Thanksgiving Made Small(er): Tips and Recipes for a Scaled Down Menu

Overhead view of red wine-braised turkey legs on a white plate next to a pot of gravy.

[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

If there's one word that’s rarely synonymous with Thanksgiving, it's "small." Just look at our guide to the holiday, and the endless parade of recipes and large roasts. This year, however, most of us will be experiencing the holiday on a much reduced scale due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But just because we're cooking for fewer mouths doesn’t mean we have to miss out on any of the best parts of a Thanksgiving meal. You can still have it all—the tender turkey, fresh salad, creamy potatoes, rich sweet potatoes, a homemade green bean casserole, and any dessert your heart desires—just...less of it.* Here are recipes and tips for putting together a Thanksgiving menu that hits all the classic notes, but without the mountains of untouched leftovers.

*For those not too attached to the idea of a very traditional Thanksgiving meal, might we also suggest checking out our Korean-American Banchan Thanksgiving spread, which features a whole host of smaller dishes to go alongside two different turkey-parts recipes. You can make as many or as few of the sides as you want to scale the meal up or down, and make either of the turkey recipes or both, depending on your level of ambition and party size.

Starters

Roast butternut squash soup in serving bowl.

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

One easy way to hit a Thanksgiving meal's needed autumnal notes without too much effort is with a soup as a first course. This creamy pumpkin soup with brown butter and thyme tastes as sweet as pumpkin pie, but with a more complex, caramelized flavor, achieved by roasting the pumpkin and ditching the fall spices. This helps concentrate the squash's natural flavor, yielding a simple, savory-sweet soup that's more fitting for dinner than dessert.

A classic butternut squash soup is another great option. It, too, calls for roasting the squash for deeper flavor, but rounds it out with a restrained use of cinnamon and nutmeg and tops the bowl with woodsy sage leaves frizzled in butter.

Turkey (Or a Different Bird)

Sous vide turkey breast with crispy skin and gravy on a plate

[Photograph: Liz Clayman]

The easiest way to scale down your turkey is to approach the bird in parts. If your preference leans toward the breast, our sous vide turkey breast is a great option. It offers deep, roasted flavors and perfectly cooked meat along with extra-crispy skin, all while freeing up your oven for other tasks. For a more Mediterranean flavor (and without the sous vide), you could also try our turkey porchetta, which is butterflied, seasoned with garlic, fennel, black pepper, and more, then rolled, tied with twine, and roasted in its own skin.

For those who prefer dark meat, our red wine-braised turkey legs are moist, tender, and packed with flavor, thanks to red wine, stock, and aromatic vegetables. Or go in with your hands on these plump and juicy smothered turkey wings that are swimming in dark gravy.

If you just can’t be bothered with turkey this year, we have 15 recipes for smaller birds, like duck, goose, quail, Cornish hens, and, of course, chicken. Our go-to is a spatchcocked roast chicken, which makes a modest, less fussy alternative to the whole shebang. It yields juicy, evenly-cooked meat with extra-crispy skin—not too far of a cry from your average Thanksgiving turkey.

Cranberry Sauce and Gravy

Bowl of homemade cranberry sauce

[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Attempting to scale down some recipes just doesn't make much sense. Take our gravy and cranberry sauce recipes as examples. Our savory and glossy turkey gravy recipe yields three cups after reduction, which, yes, is enough for a full-sized bird, but is also a totally acceptable quantity to dress a less ambitious spread. One note: If you don't have trimmings like the neck from a whole turkey, you can substitute with a pound or so of chicken wings instead.

As for the cranberry sauce, it couldn’t be easier to make, and, since it uses the full one-pound bag most cranberries come in, there's not much reason to make less (unless you have some really important idea for what to do with the other half of that bag?). All you need is sugar, orange juice and zest, and cinnamon to complement the tartness of the berries; whatever is left over is great as a condiment on sandwiches, toast, or stirred into the liquid base of a very autumnal braise.

Stuffing (And Stuffing-Adjacent)

Stuffing in baking dish.

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

No Thanksgiving meal is complete without stuffing, but you don’t have to make a full casserole dish. This classic sage and sausage stuffing can be made in a 10-inch cast iron or carbon steel skillet by dividing the ingredients in half, and using two eggs instead of three. You’ll get just the right amount of sausage-studded stuffing with crisp edges and a browned exterior.

Then, of course, there's the stuffin's route (or are they muffings?). Crispy on the outside and moist on the inside, these individual serving–sized stuffing muffins are studded with sausage, flavored with sage, and, because they're baked in a muffin tin, can be scaled down accordingly (technically the instructions call for a full recipe of stuffing baked in two muffin tins, but you can halve the recipe and use a single muffin tin as described on the recipe page).

Another creative option? Kill two birds with one bread by smashing rolls and stuffing into one with these pull-apart stuffing rolls. They feature soft and tender doughy knots baked with sausage, herbs, and aromatics.

Potatoes, Sweet and Savory

Overhead view of hasselback potato gratin in a casserole dish.

[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Many potato sides can easily be scaled down if desired. With our crispy roast potatoes, the preparation will remain the same, but roasting time may be shorter due to less potatoes on your baking sheet, so make sure to keep an eye on them (although, if we're being honest, we've never had trouble finishing the whole batch even for a regular weeknight meal, so you might just want to make the whole lot of 'em).

If choosing a creamy hasselback potato gratin, simply divide all the ingredients by two and reach for a 10-inch skillet instead of a baking dish. As for mashed potatoes, they're usually the first to finish, so we recommend preparing the recipe as-is and loading up your plate. The same goes for our mashed sweet potatoes, which can easily be made ahead of time to free you up on the big day. That said, both mashes can be scaled down without trouble.

If candied yams that are silky, tender, and glazed to perfection are your jam, our recipe makes a reasonable amount. For a smaller, not-too-sweet sweet potato casserole (our recipe incorporates brown butter, ginger, woodsy herbs, and tangy dairy for a savory balance), you’ll want to keep the same amount of marshmallows but cut the rest of the ingredients in half, then pack it all into an eight-inch skillet.

Vegetable Sides and Salads

Overhead view of warm Brussels sprouts salad with bacon and hazelnut vinaigrette on a white plate with a fork.

[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

If you’re hoping to sneak some greens into your Thanksgiving meal, salads are easy to prepare in small amounts. Our warm Brussels sprouts salad is perfect for fall, dressed with a vinaigrette made with warm bacon fat, shallots, honey, and sherry vinegar that pairs well with the sweet, nutty char of the sprouts.

For a brighter preparation, try our winter greens salad. The sweet acidity from the citrus contrasts nicely with the fennel and winter greens, making it a light and bright accompaniment to your otherwise rich holiday meal.

When it comes to a good ol’ green bean casserole, meanwhile, it can easily be made smaller in much the same way—by splitting the ingredients in half and using a 10-inch skillet. What’s best is that the scaling doesn’t sacrifice quality, leaving you with a casserole that incorporates fresh green beans, freshly fried onions, and a homemade mushroom sauce—none of the canned stuff in sight.

Dessert

Overhead view of pumpkin pie.

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

A pie is a pie—having leftovers is a treat rather than a problem. In lieu of scaling it down, we recommend making it as-is so that seconds are an easy (and encouraged!) option. We have no shortage of Thanksgiving pie recipes, but you can never go wrong with a classic pumpkin one.

Meanwhile, our pecan pie is loaded with deep, rich flavor and lots of crunch. And depending on how you like your apple pie, you can try Stella’s old-fashioned one, with a thick, glossy filling, or Kenji’s gooey version that can be made with the help of sous vide cooking.

Pie may be the peak of easiness according to the cliché, but an apple crisp is much easier, and (dare we say it?) possibly even better. It provides everything you could want in a fall dessert—soft, tender fruit; a buttery topping; and a hint of spice to make everything nice—all in a fraction of the time. Using a mixture of different varieties of apples, plus a crisp topping of toasted pecans, raw sugar, lemon zest, and grated nutmeg, results in plenty of textural contrast and complexity of flavor.

Of course, if you're not a fan of pie and pie-adjacent desserts, we have an abundance of other Thanksgiving dessert options to try, like a rich and creamy tiramisu or a decadent brown butter carrot cake. Beyond that, there are plenty of single-serve desserts to turn to. Our no-bake chocolate verrines are like chocolate cheesecake in a cup. Vanilla bean panna cotta is a delicate, luxurious dessert that pairs well with fresh fruit. And you can never go wrong with a chocolate mousse—our version is silky, smooth, and completely egg-free.