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Credit: Joe Lingeman

Here’s How to Scale Down Your Thanksgiving Dinner, According to Chefs

updated Nov 6, 2020
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This year’s Thanksgiving celebrations will look a little different for many families. With coronavirus cases rising nationwide, more than a third of people are planning to spend Thanksgiving with fewer people this year, and 26% say they’re planning to purchase less food, according to a new survey from email marketing platform Klaviyo. If you’re used to cooking for a crowd or have never cooked a Thanksgiving meal at all, this may present a challenge. To help you out, we asked a handful of chefs from around the country for their best tips for scaling down the traditional Thanksgiving meal so you don’t end up with tons of leftovers or food waste.

Cooking a smaller Thanksgiving feast may seem tricky. Rhonda Plummer, a private chef and owner of Cater2U San Francisco, says not planning ahead is the biggest mistake you can make. “Make your menu ahead of time,” she says. “By doing this, you ensure you have everything you need in the correct portion sizes.”

Think of it as a regular family dinner, not an epic feast, says Dana Murrell, head of culinary development at HelloFresh. “Chances are you’ve cooked for your close family or friends before, so rely on that experience rather than getting caught up in the technicality that it’s Thanksgiving.” 

Credit: Joe Lingeman

When It Comes to Your Turkey, Think Small (No, Smaller)

Fifteen pounds is the average size turkey typically purchased on Thanksgiving. Smaller ones may be available, but if you can’t find one, your butcher or grocery store meat counter may let you order half a turkey, or they can cut a turkey in half for you. Stick one half in the freezer for later, says Sam Marvin, founder and executive chef of Echo & Rig in Las Vegas and Sacramento, California, and roast the other half for Thanksgiving, following your usual turkey recipe (although, it might not take as long). 

Another option: Buy a just a bone-in turkey breast or turkey leg, depending on your preference for white or dark meat, Marvin says. Nina Compton, chef and owner of Compère Lapin in New Orleans, agrees. “It’s very easy to get carried away with the turkey,” she says. “My advice is to buy turkey breast and legs if you’re scaling Thanksgiving to a small gathering. It’s easier to prepare, and there will be plenty.”

Try a recipe: How To Cook a Turkey Breast

You could also skip the turkey altogether, and make a goose, prime rib, roast chicken, or ham instead. Whatever you cook for Thanksgiving, Marvin says, “Just make sure it’s a special occasion.”

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Make Your Stuffing in Muffin Tins This Year

Stuffing (or dressing) is a favorite Thanksgiving side. To avoid having too much left over, Adrienne Cheatham, a chef at the Institute of Culinary Education, suggests thinking about how much your crew will realistically eat. Remember, you don’t need to make a giant pan of stuffing, she says, “You can cook it in a muffin tin for individual servings.”

Try a recipe: Stuffin’ Muffins from Delish

Cut stuffing recipes by reducing ingredient quantities in half or quarters, based on the number of servings you need, Cheatham says. As a guide, Plummer says she uses half a cup of cornbread per person, 1/3 cup of the remaining ingredients, two eggs, and seasoning to taste.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Get Creative with Your Gravy Leftovers

Making a small amount of gravy can be tricky, so it may be easier to make a quart or so, and plan ahead to use the leftovers. And, you don’t actually need to cook a turkey to have gravy for your Thanksgiving meal. Whisk up a simple gravy using onions, a roux, broth, and fresh herbs. Make it vegetarian by using vegetable stock. 

If you are making a turkey, it will typically come with the giblets, gizzards, and neck, and Marvin says that’s the “perfect amount of everything to make gravy.” He suggests sautéing these turkey parts with onions, celery and carrot, and then adding flour and stock. It should make about a quart of gravy.

Try a recipe: How to Make Turkey Gravy

Freeze any leftovers. “That gravy would be great with biscuits for breakfast,” Marvin says.

Another tip: Using a 50-50 broth-to-gravy ratio, add extra gravy to soups to make them richer, Murrell says.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Scale Down Your Mashed Potatoes with Some Simple Math

Two potatoes per person is a good rule, Cheatham says. “It’ll bulk up by whatever [else] you add — butter, milk, etc.” The fat added to mashed potatoes makes them freezer-friendly, too, and she suggests using defrosted mashed potatoes to thicken soups.

Read more: How To Make Mashed Potatoes for Just Two People

If you don’t feel like freezing leftover spuds, Murrell says plan for ways to use mashed potatoes in other dishes. Mix them into bread dough or as a shepherd’s pie topping.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Only Make Your Favorite Vegetables for Thanksgiving This Year

Large Thanksgiving dinners could feature 10 different side dishes. When making a smaller meal, choose only your favorites to cut down on leftovers and waste. “Think of the fact that there will be multiple sides, and you can’t eat everything,” Cheatham says.

To make less, cook two sweet potatoes and two to three carrots per person, she says. For greens like collards or kale, Plummer recommends two bunches for each guest. And, Compton suggests 3-4 ounces of green beans per person.

Cut Your Roll and Bread Recipes in Half

Most bread recipes are easy to scale. Cut ingredients in half or make mini loaves, says Angela Garbacz, chef and owner of Goldenrod Pastries in Lincoln, Nebraska, and author of the book Perfectly Golden. Bake smaller quantities of bread at the temperature called for in the recipe, but keep an eye on them since they might not need to bake as long.

Try a recipe: Mini White Breads from Taste of Home

Making a full recipe and freezing extras for later also works well, Garbacz says, “You can really freeze just about anything, even your dinner rolls.” Bake them first, though. She says they’ll freeze better than raw dough. Bring rolls to room temperature before baking to reheat.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Don’t Even Think of Scaling Down on Pie (Just Freeze Your Leftovers)

If you can’t narrow down which of your favorite Thanksgiving pies and treats you want, Garbacz says make them all. “Maybe you’re not scaling the size of the actual product, but you’re just letting the holiday go on for a little bit longer,” she says.

You can always freeze leftover pumpkin, pecan, or sweet potato pies, and cakes. Cut them into slices first, and place the slices back in the pie or cake pan or wrap them individually. “Since we’re home more [now], you can pull out those pieces as you need a little comforting snack throughout the week,” she says.

If you do want to make less, Compton suggests turning full-sized pies into individual-sized tarts. Or, make smaller-portioned desserts with Thanksgiving flavors. Pumpkin budino works well for small family Thanksgivings, she says, “The flavor is terrific, and you can serve them individually in ramekins or bowls.”

2020 Is Stressful Enough — Don’t Make Thanksgiving Harder than It Needs to Be

With 2020 full of so much uncertainty, sticking to Thanksgiving traditions can bring a sense of comfort and normalcy to families. No matter what you choose to make for Thanksgiving, finding ways to scale it all lets you enjoy your favorite dishes, without so many leftovers that may go to waste, says Garbacz.

 “We all just want something really comforting right now,” she explains. “And so scaling back can mean making a little bit less, making it smaller, or just finding ways to preserve the stuff that you did make.”