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Used to Going Big? How to Enjoy a Downsized Holiday Meal

Pared-back menus, less cooking puts the focus on family — in person or virtually

spinner image Cheerful elderly Asian man and woman smiling and greeting friend while making video call on smartphone and cooking in kitchen
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Holiday meals, at their essence, are about gathering people together. But in pandemic times, a major scaling down of invitees — not to mention recipes — is likely to be the norm for celebrations this November and December.

"Everyone is talking about the new Thanksgiving this year,” says Cynthia Graubart, the James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and cooking teacher who recently published Thanksgiving Dinner for Two (or Four): Downsized Recipes for Today's Smaller Thanksgiving Dinner. “Many people aren't traveling to be with family, and they're feeling sad about it.”

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5 Tips to Help Keep Things Special on a Smaller Scale

  • Make the atmosphere as much a priority as the food.
  • Use the good china if you feel like it. If the weather permits, move the party outside to a candlelit table for something different.
  • Simplify things for the chef while keeping it special by considering a soup bar, ice cream sundae bar and the like.
  • Downsize from your usual 15 holiday dishes to the five you love best.
  • Incorporate one family recipe, if you have it, that everyone enjoys.

But that's no reason not to celebrate and connect. Graubart, who lives in Atlanta, says she and her husband have planned a virtual cooking date with two other couples, who will be tuning in from their own kitchens on Thanksgiving Day over Zoom.

If ever there was a year to give yourself a break from the stress of cooking for a crowd — and more time to be in the moment enjoying the people you're with — the time is now.

Think outside of the usual holiday meal box

"Nobody wants to roast a 20-pound turkey for two people,” says Graubart, who suggests considering cooking individual Cornish game hens (available in the freezer section of most supermarkets) for your holiday meal.

"They kind of look like cute little turkeys, and they're special because they're not something you have all the time,” she says, “Plus, they roast beautifully, are super flavorful and stay moist.”

Graubart also suggests frozen turkey breast and turkey thighs as a downsized way to bring the iconic poultry to the holiday table, with enough left over for turkey sandwiches the next day, but no leftover overload. Graubart's cookbook features an easy recipe for turkey thighs with mushrooms and sage. She's advising people to buy smaller cuts of turkey and other meats early as “there's going to be a demand for these smaller items this year.”

If you're willing to go a bit further in parting with the idea of a traditional holiday meal, consider hosting a fondue night with your partner or just a few guests in a cozy outdoor setting, suggests Marcey Brownstein, who runs a catering business in New York City.

"A lot of people have these fondue pots they never use, and it's a real fun and interactive way to enjoy a meal together,” says Brownstein, adding that heaters and cozy throw blankets can be incorporated into an outdoor dining space to make it all the more inviting.

Consider adding a catering spin to your holiday meal with a soup bar and a spread of toppings such as handmade croutons and lardoons, Brownstein says. With the freedom to do things differently, she says, why not pass on apple pie in favor of an ice cream sundae bar for dessert?

"Rather than looking at this as a bummer, look at these things we can do that we don't normally have a chance to do,” says Brownstein. “You can really be with your guests and be with your family when you're not worrying about serving 20 or 30 people.”

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Prioritize the experience

It's true that large holiday meals require intense preparation — and for the people who've been working tirelessly in the kitchen since daybreak, relaxing and enjoying with guests usually comes secondary to the logistics of making sure everything is properly cooked and presented.

"Food is important, but it's the family experience that far outweighs what's on the table,” says Alex Pyser, chef de cuisine of Sear + Sea restaurant at the JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa in Orlando, Florida.

"There's no shame in turning away from the stereotypical holiday meal,” he says, but the good vibes of being together, even if it's just a few people, or by connecting virtually, hardly needs to be sacrificed.

Rather than a paper-plate meal where everyone serves themselves from the counter in the kitchen and arrives at the table at different times (often the norm for big, harried family meals), fewer guests make it easy for everyone to sit at the table and eat together. Spread the dishes across the middle of the table and delegate one person to serve everyone to make it all the more intimate.

"Things like that can make the experience a little more meaningful,” says Pyser.

If you usually avoid bringing out the good china and silverware because you don't want to ready the entire set (or risk younger guests breaking a treasured heirloom), a downsized affair offers the opportunity to add some extra elegance to your table while ironing just a few linen napkins and prepping limited silverware settings.

"Everyone always wants to do this stuff, but it can be overwhelming when it's too many people,” Brownstein says. “It's a lot easier to polish just a few settings versus a table full of silverware.”

And if you don't want to give up tradition, of course, there's no reason you should, says Graubart.

"Now is the perfect time to look at those family favorite recipes and your Thanksgiving memories,” she says. “It's a lot easier to cut down a recipe for fewer servings than to multiply it up.”

Find ways to involve loved ones who can't make it

Zoom burnout is all around us. But if any time is a good time to resurrect video chat, it's during your holiday meals to connect with those who aren't with you in person.

"I can foresee a holiday meal with a laptop and camera set up with a place setting in front of it at the table so you can look over while you're eating and see your family member,” says Pyser.

If you're worried that might interrupt the rhythm of real-life meals, you could also consider scheduling a specific time for everyone to gather virtually for a holiday toast or to cook a beloved family recipe. Zoom has lifted its time limit this year for those who don't pay for the service.

Brand USA and Airbnb recently teamed up to launch new USA Country Collection of Online Experiences, in case you're looking to gather virtually with family while doing something totally out of the box together (yet apart). The offerings for Thanksgiving Day include group pad thai cooking lessons, drawing lessons with a New York artist and a lesson in the Zen art of rock balancing.

And don't forget, an old-fashioned phone call can also do the trick.

"Call the people you're usually with on that day, reminisce about the great holiday meals you've had,” says Graubart. “We're going to be gathering again, it's just not going to be this year.”