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How to host a smaller Thanksgiving while still enjoying your favorite holiday flavors

For scaled-down gatherings, consider smaller cuts of meat paired with built-in sides.  (Justin Tsucalas/For the Washington Post)
For scaled-down gatherings, consider smaller cuts of meat paired with built-in sides. (Justin Tsucalas/For the Washington Post)
By Becky Krystal Washington Post

Thanksgiving is usually an oversized holiday – big meal, big groups, big everything. This year, for many of us, that won’t be the case. The spread of the coronavirus, leaner budgets and the relentless stress of a roller-coaster year are causing a lot of home cooks to rethink their approach to the holiday feast. Smaller is in.

If you’re scaling down your regular Thanksgiving dinner, or are making it for the first time for your immediate family in the absence of a larger reunion, here are some tips to help you plan.

Rethink the big turkey

Cookbook author Cynthia Graubart said she has jettisoned the traditional large bird for 2020, “which kind of feels weird.” Instead of fixating on the visual of the main course, try focusing on the overall flavors of the holiday instead.

If turkey is a must, “one of the biggest unsung heroes of turkey parts are the thighs, and they are fantastic,” says Graubart, who recently released an e-book of scaled-down Thanksgiving recipes, including skillet-cooked thighs with sage and mushroom gravy. Similarly, turkey legs are economical and flavorful.

For fans of light meat, a turkey breast, roasted bone-in, deboned or rolled into a roulade are other ways to keep the turkey on the menu in smaller amounts.

There’s no reason to limit yourselves to turkey, either. Other poultry is well-suited to feed fewer servings, whether that’s a roast chicken, Cornish hens, duck or even quail.

Adjust your side dishes

Frankly, I tend to be more interested in – and attached to – the Thanksgiving sides than the main. “I really like to have a lot of Thanksgiving side dishes,” Graubart agrees. And because, even in a smaller group, everyone tends to have their favorites, you may have to focus more on scaling them down rather than cutting them from the menu. But it’s doable.

Graubart notes that casseroles, such as those marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes and mac and cheese, are fairly easy to shrink. The most important thing to keep in mind is to try to keep the depth of the food the same when you’re switching from a larger dish to a smaller one.

For example, a recipe normally made in a 9-by-13-inch pan can typically be halved and moved to an 8- or 9-inch square dish. If the depth turns out to be different, pay attention and adjust the cooking time accordingly.

While not impossible, scaling down dishes designed to take advantage of specific sizes of canned food can make it tricky to use up the exact amounts. Instead, go for produce – green beans, Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes. “If you think fresh, you’ll be able to buy just the quantities you need,” Graubart says.

Have a leftovers plan

Making less food from the start is a good way to get around the typical abundance of extra food. Still, “We’re all going to have leftovers,” Graubart says. “Let’s just face it.” Her advice: Deal with them right away. Divide, package, label and freeze. There aren’t many dishes that can’t be frozen, she says.

Just be sure to put the food in airtight packaging with as little air inside as possible to prevent freezer burn. Then pat yourself on the back and know you have a good meal waiting for you down the line. “You are going to be so happy to see those next week or in a couple of weeks, but you’re not going to be happy staring at them in the refrigerator for a week.”

Give yourself a break and focus on what’s important

A smaller holiday can be a downer, particularly in an already rough year. But try to look at it from a different perspective if you can. “If Thanksgiving has been a stressful holiday for you as a cook, this is your reprieve. This is your year to not really feel tremendous obligation to put on an enormous spread,” Graubart says.

“With scaling down your recipes, scale down your expectations. This is another day on the calendar. You can find a way to make it special, but it doesn’t have to be filled with stress and angst and anxiety.”

Involve the rest of your household in the planning and prep. Let the kids help you pick the menu and cook it, or have them make decorations for the table. For those who aren’t joining you, be sure to reach out – arrange a video call (maybe not during the actual meal) or pick up the phone. Tell them you miss them and share with them what you’re doing and eating that day.

If you’re a first-time Thanksgiving cook, use it as an opportunity to shore up your confidence and perhaps start traditions of your own. Everyone should feel liberated to cook whatever they want. Me? I’m thinking turkey meatballs, which my household of three will all eat. “The silver lining is you’re going to do Thanksgiving your way without having to compromise,” Graubart says.

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