Common Thanksgiving Challenges and the Recipes That Help Solve Them

Perennial Thanksgiving conundrums, handled.

Published Nov. 7, 2019.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday and over the years, I’ve done it a lot of different ways.

I’ve enjoyed intimate Thanksgiving gatherings of two and hosted boisterous gangs numbering well into the 20s. I’ve celebrated with friends, family, and strangers, as both a host and a guest. I’ve traveled and stayed put, held Thanksgiving dinners abroad, and welcomed international visitors to our table and traditions here in the US. I’ve found essential equipment, had a handful of near-misses (and actual misses, like that time I dropped the turkey on the kitchen floor), and created a list of must-have dishes. 

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But even now, when Halloween has come and gone and my mind starts drifting towards turkey, those familiar Thanksgiving anxieties crop up again. Fortunately, surrounded by ATK’s treasure trove of kitchen wisdom, tested techniques, and foolproof recipes, and with some thoughtful planning and organizing ahead of time, it’s easy to put Turkey Day stress to rest. Here are some perennial Thanksgiving conundrums and the recipes that solve them.

1. You're Tired of the Same Old Thanksgiving Dishes

A lot of people look forward to the same dish your mom and her mom made, so some favorites you might want to keep around. But as a host (and cook) I’m always looking for inspiration. Here are some suggestions for new twists and fresh flavors.

Roasted Butternut Squash with Apple

Think squash is a snore? Think again: this year I’ll be making this bright, seasonal take on squash and apples.  
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Brussels Sprout Salad with Smoked Gouda, Pecans, and Dried Cherries

Who says brussels sprouts have to be roasted on Thanksgiving? This light, bright, raw preparation is just as delicious.
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Braised Fennel with Radicchio and Parmesan

If you’re looking for a new vegetable for your Thanksgiving spread, try fennel, which becomes sweet and silky when braised.  
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Indian-Spiced Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Raisins and Cashews

Celebrate the diverse culinary traditions—your own or others’—that make the US unique, like these sweet potatoes flavored with garam masala.  
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Chopped Carrot Salad with Mint, Pistachios and Pomegranate Seeds

Sometimes a new technique with a familiar vegetable is all you need to liven up your Thanksgiving spread. This chopped carrot salad brings crunch, color, and fresh flavors.  
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2. You Tend to Bite Off More Than You Can Chew

You're not alone! There's a pressure surrounding the Thanksgiving meal that leaves even the most experienced home cooks chasing unrealistic expectations. (Thanks a lot, Norman Rockwell.) You can pull off an amazing meal without all the stress by focusing on recipes you've made before (bonus points if they have make-ahead components), keeping some sides super simple (but not boring), and using shortcuts when they won't compromise the dish. Here are some ideas.

Asparagus with Lemon-Shallot Vinaigrette

Simple doesn't have to mean boring. This recipe, including the simple sauce, can be completed in just 10 minutes.
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Modern Cauliflower Gratin

This cauliflower gratin is rich and flavorful without the heft—and it can be made in advance.
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Slow-Cooker Brussels Sprouts With Lemon, Thyme, and Bacon

Put your slow cooker to work with this mostly hands-off Thanksgiving side dish.
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Tarte Tatin with Pears

This spin on the French classic, uses pears instead of apples, store-bought puff pastry and can be made in 30 minutes. All around win.  
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3. Your Guests Have a Variety of Dietary Restrictions, Allergies, and Food Preferences

As a host, having food that your guests can eat and enjoy is rule #1. But it can feel a bit like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle to plan a menu that works for everyone. Fortunately, Thanksgiving is really all about the sides (am I right?), which if thoughtfully planned, can easily combine to make a meal for every guest, regardless of their diet. (Find even more Thanksgiving recipes for special diets.)

Gluten-Free Cornbread and Sausage Stuffing

No gluten? No problem! Even your gluten-free guests can partake in this Thanksgiving favorite.  
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Celery Root Puree

In this paleo-friendly alternative to classic mashed potatoes, the celery root breaks down beautifully into a perfectly smooth, luscious puree.  
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Butternut Squash Galette with Gruyere

Need a show-stopping vegetarian Thanksgiving main? Try this easier-than-pie savory galette. (Bonus: The dough can be made in advance!)  
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Paleo Brussels Sprout Salad

This recipe—also vegetarian, vegan, dairy-free, and low-carb—treats this vegetable like the mini-cabbages they are, shredded and tossed in a bright, simple vinaigrette.  
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4. You Always Need More Oven Space Than You Have

Two words: Make. Ahead. If juggling limited oven space and varying temperatures is boggling your mind, start your Thanksgiving prep early. Pie dough (and even entire pies), breads, and stock for gravy can be made a few weeks early and frozen. Many other dishes can be made earlier in the week and reheated. And don’t forget to put your stovetop, slow cooker, grill, and microwave to work! (Check out even more no-oven-required Thanksgiving recipes.)

Grill-Roasted Turkey

If your grill isn’t at risk of being covered in snow come late November, free up your oven by cooking your turkey outside.  
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Make-Ahead Turkey Gravy

Make the stock in early November and freeze. The rest is, well, gravy.  
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Green Beans with Hazelnuts and Brown Butter

Cooked on the stovetop, make-ahead friendly, and has brown butter. Need we say more?  
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Perfect Pecan Pie

You can always make and freeze pie dough up to a month in advance, or you can make this entire pie and keep it at room temperature two days before Thanksgiving.  
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Slow-Cooker Garlic and Parmesan Mashed Potatoes

Don’t worry about having to reheat your mashed potatoes—plug in your slow cooker to cook them and keep them warm.  
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5. You Want to Bring a Dish That Doesn't Have to Be Reheated When You Get There

Are you attending Thanksgiving at someone else’s home this year? Don’t be “that guy” who arrives to a crowded Thanksgiving dinner with a dish that needs to be reheated in the (already-packed) oven or has to be chilled in the (bursting-at-the-seams) fridge. These dishes will guarantee you’ll get invited back next year.

Whipped Feta and Roasted Red Pepper Dip

Using cow's milk feta—instead of the traditional Greek feta—makes for a firm appetizer that holds up well at room temperature.
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Cranberry Chutney with Apple and Crystallized Ginger

Bring this chutney-inspired option to the fresh versus canned cranberry sauce debate.  
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Farro Salad with Butternut Squash and Radicchio

Grain salads travel well (see our recommendations for the best glass and plastic storage containers), won’t wilt from dressings, and are great at room temp.  
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Pumpkin Bread

Sweet quick breads offer a less decadent dessert option, and are travel-friendly. This recipe makes two loaves so your host can tuck one away for a morning-after treat.  
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6. You Want to Make That Perfect Dessert But Don't Have the Necessary Equipment

As someone who has overcome her fear of pie making and now loves to make pie, I strongly encourage you to invest in a few good pie-making tools and give this Thanksgiving favorite a shot. (Picking up a copy of our first-ever pie-focused cookbook, The Perfect Pie, is a great place to start.) But there are plenty of lovely fall desserts that don’t require a pie plate, rolling pin, or food processor.

Skillet Apple Crisp with Vanilla, Cardamom, and Pistachios

If you have a skillet, you can make this fragrant twist on traditional apple crisp.  
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Ultranutty Pecan Bars

All the nutty goodness of pecan pie, in bar form.  
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Butterscotch Pudding

Classic butterscotch pudding with a dollop of whipped cream and a gingersnap cookie on the side? Sounds like a perfect ending to me.  
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Banana Cream Pie in a Jar

Easy enough for kids to help make, this all-ages-friendly dessert puts the flavors of banana cream pie in a personalized size portion, without the need for any special equipment.  
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7. You Always Find Yourself in a Leftovers Rut

The holiday is over, your guests have gone home, your stomach is still full—and so is your fridge. While many folks are more than happy with turkey sandwiches on repeat, here are a few ideas to spice up your post-Thanksgiving meals.

Green Chile Turkey Enchiladas

This south of the border-inspired dish with cilantro, pepper jack cheese, and green chiles is a welcome change of pace from traditional Thanksgiving flavors.  
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Turkey Pot Pie with Stuffing Crust

Kill two birds with one stone by creating a creamy filling with leftover turkey and a crunchy, savory crust with leftover stuffing.  
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Turkey Barley Soup

No one wants to toil over turkey stock on the day after Thanksgiving, but this recipe practically makes itself.  
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