How to Make the Best of Tiny Thanksgiving

This year, large gatherings—and the feasts that go with them—can’t happen safely. But the meal can still be delicious.

A woman peers at a plate holding a very tiny turkey.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Here at Slate, those of us who cook at lot at home, and who are staying put and having zero guests to our houses this year (it’s so sad, and it’s for the best), are trying to figure out what that big meal next Thursday will look like. Pizza out of a box? Turkey with all the fixings? Unfrozen veggie chili we made back in October, because who in the world can handle another round of grocery shopping and dishwashing? Without guests to worry about, the road is wide open before us!

We wondered what other people were thinking of doing for Thanksgiving this year—beyond trying to re-create exactly what you might eat in a better, non-2020 timeline, but smaller. (Eater recently ran a detailed post on strategies for scaling down standard holiday recipes, if that’s the way you would like to go.) Here, after a conversation between ourselves and a look around some corners of the food internet, are guidelines for making the most of Tiny Thanksgiving.

Rethink the turkey. If you eat meat, and want to keep the turkey, definitely secure a smaller bird than the typical 15-to-20-pounder—leftovers are nice, but no one needs sandwiches until New Year’s. Or consider a deconstructed approach: Colleague Bryan Lowder suggested a roasted turkey roulade, like this one from Ina Garten—a turkey breast rolled with savory stuffing that would be hard to execute for a crowd but is perfect for a single household. Or, seize the chance to rebel against tradition and make it weird. Colleague Shelby Jordon is making a buffalo turkey (maybe this recipe, from Rachael Ray)—an idea she’s eyed for years but hasn’t been able to execute, because the menu isn’t usually in her control.

If you want to take this opportunity to step away from the dry old bird, a lot of people who cook a lot are very into roasting a duck for a smaller, nontraditional holiday like this one. Recently, on Twitter, New Yorker writer Helen Rosner suggested a recipe for old-fashioned crispy roast duck, by David Rosengarten. Or, you could go even simpler—Eater just ran a post recommending a Thanksgiving roast chicken, à la the Zuni Cafe.

Make it fussy. I’m eyeing this vegetarian mushroom Wellington, from the New York Times’ Alexa Weibel, which has a burnished look I’d definitely mess up if I made it for my extended family. (I will surely nail it the first time, for my small audience of three.) Various colleagues suggested dishes that involve the hollowing out of gourds—this cheese fondue stuffed roasted pumpkin from Joy Huang on Food52, this roasted pumpkin with stuffing from Jo Rodgers on Vogue, or a fall soup you serve in acorn squash bowls from the Minimalist Baker blog. These are the kinds of gorgeous projects that would be foolish to attempt when you’re expecting 30 people but would look festive—and hopeful—on your little table.

Make it fancy. “If you want to cook,” wrote Jamie Feldmar in an argument for skipping Thanksgiving on Food and Wine’s website, you could use the day “as an excuse to try out another celebratory-feeling dish you might not otherwise tackle.” I’ve heard people talk coq au vin; I’ve heard people talk paella. On Twitter, Atlantic writer Amanda Mull mentioned the idea of cooking up a surf and turf—an expensive luxury for a big group, but something that would make two to five omnivores very, very happy. (ButcherBox’s website has a good post with suggestions for recipes to pair.)

Make sure you have the one dish you can’t miss. For my colleague Faith Smith, it’s oyster dressing (she likes Emeril’s recipe). For me, there’s a taste trifecta I would be so sad not to experience in late November: a standard New England–ish stuffing (I usually fall back on this recipe from Saveur); mushroom gravy (I’ll buy it premade or get a mix); and cranberry relish—the raw kind, that you make with oranges in the food processor. A New York Times recipe from Martha Rose Shulman is a fine-enough approximation of the one my grandma used to bring to every Thanksgiving dinner, in a Mason jar.

Make it teensy. No one needs a sideboard festooned with cakes and pies this year, but that doesn’t mean we must sacrifice variety in the sugar department. This is your chance to make a few desserts that are just adorable. Consider these flaky cranberry hand pies, a recipe by baker Amanda Mack in Bon Appetit’s Thanksgiving issue. Or these mini pumpkin, old-fashioned pecan, and apple pies, made in muffin tins (!), that PJ Hamel suggests in a blog post for the King Arthur flour company.

Lean into what suits you. Colleague Abby McIntyre said that she usually avoids traveling on Thanksgiving, even in non-COVID times. As a veteran of the tiny Thanksgiving, she “cooks a bunch of nice dishes for myself that I wouldn’t normally eat,” but that fit into her vegetarian, almost-vegan, dietary preferences: “I love just having a few tasty sides and a festive dessert to sample, and then eat the next few days.” This year she’s thinking about a few recipes from plant-based blogs: butternut squash mac and cheese from Oh She Glows, sweet potato casserole boats you can make in one pan from Minimalist Baker, and vegan apple pie from Bianca Zapatka.

Provision your future self. “Anytime in the last few years I’ve spent a holiday without family, I’ve made a feast of Indian food—it keeps really well in the freezer,” said colleague Asha Saluja. She suggested the Kitchn’s recipe for butter chicken in the Instant Pot; Swasthi’s Recipes’ paneer makhani and chana masala; and Cook With Manali’s roti/chapati. If you direct your holiday cooking energies this way, Thanksgiving leftovers can last not for days but for months.

Take it easy. “This year, a day or two in the kitchen for a feast that disappears in minutes is unimaginable,” wrote the New York Times’ Tejal Rao in a meditation on Thanksgiving, in a year of kitchen burnout. “I don’t think I’m supposed to admit this here in the Food section, but when I think about cooking, I’m filled with dread.” If this is you, and you can afford it, the best answer may be to throw money at the problem. One colleague recommended getting a good rotisserie chicken, then adding a few sides as the fancy strikes you.

Or, as battered restaurants face another possible period of COVID lockdowns, let them cook for you. Find out what your favorite local restaurant is offering for Thanksgiving, and whether they are asking people to sign up early to get it. Pay, pick up. Relax. Enjoy.

If, despite these suggestions, Tiny Thanksgiving still feels a little sad, take comfort in knowing that you’re doing the right thing. Vaccines willing, we can get back to Too Much Thanksgiving next year.