How to Plan What You're Making for Thanksgiving Dinner
For a lot of families, the Thanksgiving menu is dictated by tradition. Everyone comes to expect the same things each year, and breaking away from that form can be incredibly difficult. I know it was for my family: Growing up, my entire extended family gathered each year in Pittsburgh for a meal mostly cooked by my uncle, who almost single handedly cooked everything. We always (and I do mean always) had a smoked turkey, cornbread stuffing, and corn pudding cooked by my aunt. It wasn't until my grandmother passed away and my mom decided to host Thanksgiving at her own house in North Carolina, inviting a totally new group of people and leaving the food up to me, that we decided to shake things up.
I was so excited to plan the menu that year, but I was quickly overwhelmed. If you were unaware... there are endless options for Thanksgiving dishes, and I found it difficult to know what was essential and what I could skip. What I came to is a piece of advice that I now turn back to every year: First, pick a theme; then, select dishes from a variety of predetermined categories. I decided on and continue to use my category structure in order to make sure I'm creating a balanced menu.
Step 1: Pick a theme.
It helps to have an organizing principle to guide your choices. The first year I cooked Thanksgiving, I went completely non-traditional, choosing recipes for each item that caught my attention and seemed like a fun departure from the more classic meal I had grown up eating. The next year, I did a Southern menu, complete with cornbread stuffing, macaroni and cheese, and sweet potato pie. You could opt for an Italian theme or go old-school New England – theme options range far and wide, but picking one will help you decide not just what to cook, but also which version of that dish to make.
Step 2: Select your lineup from the following categories...
Show-Stopping Main Dishes
Obviously, the classic choice here is a roasted turkey, but you don't have to feel limited by that. You could do a whole turkey breast for a smaller crowd, or go off the beaten path with long-braised turkey legs and thighs. Southern Thanksgiving often involves a ham, which is always delicious. Vegetarians might want to go with roasting a whole squash, filled with mushrooms and bread and cheese, and then slice like a cake for that show-stopping moment. If you're cooking meat, aim to have about a pound and a half per person. (You'll end up with less because you have to account for the bones, don't worry.) If you're going vegetarian, aim for about 8 ounces of the main dish per person. In my book, gravy is an essential accompaniment to the main dish – plan to prepare a make-ahead gravy to take some pressure off. Consider using a mushroom stock in place of turkey stock if you're trying to keep it vegetarian or vegan.
I think if we're all honest, we know that Thanksgiving is mostly about the starches. Mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, fresh-baked rolls – these are the true heroes of the meal, and there will be a lot of them on the table, which is totally fine. You're almost certainly going to have mashed potatoes and stuffing on the table, and from there you can make a personal choice about adding something like macaroni and cheese or Parker House rolls. Based on your theme (and what you want to eat), make a choice about how many of these dishes you want to have, and prioritize from there. For sides, I aim for about ¾ cup of each side dish for each person.
Green Veggie Sides
Cooked greens may not be the most glamorous dishes on the menu, but you need them. They bring more bitter flavors and will serve as a helpful foil to all the buttery richness that you're sure to have going on. Plus, sides like green beans and Brussels offer a fantastic opportunity for some textural variation on the table. Again, aim for about ¾ cup per person.
Bright and Fresh Sides
Personally, I am a huge fan of canned cranberry sauce, but that's a conversation for another day. For those who prefer a fresh cranberry condiment, note that it's the traditional star of this category. It is the oft overlooked, yet incredibly necessary category of fresh, bracing dishes that you'll take a bite of to clear your palate before another mouthful of rich, buttery mashed potatoes. They're not the highlight of the Turkey Day table, but they're doing some serious heavy lifting. Flavors of lime, lemon, orange, cranberry, and even spiciness are welcome here. Tart and lively is the name of the game.
Related: 22 Simple Fall and Winter Salads
Harvest vibes, anyone? Okay, so, this color category of "veggie" isn't typically considered essential on the same scale as a "green vegetable" when you're planning a dinner menu, but the Thanksgiving menu plays by a different set of rules. On Thanksgiving, representation from this category is arguably non-negotiable. You can do an old-school sweet potato casserole topped with marshmallows, but the possibilities for savory orange-hued sides are endless. If you're not entirely sure, consider heading to your local farmer's market the weekend before Thanksgiving to see what types of squash and carrots are on offer, and let those inspire you.
When it comes to Thanksgiving, dessert isn't so much about making sure there's the right amount (we've been known to serve three pies for five people in my household), but more about making sure you get the opportunity to eat all of the seasonal desserts that don't seem to make it onto the table for other holidays. Dream big, plan ahead, and don't forget the vanilla ice cream.