Growing up in a small Manhattan apartment, I learned how to shimmy up kitchen counters instead of trees; rather than picking apples, I plucked "hidden" Halloween candy off the top of the fridge. Learning to navigate the kitchen of my childhood home was a little like mastering parkour, and I had it down to a Jean-Claude Van Damme-level science. Structured like a hallway, the kitchen was so narrow that you couldn't pass through it if the fridge, oven, or dishwasher was open (and, of course, there was only enough space to open one at any given time). Over time, we developed a tacit understanding that more than two people in the kitchen would inevitably end in smashed toes, broken dishes, enraged outbursts, or some combination thereof.
Since leaving the, shall we say, "cozy," confines of my parents' home, I've learned that not everybody has a kitchen with such "personality" (and, of course, some people have it much, much worse). Which is why potluck-style Thanksgiving etiquette can be exceedingly hard to lock down and deciding what to bring to somebody else's home can prove anxiety-inducing for guests and hosts alike.
Whether it's been left open-ended or you've been assigned a dish, step one should always be the same: Find out what kind of space will be available to you. There's nothing more embarrassing (for you) or annoying (to the host) than showing up demanding cooking utensils and precious stovetop real estate without prior confirmation. Oh, and if that available space is an oven, please don't arrive with a casserole you "have" to bake at exactly 325ºF when there's a chance that everyone else will need the temperature set to 400. It's not a good look.
Feeling the pressure yet? You're welcome. To make things a little easier, we've split some of our favorite travel-friendly Thanksgiving sides into easy-to-manage categories, from ready-to-eat to easy on-site preparations.
Ready to Eat: Roasted Sweet Potato Salad With Chutney Vinaigrette
Toss these earthy sweet potatoes with olive oil, salt, cumin, and ginger and roast them for just thirty minutes. Dressed in a garlicky mango chutney and garnished with toasted almonds and dried cranberries, they make for a welcome (though no less hearty or seasonal) change of pace from the typically over-sweetened side. Better yet, this dish is meant to be eaten at room temperature—just put it in your serving dish of choice, cover it with aluminum foil, and hit the road!
Microwave Reheat: Caramelized Vidalia Onion Mashed Potatoes
When the host is busy frantically running from oven to stovetop, it can win you major points to bring along a dish like mashed potatoes that needs little more than a zap in the microwave to be ready to serve. Here, the mash is further enriched by caramelized onions, with an extra-creamy texture thanks to butter, milk, sour cream, and a touch of cream cheese. Microwave them uncovered in 30 second intervals, stirring until they've reached the desired temperature. Have more room? You can also use a slow-cooker or cover the dish with foil and stick it in the oven—they're so forgiving that any method works!
Assemble On-Site: Cobb Salad-Inspired Brussels Sprouts With Lemon Vinaigrette
Half flash-fried, half raw, this fresh take on brussels sprouts marries the shredded greens with blue cheese, tomato, and pancetta. Unlike some salads that require refrigeration, this one's best enjoyed at room temperature, so you can combine all the dry ingredients at home and leave it tucked away in the most convenient location until dinnertime. The tart, lemony vinaigrette is easy to make ahead and store; when you're ready to eat, just transfer it to the salad and give it all a quick toss.
Finish in the Oven: Swiss Chard, Fennel, and White Bean Gratin
Casseroles and gratins are one of the most manageable Thanksgiving sides—nearly all the work can be done ahead of time and they even bake in their very own serving dish. Plan ahead, and you can cook down the creamy filling of fennel, onion, white beans, and swiss chard on Wednesday and refrigerate it overnight. Come Thanksgiving, you'll be able to transport the cooled mixture in a casserole dish; just reserve the topping of breadcrumbs and cheese in a small container or ziplock bag. Once you arrive, all you'll need to do is add the crumbs and bake the gratin alongside the turkey (or even while it rests) for about 30 minutes, until the surface is a crisp golden-brown.
Finish on the Stovetop: Sautéed Green Beans With Mushrooms and Caramelized Cipollini Onions
Have the time and space to dart into the kitchen for a quick sauté? A deconstructed rendition of a classic green bean casserole favors concentrated flavor over a dose of heavy cream. Blanch your green beans, caramelize your onions, and cook down your mushrooms ahead of time. When you arrive, just combine all the ingredients and reheat them in a skillet with a squeeze of lemon juice—you'll only be in the way for a matter of minutes. Just don't forget to wash the pan!
Oven Reheat: Classic Sage and Sausage Stuffing (or Dressing)
Leftover stuffing is one of my favorite things, which is how I know that it keeps especially well. You can assemble and bake the entire dish at home; just reserve yourself 15 minutes in the oven to heat it all the way through and crisp up the top before serving. And yes, that goes for pretty much any stuffing—I just happen to be a sucker for the classic.
Dessert: Extra Smooth Pumpkin Pie
Most desserts—and especially pies—are travel-friendly, but I went with this extra-smooth pumpkin pie because, frankly, I love it (it's loaded with cream cheese—how could I not?). This one's also especially manageable, since it's meant to be served at room temperature. Make it a day or two before turkey day and store it in the fridge—by the time you've reached your destination and finished the meal, it'll be the perfect temperature for eating.
If you thought you got off easy when you were asked to bring booze until you walked into the liquor store and froze in indecisive paralysis, worry not. We've got Thanksgiving guides for wines, beers, ciders, and more! Just pick your poison:
- 15 Delicious Red Wines for Thanksgiving »
- 14 Great White Wines for Thanksgiving »
- 8 Great Sparkling Wines for Thanksgiving »
- The Serious Eats Guide to Thanksgiving Beer Pairing »
- The Serious Eats Guide to Thanksgiving Cider Pairing »
About the author: Niki Achitoff-Gray is the associate editor of Serious Eats and a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She's pretty big into pizza. Also, she likes offal. A lot.