of inspiration:

All the great Thanksgiving recipes you can make in your Instant Pot.
11 make-ahead Thanksgiving recipes, so you can focus on the turkey. 
6 decadent mac and cheese recipes
5 top food bloggers share their own favorite Thanksgiving stuffing recipes
7 of the best stuffing recipes for Thanksgiving that are simple and awesome, as stuffing should be.
How to roast vegetables: A foolproof method for the best way to cook fall and winter produce.
Adaptations to make 5 classic holiday side dishes totally dairy-free.
9 mashed potato alternatives for your holiday table.
Gluten-free Thanksgiving recipes for appetizers, sides and dessert
Vegetarian Thanksgiving recipes that even carnivores will love

Turn to Trader Joe’s. Why not!

Trader Joe's Turkey en Croute for a smaller Thanksgiving dinner

As I outlined in last week’s post about How Trader Joe’s is helping me DIY an easier Thanksgiving this year, they have so many options to make things easy…and still delicious. I’d start with their Turkey and Stuffing en Croute,  a terrific option for smaller families to enjoy on Thanksgiving. Just remember to defrost it the night before, so that the entire thing is ready to pop into the oven about an hour before meal time.

Since it comes with stuffing inside, you don’t even have to make additional stuffing — though we will never turn out nose up at additional stuffing.

And, for any non-meat eaters, check out Trader Joe’s Vegan Stuffed Roast with Gravy which is a satisfying alternative that reheats beautifully the next day too.

Related: 9 vegetarian Thanksgiving recipes, from mains to sides, that even the carnivores will love.

Embrace the non-traditional altogether

This Thanksgiving charcuterie board from Reluctant Entertainer is a great meal idea for a smaller Thanksgiving dinner

My oldest confessed that she’d rather we do something totally different this year instead of trying to recreate “Thanksgiving Lite” with so many of our family members missing from the table. And who says you need to have a sit-down meal anyway?

This year, we’re considering forgoing a big meal and putting out incredible appetizers (loads of gluten-free appetizers here) or a charcuterie platter filled with Thanksgiving flavors like this Thanksgiving Charcuterie board from Reluctant Entertainer.

Liz also suggests something simple but fun for the kids like a beef fondue recipe — splurge on a top-notch cut of beef, slice it up, then everyone gets to cook their own around the fondue pot. The main effort you put in is whipping up a variety of fun, homemade sauces for dipping.This way you can cook and share bites with your immediate family — which definitely isn’t something I’d want to do right now with anyone who isn’t in my household anyway.

See? Opportunities!

Order in

What to make for thanksgiving for a small group...and what to order in!

Photo by Charles Deluvio


We are always looking for ways to support our local restaurants, and one way you can do this if you need ideas for a small Thanksgiving dinner, is to order dishes from your go-to spot for take-out. Maybe you order a main dish, or just supplement your own main dish with some favorites from your neighborhood.
One friend of mine is planning to order BBQ turkey (yum!) from her neighborhood barbecue joint, and another is picking up a big tray of the mac n cheese that her kids beg for, because…why not.  Just be sure to check their schedules before you make your plans, to be sure that you don’t miss out.


I just want to leave you with this thought: Whatever you make, get the kids involved.

Too often we get caught up in the feeling that “everything must be perfect” at Thanksgiving. But, this year, you have full permission to aside your inner Martha Stewart and let the kids take over, as much as their age and interest allows. Maybe they can mix the stuffing or follow an apple recipe. They can set and decorate the table or do one of these gratitude projects. Let them pick a dessert to make all on their own and give them one hated dish they can veto from the meal.

In other words, bye bye turnips. I won’t miss you either.