How to Plan Thanksgiving Dinner for a Smaller Group
Even though many Thanksgiving recipes are developed to serve large crowds, cooking the holiday meal for a table of six or less can be an exceptionally special treat. Here are our best tricks for scaling the menu down.
Thanksgiving is different for everyone. Some people have long tables that have to get set up down hallways or in the garage to accommodate all of their guests. There are houses that have not just a kids table, but also a teenage table and a twenty-somethings’ table. I know one family who has to put up a heated tent in their backyard and cooks something like eight or ten turkeys for the holiday.
But not everyone has a cast of thousands to address on the day. Some people are making Thanksgiving for only their immediate family, which might just be themselves and their partner or spouse, or maybe up to six people total. Most recipes for Thanksgiving are designed to serve eight to twelve people, if not more. And no butcher will be able to find you a turkey smaller than ten pounds; twelve is usually the minimum at the grocery store.
So how do you effectively and festively get this meal on the table when your table will require no extra leaves? Simply and elegantly.
For starters, congrats! Not having to serve the entire 144th air battalion means that your meal can be both more manageable and a bit more upscale. Those fancy fussy recipes like stuffed mini pumpkins, or souffles, or complicated decoration of pie crusts that always seem so cool? Totally do-able if you don’t have to make three dozen of them. You can splurge out on the organic produce if you want. Black truffles and Piedmontese chestnuts in your stuffing? Sure, when you are only making one small pan’s worth! Get the better-quality wine or the craft beer, add a bottle of Madeira or sherry or port to serve with dessert, treat yourselves to the good stuff.
Here are some tips and tricks to help make things easier.
Set Your Menu
When menu planning for a small Thanksgiving crowd, think extravagant dinner party. A simple appetizer, main course of protein with three to four sides plus condiments, some sort of bread on the table, and a dessert or two. If your guests are game, pick a theme—whether it is super retro-traditional or globally influenced, a themed dinner is always a fun play.
Let’s Talk Turkey
First off, do you have to have turkey? Will anyone at your table be completely dejected if there is no turkey? If you have a flexible group, and at this size it is easy to poll them, think outside the box. A small prime rib is really festive, as is a stuffed pork loin or crown roast of lamb. If it doesn’t have to be turkey but does need to be a bird, duck or goose are lovely options. I’m a huge fan of a capon for these meals, which is essentially a giant chicken that looks like a small turkey, so you get all the look of a substantial bird, without having fourteen pounds of it leftover. And all of these pair well with the rest of the traditional meal.
If you absolutely must have turkey, do you need both white and dark meat? A turkey breast is manageable if no one needs a drumstick. Or buy the 14-16 pound turkey and ask your butcher to halve it for you right down the middle of the breastbone, giving you two 7-8 pound turkey halves. If you don’t have a food saver vacuum sealer, wrap one half well in plastic wrap followed by a layer of foil, and then place it in a large zip-top bag so that you can freeze it for another occasion. Then roast the other half according to whatever recipe you like. It will cook more evenly than a whole turkey and give you some of everything.
Decide on the Sides
For potatoes, plan on one large or two small potatoes worth of mash per person, or one medium sweet potato. Most stuffing recipes can be halved with no loss of quality. If you find recipes that mathematically cannot be shifted (the chemistry inherent to baking is complicated for this), you can often freeze half of the batch of rolls and other breadstuffs. And sometimes, you can even freeze the raw dough for fresh baking another time. This certainly holds true for pie crust. For vegetable sides, such as roasted Brussels sprouts or spiced carrots, assume about a quarter pound per person.
A Small But Sweet Finish
Desserts, even for a small group, are a really lovely part of Thanksgiving, so don’t skimp, but if you want to offer more than one item, think smaller. Many pie recipes can be halved and baked in 6-inch pie plates or tins instead of 9- or 10-inch. A two-layer, 9-inch cake recipe will make three 6-inch cakes, and you can make a one-layer cake for the meal, and freeze the other two layers for a future dinner party. Or make one really special dessert that can be served with some bonus options, like an apple pie that can be served with your choice of cheddar cheese, butter pecan ice cream, cinnamon whipped cream, caramel sauce, praline almonds…everyone can customize their slice, or try a little of everything.
Pre-packing leftovers is a great trick, especially if you have chosen dishes that serve double your number of guests and cannot be reduced down. As things are finished cooking, either pack half of it up immediately into large containers for yourself, or if your guests are not living with you, separate into deli container portions so that your guests all get a lovingly packed bag of leftovers to take home. And by the time they leave, the leftovers will have already been safely chilled down in the fridge for transport.
The best part of a small Thanksgiving? You can have real, meaningful connection with everyone present, and one conversation at the table instead of a dozen. You’ll have plenty of elbow room, no one has to be on the wonky folding chair or piano stool, and you can eat off of the good china. All anyone needs for a wonderful day is good food and drink, good company, good conversation, and plenty of gratitude.