How to Make Your Zoom Thanksgiving Feel Like the Real Thing

There's a better way than squinting into a laptop.

Published Nov. 19, 2020.

Kevin Pang

Our household has accepted the fact the holidays this year will be weird. My parents from Seattle won’t be flying in, that’s for certain. And the idea of a large group Thanksgiving with local family—even as careful as we all are—likely is a no-go.

I’m not the only one who’s uttered the words “Zoom Thanksgiving” in recent weeks, a phrase that would’ve sounded preposterous a year ago. But here we are. At first, the notion of a Zoom Thanksgiving wasn’t particularly enticing. Who would want to squint at a laptop trying to talk to grandma? But technology is amazing, and I’ve been thinking of ways to make a virtual gathering feel a bit more real.

This is my solution. I’m pleased to report I’ve done a practice run with family, and it works like a charm.

Step 1A

Let’s assume you have an out-of-town family. To make the actual dinner more cohesive, consider having everyone cook the same recipes. One week before, email the recipes game plan to everyone participating. Stick with the essentials, no more than four dishes—a main, two sides, plus a dessert. Our test cooks recommend this winning setlist:

Because it’s not one person cooking for a large party, it means you’ll likely not roast a whole 15-pound turkey or mash an XL sack of potatoes (though we wouldn’t judge). You’ll have to learn to scale down, both the dishes you’re making and the kitchen equipment you’ll use. You’ll find more holiday recipe ideas for small groups here.

Thanksgiving collage

Step 1B

Say you have family in-town but not planning to congregate in one place. Deputy Food Editor Andrea Geary tells us what she’s doing this year:

“My dad and I are running a ‘Thanksgiving Depot’ for the family. He and I will make the meal, and dish it up into big foil pans for each household. Then a representative from each household will swing by and bring their portion home. At least we’ll all be eating the same food at roughly the same time, if not actually in the same room.”

For those larger group portions, consult our complete Thanksgiving recipe collection for inspiration.

Person delivering food
Photo: The Good Brigade (Getty Images)

Step 2

With your food plans out of the way, let’s get to the heart of our Zoom Thanksgiving strategy: leveling up the technology.

My solution is about not staring into a laptop or tablet. I want it to feel like there are people sitting next to us at the table. For that, I’m borrowing the 32-inch flatscreen television from my office. TV’s are so cheap these days, you can find a decent-sized (and lightweight) unit for under $150. 

You’ll also need a laptop, an HDMI connector and HDMI cable. We recommend a laptop over a tablet simply because it’ll run much faster on a computer.

What an HDMI connector does is turns your TV into a second laptop screen. (Some laptops, particularly non-Macs, will already have a built-in HDMI port.)

The HDMI cord is what physically connects the computer to your television. Chances are, you already have one.

It’ll plug in this order: TV -> HDMI cord -> HDMI connector -> laptop.

Step 3

This is a small touch that enhances the feeling of loved ones sitting at the dinner table—even if they're in the state over. Wherever you plan on placing the TV, take a landscape (horizontal) photo from the other side of the table towards where the television would be. Send this photo to the household zooming in, and have them make this image their video background. (Go to “Preferences,” click on “Background & Filter,” click the plus sign, then “Add Image.”) Now it looks like they’re sitting right there at your dining room table!

Screenshot of how to add a background in Zoom

Step 4

On the day of your Zoom feast, coordinate cooking times so everyone, no matter the time zone, can eat simultaneously. 

Make sure you look camera ready when it’s time to call in. Two tips to make you more gorgeous: 1) Under “Preferences” and “Video,” check “Enable HD” and “Touch up my appearance.” 2) If you have a lamp, place it behind the laptop and point the light in your direction. This will ensure the best lighting for your fine self.

Unless you have a paid Zoom account through work or school, you're typically limited to a 40-minute video call limit. But Zoom is lifting this time restriction for all from midnight Eastern on Nov. 26 through 6 a.m. Eastern on Nov. 27. That's great news not having to log off and log back on between bites.

tweet from Zoom

Perhaps most importantly: When Uncle Frank starts bringing up the election, know that the “Mute” function is available.

Get the best Thanksgiving recipes, tips, and product reviews in our 2020 Thanksgiving Guide, and check out more helpful holiday information below.

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