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How to Scale Down Your Thanksgiving Dinner, According to Chefs

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Due to a nationwide surge in coronavirus cases, Thanksgiving will look different for many families this year. People who typically would have made the trek to visit loved ones for the holidays are planning smaller Thanksgiving dinners at home instead. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still have a traditional turkey day dinner, even if it's with just a few people. To set you up for success, we talked to a handful of chefs. These are their must-know tips for hosting a great, albeit scaled-down, Thanksgiving.

Plan your menu ahead of time

Plan your menu ahead of time
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The best way to be successful when planning any meal is to decide the menu ahead of time. According to Jeff Caputo, executive chef at The Food Crate, people that plan to host a few guests for Thanksgiving this year should determine their menu early. He notes that “most of us know what our guests like, so just plan accordingly.”

Buy a small turkey, or cut one in half

Buy a small turkey or cut it in half
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Thanksgiving dinner is built on tradition, and you don’t have to give that up even if you’re entertaining a small number of people this year. It’s recommended to have a pound to a pound and a half of meat per person, but that doesn’t mean you have to forego the whole bird. According to John Doherty, chef and owner of Blackbarn Restaurant, a good option for people hosting a scaled-down Thanksgiving is to buy a small turkey, cut it in half when it’s raw and save the rest to cook later. Doherty says with this route, you still “get some of the dark meat,” as well as the whole breast and fixings for gravy.

Try making Cornish game hens

Try making Cornish game hens
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If you can’t find a small turkey, or if you’re not someone who really enjoys leftovers, then try making Cornish game hens instead. Glenn Rolnick, corporate chef of Alicart Restaurant Group, says Cornish game hens are small enough to serve one per person. He recommends that you season them by rubbing the hens with coarse salt, black pepper, granulated onion and garlic, as well as sage and butter, then slow roast them. Rolnick said to serve the cornish hens with seasoned, roasted fingerling or bliss potatoes.

Cook parts of the turkey

Cook parts of the turkey
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The easiest way to get your tryptophan fix without buying a whole bird is to purchase the turkey in portioned cuts such as legs, thighs and single or double lobe breasts. According to Caputo, the only difference between cooking turkey parts versus a whole turkey is the cook time and the pan you choose. “Season as you would normally, cook at the same temperature and remove at 165 degrees on your favorite calibrated meat thermometer,” he says.

Make your sides ahead of time

Make your sides ahead of time
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Meal preparation is a lifesaver no matter the crowd size or occasion you’re cooking for. Jason Goldstein, recipe developer for Chop Happy, says you should prepare your side dishes the day before Thanksgiving. Make the mashed potatoes in a slow cooker ahead of time. When you’re ready to reheat them, Goldstein says to mix the potatoes with a couple tablespoons of butter first. If you want to make your stuffing early too, he recommends that you mix the ingredients on a sheet pan the night before and cook them in the oven for 45 minutes the day of Thanksgiving.

Buy some ingredients pre-prepared

Buy some ingredients pre-prepared
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If you’re preparing a few different dishes for Thanksgiving this year, there’s no need to make everything from scratch. Caputo recommends buying some ingredients pre-prepared instead of using the fresh version. For instance, buy stuffing mixes and chicken stock in a box instead of drying your own bread and stewing your own stock. Caputo says this strategy “could save you some time and money and your meals can still taste delicious.”

Cut side dish recipes in half

Cut side dish recipes in half
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It’s not Thanksgiving without sides. Sure, turkey is the star of the show, but how great would the holiday really be without a bit of carb-loading? Even if you’re planning a small Thanksgiving, there’s no need to go without your favorite side dishes, Doherty says. The chef and restaurant owner suggests you just cut the recipes in half. Cut back the quantities, make enough for leftovers and you’re good to go.

Cook sweet potatoes in the microwave

Cook sweet potatoes in the microwave
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Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to make everything the hard way this year. According to Goldstein, there’s an easy way to get sweet potatoeson the table without going through the long process of roasting them. He says to poke holes in the potatoes with a fork, then cook them in the microwave for eight minutes. Cut the potatoes in half and mix each with butter, maple syrup, salt and pepper.

Use muffin tins for sides

Use a muffin tin for sides
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If you want to limit the number of people touching one dish, or if you want to keep your dinner to one serving per person, Tom Wang, executive chef of King Wang's, has a great idea for you. Wang recommends that you take Thanksgiving staples like stuffing, green bean casserole and sweet potatoes with broiled marshmallows and make them into individual sizes. “By using little ceramic dishes or even aluminum cups, friends and family will be able to take what they want without touching and sharing serving utensils,” he says.

Roast smaller portions of veggies

Roast a small portion of veggies
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Every well-rounded Thanksgiving dinner has some sort of vegetable. But that doesn’t mean you need to chop up and roast a whole pan of carrots, Brussels sprouts and potatoes. Lance Knowling, founder of The Black Chef Series and Lance@Home, says side dishes and veggies are easy to scale back. Knowling recommends having “one roasted sweet potato and a handful of Brussels sprouts or one bunch of baby carrots.” These all “make great holiday side dishes,” he says.

Freeze your stuffing

Freeze your stuffing
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If you’re like us, stuffing is one of your favorite Thanksgiving dishes, and you might even look forward to it more than the turkey. If that’s the case, sprinkle a little bit of normalcy into your holiday dinner and make a full batch. Doherty recommends breaking it up into two backup containers and storing them in the freezer for leftovers. He says the dish will be just as moist, crispy and delicious when it’s reheated as it was the first time around.

Make individual tarts for dessert

Make individual tarts for dessert
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If you don’t see yourself finishing off an entire holiday pie this Thanksgiving, Knowling says you should consider individual tarts for dessert instead. You can buy single-serving tarts from the grocery store or market, he says.

Don’t be afraid of leftovers

Don’t be afraid of leftovers
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One of the greatest parts about Thanksgiving is all of the delicious leftover dishes you can make with the turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and more. From a bobby to a pot pie, the options are truly endless. Which is why Doherty recommends that you don’t shy away from traditional dishes too much, even with a scaled-down menu. “[It’s] really important right now, for what we've all been going through over the last nine or 10 months, to stick with our traditions, even if it means we have a little left over,” he says.

Don’t abandon your traditions

Don’t abandon your traditions
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In the same vein, Doherty believes that abandoning traditions is the biggest mistake people can make when scaling down Thanksgiving this year. The chef and owner says that the traditions you grew up with are “what makes that day special.” Now that you know the best strategies to follow when scaling down your Thanksgiving, be sure to check out our guide for how to plan and cook your Thanksgiving dinner in just one week.

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