Work & Home

How to Have a Happy Little Thanksgiving

When I was younger, I always wondered where those giant family gatherings I saw on TV actually occurred. Certainly not in my own home: my parents lived far from their extended families, which meant I didn’t grow up with nearby cousins and grandparents. My family drove across the country every few years for reunion gatherings. Those happened during the summer, though–not over the winter holidays. Thanksgiving was, usually, just a fancier-than-usual family dinner.

By the time I became an adult myself, life had evolved to move me away from my own extended family. Some years I spent Thanksgiving with other graduate students. After I got married, there were several years when Mike and I invited other grad students to join us for a potluck Thanksgiving affair. Other years, we flew our little family of four across the country for the holiday. That became prohibitively expensive once both kids were old enough to require plane tickets of their own. (Also: airline travel over a holiday is never much fun. We were grateful for an excuse to give it up.)

Since then, our Thanksgiving traditions have grown much smaller. I’ve gradually mastered the art of a small Thanksgiving dinner for a family of four (or five, since my daughter’s fiance took a seat at the family table.) If you’re looking forward to a small holiday gathering, here are a few suggestions I hope you’ll find helpful.

Keep it casual.

We do use our fancy tableware for Thanksgiving dinner, and I do try to make the table look a little nicer than usual–but we don’t dress up in formal clothes, as we would if we were going to someone else’s home for the holiday. The option of wearing comfortable clothing is part of what makes Thanksgiving family time.

Mark the day with a special tradition.

Doing this makes Thanksgiving different from all the other days you meet at the dinner table. We have two traditions, both of which are very simple.

First, we go around the table before we eat and say what we’re most grateful for. Second, we play a Thanksgiving-themed bingo game that my mom bought for my kids when they were in grade school. It’s a silly thing, but it’s been part of our family for nearly 20 years–and, since my mom died, it’s a way of acknowledging the presence of those who aren’t physically with us anymore.

Hire out the turkey.

I actually enjoy making a turkey for Thanksgiving, but it does leave a big mess to clean up afterward–and even a smallish turkey leaves a lot of leftovers. Most of those end up going in the freezer, where I tend to forget about them. Ultimately, that leads to a lot of waste.

Last year, I started a new traditional of buying several pounds of smoked turkey from our favorite barbecue restaurant. It didn’t cost more than a whole turkey would have, and we actually wound up eating everything I paid for. Best of all, Mike didn’t have to clean up a kitchen covered in turkey grease. That made for a very happy Thanksgiving.

Make one side per person.

Even if you have a long list of Thanksgiving favorites, limiting the menu to one side dish per person will ensure that you’re not spending all your time in the kitchen. It’s also much more likely that your hard work will result in food that’s eaten and enjoyed. This might mean you end up serving a less-than-balanced Thanksgiving meal, but so what? One high-carb day without a green veg won’t hurt anyone.

Thanksgiving isn’t a great time for trying out new recipes–but if I do that, I experiment with whichever side dish I’ve chosen for myself. For everything else, I stick to the traditional Thanksgiving lineup so everyone can enjoy their old favorites.

And remember, you can always make favorite sides (or try new recipes) for other meals. If you have leftover turkey, those side dishes can create a second Thanksgiving feast. I always make my favorite corn casserole sometime after Thanksgiving, since it generally isn’t on our holiday table anymore.

Stick with one dessert.

During the holiday season, it’s tempting to try out every beautiful confection that appears before you (in magazines, on Facebook, in the grocery store bakery . . . seriously, they’re everywhere.) But the fact is, a little something sweet at the end of the Thanksgiving meal is all anyone needs.

I sometimes try to fool myself into thinking that lots of options will give everyone the chance to try a little of each and allow each person to find something they like. This thinking allows me to ignore the fact that I actually know what my family likes. There’s nothing wrong with good old pumpkin pie, as far as we’re concerned, so I’ll be sticking with that this year. (And, again, remember that there are weeks of the holiday season after Thanksgiving. You won’t miss out on your chance to try that luscious torte you saw at Costco simply because you didn’t buy it for Thanksgiving.)


If you and your little family are on your own for Thanksgiving, don’t fall prey to thinking your holiday is somehow less special than those being shared by a crowd. The important thing is to spend the day with those who make you feel thankful for the life you’re living right now.

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