24 Tips for a Scaled-Down (but Still Totally Celebratory!) Holiday Dinner

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Fact: Many holiday gatherings will become smaller affairs in 2020. And while not being able to celebrate with loved ones might harsh the holly-jolly vibes you’re used to feeling toward the end of the year, a downsized celebration doesn’t have to be a downer. Sure, you might not need a whole turkey or ham for just you and your partner, or you may consider skipping serving five different pies to your family of four — but making easy tweaks to the classic menu can keep things fun and festive, and maybe even launch new traditions for years to come.

We asked eight professional chefs for ideas for adjusting your celebration without sacrificing the holiday spirit. They even offered up some new ways to make things extra enjoyable that wouldn’t be possible if you were hosting 532 out-of-town guests (give or take). 

Credit: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

Adrianna Adarme, The Year of Cozy author

Prepare individual servings of the classics. Adrianna Adarme suggests you “Buy turkey legs, Disneyland-style,” instead of cooking a full bird. “To make those as delicious as possible, brine them the day before and roast them in the oven,” says the A Cozy Kitchen blogger, who also plans to cook stuffing muffins as a “cute, singular” option that “doesn’t make too many.” 

Try a protein that’s naturally better portioned for a smaller group. The LA-based chef names braised meat, pot roast, short ribs, and lamb shank as solid alternatives to turkey. 

Splurge on something that might not fit a larger-group budget. Think: truffle to sprinkle on mashed potatoes and Wagyu beef. While Adarme loves Wagyu: I can’t afford to feed 20 people Wagyu beef tenderloin,” she says. “But it’s something I can definitely eat with two to four people. If your budget allows, search for better cuts of meat that are more flavorful and interesting.”

Invest in a scale to help adjust recipes. “We’re going to see a lot of recipes being halved and quartered,” she says. “A scale makes everything much easier in terms of dividing.” 

Credit: Sarah Crowley

August DeWindt, cofounder of John’s Juice and co-owner of Fluffy’s NYC

Take the opportunity to try out twists on the classics. One great way to do that? Incorporate flavors from your family’s culture. For August DeWindt, that means putting jerk seasoning on her main dish. “That’ll spice up your turkey or your Cornish hen,” she says.

Cook in ramekins to escalate the presentation — and make it easy to serve small portions. “Serving certain side dishes in ramekins really elevates how the dish looks,” the There’s Food at Home blogger says. “It’s a little fancier.”

Doing a Zoom dinner? Have everyone create a centerpiece together. That way, you’ll get more of a sense of being at the same table. “That’s something I’m going to implement so it won’t feel like you’re too distant from each other,” she says. 

Credit: Olive & Mango

Jenna Heller, personal chef

Pick up inexpensive table decor from the grocery or party store to brighten up the table. The Miami-based cook calls Trader Joe’s her “go-to for little fun touches” that can give the table a more fun and jubilant vibe — even if you and your partner are the only ones there.

But still make it a special meal by breaking out the fancy silverware. Jenna Heller says she likes to use the “beautiful set of gold silverware that my grandma gave me” for the holidays.

Choose foods that actually work better in smaller batches. One possibility: latkes for Hanukkah. “It’s hard to produce them on a large scale because they don’t stay hot, they don’t stay crispy, and they get soggy,” Heller explains. But with a scaled-down gathering, you can make a side dish like latkes a star. Heller likes to dress hers up with crème fraîche, caviar, and smoked salmon.

Set up a DIY cheese tasting or cocktail bar for your family. A fun idea like this could feel overwhelming with a big group, so go for it this year. Ask someone working at your grocery store’s cheese bar for recommendations, or create a make-your-own cocktail bar with innovative garnishes such as cranberries and cinnamon sticks. “Make it feel like you’re doing something interactive and fun,” Heller says.

Credit: Photo: Christine Han | Food Stylist: Jesse Szewczyk

Matt Lewis, co-owner and founder of Baked NYC

Forget fussing with heavy-duty appliances. For an intimate celebration, don’t waste time in the kitchen “taking an appliance out of hiding,” the baker says, adding that many brownie, cake, and cookie recipes don’t require eclectic mixers.

Choose treats that can freeze. Matt Lewis cites brownies and cookie dough as easy ways to bake from the freezer. That way you can make only as much as you need. “And any of the quick breads, especially the ever-present banana bread, freeze and thaw like a charm,” he adds.

Still plan to prep ahead of time. Even though you may only be cooking for a handful of people, Lewis suggests getting everything ready in advance to prevent day-of stress. For example, he recommends building a lasagna early and wrapping it up and refrigerating it. Then you can bake it while hanging out on the holiday.

Preeti Mistry, former head chef and owner of Juhu Beach Club in Oakland, California

Stretch out the Thanksgiving meal. By indulging over the course of one week instead of one night, you can avoid having to both prep and eat a huge meal on a single day. “Instead of killing ourselves on Thursday to eat this meal with a gazillion things, we thought we would spread it out and make all the components special,” the Juhu Beach Club Cookbook author says. “One day we’ll make pumpkin or butternut squash soup, and another day we’ll do something that celebrates the mashed potato.”

Choose a different type of turkey. Preeti Mistry explains that heritage and wild turkeys, as opposed to conventional ones, offer a smaller meat-to-bird ratio. “If you’re getting a conventional turkey, seven to 10 pounds could feed four to six with all of the other things going along with it,” they say. “But if you’re getting a heritage or a wild turkey, it might be a lower number because they don’t breed them for these ginormous breasts and they’re generally leaner animals.”

Antoni Porowski, Queer Eye food expert

If kids won’t be at the table this year, use some booze to kick things up. Antoni Porowski likes to utilize beer and wine for deglazing. “A traditional English thing Nigella Lawson taught me was a pork chop,” Porowski says. “You remove the pork chop, then you put in beer, grainy mustard, and heavy cream or sour cream and you have the most amazing sauce. It’s just tweaking some of the ingredients.” 

Channel cheerful memories through nostalgic dishes. “I’m obsessed with anything that’s nostalgic or makes me think of a happy place,” the Canada native says. “That’s what brings me joy during these times.”

Credit: Lumina/Stocksy

Joe Sasto, former executive sous chef at Lazy Bear in San Francisco 

Wrap traditional holiday flavors into a pasta dish. That way, you’ll simplify prep and avoid overserving. Joe Sasto loves to “use pasta as a vehicle” for his favorite flavors. This holiday season, the former Top Chef competitor will roll the tastes of Thanksgiving into a sweet potato gnocchi topped with toasted white pepper marshmallow and a Bolognese by subbing out the beef and pork for ground turkey. “And then we’re bumping up a lot of those savory herbs like rosemary, sage, and thyme — the warming spices are like a big hug for the holiday,” says Sasto, who will teach you how to make the pasta dish in a virtual cooking session. “You get everything in one and it’s different.”

Make a smaller meal feel fancier by recreating the restaurant experience. Sasto lists warming a plate, chilling your salad fork, lighting a candle, and putting on music as some of the ways you can bring the experience of eating out home. And don’t forget the garnishes. Before chopping up basil, for example, “I’ll take off all those little, beautiful, dainty basil leaves and save those,” he says. “It’s some of those little touches that will remind you of being in a restaurant.”

Ease some of the cooking burden by ordering local. “If someone is considering ordering in from a restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner, don’t even consider anymore — definitely do it,” Sasto says. “Now more than ever, local small businesses need our support, and anything we can do as a community to support them is a huge step in the [right] direction.”

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Michael Symon, restaurateur and celebrity chef

Do some turkey calculations. As a rule of thumb, the operator of Angeline by Michael Symon at the Borgata in Atlantic City advises allocating two pounds of turkey for each person.

Make small pies in muffin tins. Since Michael Symon will be paring down his large holiday gatherings of 20-plus people, he anticipates making individual desserts, like tarts and pumpkin pies, in creme brûlée containers in place of large versions. The former co-host of The Chew also plans to whip up pecan pies in muffin tins by pressing the crust into the muffin tin and then filling it with the pie filling. Bonus: “They freeze very well,” Symon says. 

Share the love. If you still want to prep a big meal or make it feel like you and your family are enjoying the same dishes while on your Zoom call, go for it — and then spread the wealth. “There’s some things we’re still going to make a decent amount of and drop off at our friends’ houses,” Symon says. “People that would usually be at Thanksgiving but aren’t this year.” 

The Home for the Holidays vertical was written and edited independently by the Apartment Therapy and The Kitchn editorial teams and generously underwritten by Cointreau.