Planning Thanksgiving Dinner – The Actual Menu

Now that all the pre-planning is done, let’s choose an actual Thanksgiving menu!


No matter which Thanksgiving dinner theme you have chosen, now is the time to decide exactly which items you will be serving.

Meal Centerpiece:

Due to tradition, and Norman Rockwell, this is usually a large golden baked turkey. However, there are other options:

  • Turkey breast – bone in or boneless. A turkey breast will cost more per pound than a whole turkey, but if your guests prefer white meat it may be a better deal since you won’t be throwing out half the bird. A turkey breast is also a good idea if your Thanksgiving dinner will be a small one this year.
  • Ham – spiral cut hams have become popular recently. If your guests don’t like turkey this might be an option.
  • Other Protein – My mother knows someone who serves fish for their Thanksgiving dinner. Others like to serve fancy beef or pork roasts. And vegetarians will be happy with a legume dish like this Greek Lentil Pie by one of my favorite authors, Martha Rose Shulman.


As a bread lover, I serve at least two kinds of bread, sometimes 3 or 4.

  • Pumpkin Bread – it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving in my house without pumpkin bread.
  • Oatmeal Bread – a nice loaf of homemade sourdough oatmeal bread will be appreciated too.
  • Rolls – many people like delicious, white rolls with their turkey.


It is always a good idea to serve at least one salad. I usually serve at least two; one sweet salad and one savory salad.

  • Savory Salads: Add a little Mediterranean flair to your dinner with this white bean salad. Or Martha Stewart’s Farro Salad with Roasted Grapes and Greens. My Aunt Rosalie always served a traditional Waldorf salad, full of crunchy apples and celery. Or make it easy on yourself and serve a regular tossed green salad. The greens add a light foil to Thanksgiving’s other heavy dishes.
  • Sweet Salads: Many of you are thinking about Grandma’s green gelatin salad aren’t you? Why not. If green gelatin is a guilty pleasure, this is the time to serve it. To this day I still enjoy sweet-tart Cranberry Fluff salad, a concoction of cranberries, whipped cream and miniature marshmallows. We loved it as kids, but my grand-children won’t touch it. It is similar to Watergate salad and Ambrosia salad, two other holiday favorites.


For some of us, vegetables are the best part of the meal. Serve 3 or 4 different kinds.

  • Potatoes/Sweet Potatoes: Go the traditional route and make your own Creamy Mashed Potatoes and Sweet Potato Casserole. Or, make your dinner a bit healthier, but just as delicious, by forgoing the mashed potatoes and baking sweet potatoes instead. I am intrigued by this slow-cooker Scalloped Potatoes recipe this year. It has some very real benefits; the kids will eat it (have you noticed that children don’t eat mashed potatoes anymore?) and it frees up oven space since it is made in a slow cooker.
  • Winter Squash: Sweet potatoes were never on our Thanksgiving menu in northern New England, but winter squash always was! To this day, my Eastern Maine relatives eat more winter squash than we do here on the west coast. My mother always steamed buttercup squash and mashed it with butter, brown sugar, salt and pepper. However, my mother-in-law would simply cut winter squash into large pieces, steam them, and serve as is. Both ways are perfect. You could also stuff small squash. This Quinoa Stuffed Squash recipe would be a good, and healthy, Thanksgiving addition.
  • Brussels Sprouts: Do you eat Brussels sprouts only on Thanksgiving? Then you are missing out! The whole key to flavorful Brussels sprouts is not to overcook them. If you want to serve them in a quick and easy manner, steam Brussels sprouts in the microwave, add some melted butter and maybe just a teensy bit of orange juice. Or roast them with olive oil. Surely you can find a recipe you like in this article from Real Simple magazine, 11 Easy Recipes for Brussels Sprouts.
  • Other veggies: It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving in my house without garden peas. My husband’s family always served steamed pearl onions for holiday meals. My advice? Forgo the traditional green bean casserole and steam green beans with lemon pepper. Healthier and you get that real green bean flavor. Of course you can always serve roasted cauliflower. One year I even made a rutabaga and apple casserole that the kids loved!

Sauces and Other:

  • Gravy: Make your own. It really isn’t hard and is MUCH healthier than anything purchased in a can. The trick? Pour the meat drippings into a glass container. Let the fat rise to the top. Discard all but about 2 Tbsp of fat. Thickening the gravy with corn starch instead of flour will help reduce lumps. Use water and some milk to make gravy.
  • Cranberry sauce: Yes, you can purchase the stuff in a can. It comes in both jellied and whole versions and I have always provided both. But, if you want control over both the flavor and the sugar level, make your own. Classic Cranberry Sauce or Cranberry Orange Relish.\
  • Pickles: Don’t forget to serve a nice variety of pickles, preferable homemade ones like my family’s Russian Bear Pickles or Bread and Butter Pickles. Pickles help to cut the fatty foods on your plate and help digest your food.


There is no law that requires pumpkin pie, or any other kind of pie, for Thanksgiving!

  • Pies: Traditional, and eagerly anticipated by pie lovers everywhere. What kind of pie you expect usually depends on where you grew up; apple or pumpkin in the north, sweet potato or pecan in the south. Also often served; mince or mincemeat pies or squash pie.
  • Not pies: If you aren’t a pie lover (can you tell that I fall into this category?) serve something else with traditional flavor like the cake-like Norwegian Apple Pie or apple-crisp. Last year I made an elaborate Pumpkin Torte (photo above) or you could make a pumpkin roll.

Appetizers and Beverages:

  • Appetizers: Go easy here, you don’t want to spoil your guests’ appetites. Choose something simple like cheese and crackers, raw veggies and dip, or spiced nuts.
  • Beverages: Another place to save yourself time. Purchase a nice bottle of red wine and one of white. For the kids, serve some sparkling juice. I like to make a pot of spiced tea to serve with dessert.

You might also find these other No-Rush Thanksgiving Plans useful:

Step One

Step Two


by Renee Pottle

Renee Pottle, a freelance writer and Home Economist, is fanatic about all things food. She blogs about canning and food preservation at Find her professional food writing info at

November 19, 2015

You May Also Like…

Lemon Pasta with Green Veggies

Lemon Pasta with Green Veggies

Asparagus, pea pods, and other green veggies lend springtime flavor to cheesy, lemon pasta. Winter is reluctantly...

Mixes in a Jar Book Announcement

Mixes in a Jar Book Announcement

I am excited to announce that my newest book, Mixes in a Jar – Delicious Recipes for Storing Year-round Gifts and Easy Meals is now available! You can order your copy on the Mother Earth News site.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *