3 Steps for a Festive and Manageable Thanksgiving Meal for Small Families


Thanksgiving dinner is a wonderful time for families to get together, but it’s also a ton of work!

Growing up, my grandmother was in charge of cooking a grand Thanksgiving feast for our entire extended family. She spent so much time and effort making a huge variety of traditional dishes each and every year. She would make two different kinds of dressing because some people liked it one way and others preferred a different way. I have great memories of Thanksgivings past, but now my family has scattered across the country.

To be honest, I don’t have the patience to prepare and cook that much food. Also, the reality is that most of the food would get thrown out anyway because we don’t have enough people in our home to eat it all. On top of that, my kids are rather picky about what they eat.

Instead of anxiously maintaining old traditions and endless sides, pies, and work, try changing up Thanksgiving to better suit your family. My small family has no need for a giant feast. Here are my top three tips for a festive and manageable Thanksgiving meal for small families.

small white gourd on a stack of fancy plates showing a silly example of a manageable Thanksgiving meal for small families.

1. You don’t need to cook an entire turkey for your main course

You don’t even need to cook turkey at all. My kids aren’t fond of turkey, so they are definitely not going to eat leftovers. I don’t generally have room for a giant turkey to defrost in my refrigerator anyway. If your family does like turkey, just roast a boneless turkey breast. It’s so much easier and quicker and tastes just as nice. There’s also way less to clean up afterward! Buying just the turkey breast saves you from swimming in leftovers for weeks.

Do you really want to see how many creative ways you can use up turkey? Just get the breast.

If you want to cook a whole bird, you can always try something smaller than a turkey, such as chicken, duck, or quail. If you buy a rotisserie chicken that is already cooked, you can use the extra time to focus on cooking other things, such as side dishes and desserts. In 2020, my kids requested chili for Thanksgiving, so I made it with ground turkey and called it a day.

Honestly, that was their favorite Thanksgiving to date. Feel free to make whatever main dish works the best for your family and don’t worry about what everyone else is doing.

2. Don’t feel pressured to have lots of sides for your Thanksgiving meal for small families

Honestly, my kids don’t even like most of the traditional Thanksgiving side dishes. They will flat-out refuse to eat them, so why should I waste my time making them, unless there is something that I really want to eat? It’s better for my family to agree on a few favorite side dishes and do those well. If you are cooking for a small family, it can be fun to let each member pick out their favorite side dish to add to the menu.

I’m a huge fan of side dishes that can be scaled down to size. For example, instead of making a giant green bean casserole (that my kids hate anyway), I can just roast an appropriate amount of green beans for the four of us. Mashed potatoes can be made into however many servings you need. I also prefer to bake individual sweet potatoes instead of a casserole. As a bonus, each person can add the toppings that they prefer. Besides, no matter what I cook, my kids are just going to gorge themselves on as many rolls as they can get their hands on. At least they’ll be happy and fed!

3. Get creative with dessert!

I’m the only person in my family who actually likes pumpkin pie, so I don’t bother to bake them. Instead, I found a recipe for a pumpkin brownie swirl pie that we all love. This pie will quickly disappear, so it’s worth the effort for me to make it. In fact, the kids love it so much that it’s the only dessert we need. No one ever misses having greater variety.

If your family doesn’t like pie at all, make something else. Apple crisp is a nice seasonal dessert that is easy to make and popular with many children. If you don’t like pie, make a cake, brownies, or cookies. A carrot cake gives off nice fall vibes and cookies and brownies can be decorated in a fall theme to make Thanksgiving feel special. If you hate to bake and nothing’s left at the store, there’s always ice cream! Serve it in a fancy bowl with toppings and it will still feel special. My kids will appreciate ice cream anytime.

Thanksgiving cornacopia filled with seasonal veggies.

In the end, Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate with your family. Do what works best for you and enjoy your time together.

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