Part of what makes Thanksgiving, well, Thanksgiving is that it’s a meal with many chairs around the table. Family members often travel far and wide to share green bean casserole and stuffing with loved ones they don’t see very often. And even for those who celebrate with friends locally instead, it still tends to be a major event—the table crowded with potluck dishes and the recycling bin full of empty wine bottles at the end of the night.

Thanks to COVID-19 (and the current spike in cases around the U.S.), most health experts agree that big gatherings shouldn’t be happening this year. But that doesn’t mean Thanksgiving is “canceled.” It just means that it’ll be celebrated on a smaller scale, which absolutely comes with some perks: less food to cook, fewer questions about your personal life from nosy relatives, and reduced time washing dishes and cleaning up.

But a smaller gathering does have its challenges. It might be your first time handling holiday cooking solo. There’s also the question of how to prepare all the dishes you love at Thanksgiving without ending up with too many leftovers (or worse, food waste). And, of course, there’s certainly the fact that not being with those who you normally celebrate with can be emotionally difficult. Need some advice? Here, experts share how to host a small Thanksgiving full of meaning, without ending up with more leftovers than you can fit in your freezer.

First, let’s talk practicalities

Ellen Hockley-Harrison, the CEO of social- and eco-conscious event planning company Greater Good Events, says there are two central questions to consider when hosting an intimate dinner and you want to be mindful of food waste: what to cook and how much to make.

Hockley-Harrison points out that people tend to feel very strongly about what they like to eat on Thanksgiving—and those are the dishes to focus on. “Ask everyone who is coming what dish they look forward to most,” she says. “You may find you can do without some of the dishes that are normally made just for the sake of tradition. For example, when I’ve asked people what Thanksgiving food they love the most, hardly anyone says turkey. Maybe you don’t do a turkey this year!”

If you are planning on making turkey, Hockley-Harrison says to choose a smaller-sized bird so you don’t end up with a surplus of leftovers. She also says you may want to consider cooking with canned goods or frozen foods instead of buying everything fresh. That way, if you end up with more than you need, the cans can sit in your pantry until you’re ready to use them.

Once you have your menu figured out, the second step is knowing how much of each food to make. “Often with Thanksgiving, people make big servings of everything but to minimize food waste, I would plan on making enough of each dish for everyone to have two servings and that’s it,” Hockley-Harrison says.

Looking for Thanksgiving menu inspo? Here’s how a dietitian loads her plate on Turkey Day: 



How to make sure it’s meaningful for everyone at the table

Whether you’re celebrating with your immediate family or with your quarantine pod of friends, it’s important to be mindful of the fact that Thanksgiving dinner may not be how everyone expected this year—and that can be a really hard reality.

Family therapist and Advekit co-founder Alison LaSov, LMFT, says Thanksgiving this year may require thinking outside the box. “Creativity is what we’re all honing in 2020,” she says. She points out that just because you may not be in-person with loved ones, that doesn’t mean you can’t still call them or celebrate virtually. This could look like Facetiming before you sit down to eat or using a video app like Marco Polo to send a group short videos of how each dish is coming along as you cook. “There are still ways to stay connected,” LaSov emphasizes.

Therapist and The Sunny Side Up! author Lauren Cook, PhD, says you can also get creative. “Something we’re doing in my family is crafting a little tree where we write on each paper leaf something we’re grateful for, and we’re going to share it over Zoom with our extended family members,” she says. “This is a great time to think creatively about how you express gratitude for people you care about. Maybe you send them something you made, or even just a card.”

Besides being separated by distance, many people are grappling with a deeper sense of loss this year. Jennifer Verdolin, PhD, who writes about what animals can teach us about human connection, says that ritual is an important way to honor those who have passed away. “When an elephant dies, the other elephants aggregate and caress the bones; it’s a ritual of sorts,” she says. “It can be healing to think of a Thanksgiving ritual you can do with the others you are spending the day with to honor those you have lost,” she says. Dr. Verdolin says this may even relate to what you plan to cook that day, such as a recipe passed down from a family member who passed away this year.

The reality is that Thanksgiving this year isn’t going to look like how it normally does, but Dr. Cook says that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. “COVID-19 is forcing us to think a little more creatively about how we express gratitude this year and it’s actually a chance to start new traditions,” she says. It’s a sentiment that’s sure to outlast the pandemic.

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