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November 4, 2012

How To Compose a Thanksgiving Menu

This is a pretty traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey, cranberries, pie, gravy, seasonal vegetable medley… it’s a meal that many people look forward to every year.

It’s also one that many people dread every year. In this case, I’m not talking about the company, because that will be another article. As per usual, I’ll spend the weekends leading up to Thanksgiving (here in USAnia, anyway) talking about different aspects of Thanksgiving, very much including the emotional ones. But today, I’m just talking menu planning.

You see, no matter how traditional or un you plan to be, the meal needs planning in advance. So let’s break it down and figure out how to figure out what to serve your nearest and dearest for the holiday.

First off, you need to know your audience as well as your own tastes.

Perhaps your Thanksgiving meal doesn’t include something traditional… like the turkey.

Or you may want to include ethnic favorites.

Will these variations go over well with your audience? Will they simply be confused? Will they be grateful not to see green bean casserole on your table, or will they feel they haven’t really had Thanksgiving without it?

Thanksgiving is more than a meal, in a lot of ways. People are heavily invested in the traditions, whether to follow them to the letter or reject them outright. Ultimately, you want to please those sitting down to the table with you, but you also want to please yourself.

The first thing to do is find out if anyone on your guest list has a specific dietary need you have to be aware of. Is someone coming to your dinner a vegetarian? Vegan? Forbidden a particular food or kind of food by their religious beliefs? Allergic to something? Going gluten free? Every one of these situations will affect your menu, but don’t panic.

You see, one of the great things about Thanksgiving is that it is usually served family style, that’s where serving dishes are passed around the table and everyone is free to take or not take whatever goes by them, rather than as set plates. That means that if there’s something on the menu that one person or another will not wish to eat for health or moral reasons, all you need to do is quietly make them aware of the bacon in the Brussels sprouts or the wine in the gravy before they help themselves to it. Don’t make loud announcements. Just have a brief conversation in a quiet voice with the person concerned. And then make darn sure there’s plenty of other foods for that person to choose from.

Then there’s that old bugaboo personal taste. If you’re aware of someone’s fear and loathing of broccoli or pecans or foods that are orange in color, just make sure there’s another vegetable other than broccoli. Don’t sprinkle pecans on every single dish. And while you needn’t avoid having sweet potatoes or carrots on the table, just don’t have them in every dish. Again, the family style passing of platters makes this easier on you. If someone can’t bear candied yams or green bean casserole or even corn bread, they don’t have to take it.

In general, what you want on your Thanksgiving table is more food than the people around it can possibly eat in one sitting. The theme of the holiday is gratitude for the plenty in our lives. This is good, again, for dealing with food issues. It means that even if someone doesn’t like some of the dishes available, chances are they’ll still get plenty to eat.

Now many people start Thanksgiving with a salad or a soup. Others serve appetizers and amuse bouche beforehand. Still others just get straight down to the gusto with everything on the table at once. Any of these approaches is fine. My personal preference is to simply sit everyone down and dig into the main feature, but your mileage may vary. If you go the soup/salad route, try to make it something you’re pretty confident everyone can eat. It’s harder and a lot more embarrassing to pass on the soup that every person at the table has been served.

When it comes to the main event, variety is your friend. Feel free to experiment, but do try to have at least one or two things the traditionalists will find comfortable at the table. And if you’re the traditionalist, whip up your best versions of traditional.

In general, you’ll want a main featured dish, at least two vegetable sides, at least two starchy sides, a couple condiments, and a minimum of one dessert. Feel free to add more if room, budget, organizational skills, and enjoyment allow. Or if someone else asks if they can bring a dish.

For most of us, the main featured dish is a no-brainer: roast turkey. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, though, you might prefer to make it stuffed butternut squashes, vegetable strata, or even Tofurkey. If nobody at your table cares for turkey, why not make it a ham or a beef roast or even leg of lamb? Pork chops can certainly be an option for those of us who love them. Just because it’s traditional doesn’t mean you’re stuck with it. What the heck! How about a selection of enchiladas? Just choose something that can look impressive and feel festive to the majority of people at the table.

Then there are the traditional sides. The starchy ones are usually some combination of or variation on mashed potatoes, candied yams or sweet potatoes with a marshmallow topping, and stuffing/dressing. Other popular options include cornbread, dinner rolls, roast potatoes, or rice. But if you prefer polenta or grits, I’d be happy to tuck into those, myself. And who says it can’t be risotto or a gratin?

For the veggies, the most common are probably the inevitable green bean casserole, Brussels sprouts, or some kind of carrot dish. Other popular choices include broccoli, creamed spinach, winter squashes, and onions, either stuffed or in a cream sauce. But don’t forget about the lovely root vegetables and vitamin-packed leafy greens that are coming into their own at this time of year. Don’t fear beets, turnips, celeriac, kale and all the other under appreciated vegetable goodness of the season. Just make certain there’s something for the faint of culinary heart, too.

As for condiments, we’re usually talking about turkey gravy, cranberry sauce, and/or cranberry jelly. Of course that doesn’t mean you can’t do chutney, salsa, relishes or compote.

Dessert is most often either pumpkin pie or pecan pie. All the same, that doesn’t need to be the case if that isn’t what you want. Cakes, cupcakes, ice cream, bread or rice pudding, steamed pudding, pot de creme, cookies, feel free to choose whatever you really like.

After all, this holiday is about celebrating the bounty of life… not trudging miserably through a rote menu. Think it over, use your imagination, and take your guests into consideration.

That way you’ll have a Thanksgiving meal worth giving thanks for.


  1. Toast, pretzel sticks, jelly beans, and popcorn.

    Comment by Rachel of Cyberia — November 4, 2012 @ 4:15 pm

  2. You are amazing. You are so considerate and thoughtful. I’m cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the five people in my family and four extra kids this year, and this has been so helpful.

    Comment by Bethany — November 5, 2012 @ 1:32 am

  3. Green Bean casserole is surprisingly good when make completely from scratch.

    Comment by Carol Melancon — November 5, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

  4. …made…

    Comment by Carol Melancon — November 5, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

  5. I love when I read something on the internet and a bright light shines in my life in a spot where, theretofore, was darkness. Just the WORDS “stuffed butternut squash” were audible with strains of angels singing in the background. I looked up a few recipes, and I have decided that this year I will be making butternut squash stuffed with toasted pecans, apples, and brussels sprouts fried with bacon. (Not a vegetarian, obviously.) Already looking forward to it…

    Comment by the misfit — November 5, 2012 @ 12:43 pm

  6. The Fella and I are happy to be having our own tiny Thanksgiving at home this year, and the centerpiece will be topsy-turvy stuffed squash, which uses a staggeringly simple idea to vastly improve stuffed squash: flip the squash so it sits stuffing-side down against the hot pan. It roasts up crispy and brown on the outside, tender and soft on the inside, and utterly delectable. I can’t wait!

    Comment by Elsa — November 7, 2012 @ 1:53 pm

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