A traditional Thanksgiving dinner is one of the most celebrated meals of the year — and one of the most expensive. According to a 2019 Farm Bureau Survey, the average cost of a Thanksgiving meal for 10 people was $48.91. While that’s less than $5 per person, it’s still a significant expense for one household to shoulder in full.
To help the hosts save money, many large families prepare this massive dinner potluck-style. The hosts supply the roast turkey with stuffing, gravy, and drinks, and guests bring all the appetizers, side dishes, and desserts. Communal meals like this lighten the workload and cost by spreading it around. And just because things will look a little different this year doesn’t mean you can’t still benefit from a holiday potluck.
How to Hold a Pandemic Potluck
Thanksgiving celebrations are going to be very different this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned that gathering the whole extended family around the dining room table poses a significant risk for spreading the disease. It says the safest way to celebrate is with members of your household only.
However, families around the country are finding ways around this problem. Some are planning to gather with their pandemic pods: two or more households that have agreed to socialize exclusively with one another. In areas where the weather isn’t too cold, some families are moving the Thanksgiving meal outdoors, where there’s a lower risk of spreading germs.
Perhaps the most creative solution is the socially distanced potluck with nearby relatives and friends. Each person or family prepares one dish and divides it up into portions for every other household. They then drop off their dishes at their relatives’ or friends’ homes in a contact-free manner — an activity the CDC describes as low-risk. That way, everyone can enjoy the same Thanksgiving feast even if they aren’t in the same room. You can always hook up via a videoconferencing platform like FaceTime, WhatsApp, or Zoom to chitchat between bites.
Of course, with this kind of remote potluck, there’s no official host to provide the bird, stuffing, gravy, and drinks. There are several ways to get around this problem. You can have one person act as “host” — preparing the main dish, receiving dishes from all the other participants, dividing them up, and delivering the portioned-out meals to everyone’s homes. Alternatively, you could make the whole potluck a communal effort and simply assign the main dish to one person. Finally, you can do only the side dishes in potluck fashion and each household can provide its own main course.
No matter which approach you take, preparing the traditional Thanksgiving turkey with bread stuffing and gravy is likely to be difficult. It’s far too much food for most individual households, and it’s hard to make ahead of time. Even carving it and portioning it out is tricky when you don’t have all the participants seated around the same table.
If you need a main dish just for your own family, consider a smaller version of the traditional turkey dinner. For instance, instead of a whole turkey, you could cook up a turkey breast or do a whole chicken with stuffing in your slow cooker.
For a big group, consider an alternative that’s easier to divvy up than a big, complicated bird with lots of different parts. For instance, a baked ham or quick and easy lasagna is easy to cut into identical pieces for every household on your list. You can even prepare the lasagna ahead and freeze it for the big day. There are loads of Thanksgiving turkey alternatives. Or buck tradition altogether, and serve up a fun alternative Thanksgiving menu, such as traditional Mexican or Hawaiian food.
Pro tip: Before you head to the grocery store to purchase ingredients for your Thanksgiving meal, make sure you download the Fetch Rewards and Ibotta apps. Both of these will allow you to scan your grocery receipts to earn cash back and gift cards.
Best Dishes for Your Thanksgiving Potluck on a Budget
If someone’s invited you to participate in a Turkey Day potluck, you have to think carefully about what to bring. Even if the host assigns you a specific type of dish, such as appetizer, side, or dessert, it’s still up to you what specific recipe to prepare. The perfect Thanksgiving potluck dish has to live up to several different standards:
- It’s something the whole family will enjoy.
- You can prepare it ahead of time (and reheat it on Thanksgiving Day if necessary), and it won’t get cold before you eat.
- It’s within your skill set to make.
- Since you’re preparing it for a lot of people, it must be budget-friendly as well.
Put all that together, and it sounds like a pretty tall order. But there are countless online Thanksgiving recipes for make-ahead dishes for varying skill levels that are also easy on your wallet. And they’re all tasty enough to make your family feel thankful for your contribution.
In my family, we don’t have lunch on Thanksgiving Day. Instead, we just load up the table with an array of appetizers and nosh on them throughout the afternoon. Some of them are so tasty, it takes a real effort to remember to leave room for the turkey dinner to come.
For families who like to follow this tradition, there are many hearty appetizers to tide you over until the main event. And for those that prefer just a small nosh before the big meal, there are some lighter options that won’t spoil your appetite.
1. Roasted Pumpkin Seeds
If you’re making a pumpkin pie with fresh pumpkin, don’t toss the seeds. You can roast them for an irresistible snack. First, separate the seeds from the stringy pulp. Rinse them and dry them thoroughly, then toss them with oil and the seasoning of your choice. Possibilities include Worcestershire sauce, garlic, taco spice, or mocha for a sweet alternative.
Roast the seeds on a foil-lined baking sheet until they’re golden brown and crispy. This technique works with butternut squash seeds too.
Get the full recipe, along with several suggestions for spice mixtures, on Taste of Home.
2. Roasted Red Pepper Hummus
Whole red peppers, seeded and cooked under the broiler, develop a sweet, smoky flavor that balances the nuttiness of the chickpeas and the sharper flavors of garlic and lemon. A touch of smoked paprika further enhances the dip’s rich color and smoldering flavor. Serve with pita wedges, crackers, sliced raw veggies, or all three.
Get the full recipe on Good Housekeeping.
3. Green Bean Pate
Many people already know you can mash the liver from your Thanksgiving turkey with chopped onion and hard-boiled eggs to make a savory liver pate. However, if you’re not having turkey (or you’re not the one preparing it), you can make a delicious vegetarian version from fresh green beans. Onions and hard-boiled eggs give it the savory taste you expect from a good chopped liver — but in a lighter, healthier form. The nutty crunch of chopped walnuts or pecans enhances the beans’ fresh flavor, making this meatless pate even more rich and complex than the original version.
Get the full recipe on What’s Cooking America.
4. Spinach Balls
If you’re making a traditional bread stuffing, grab an extra bag of bread cubes to make these delectable spinach balls. They combine the herbaceous, savory flavor of America’s favorite Thanksgiving side dish with the faint bitterness of frozen spinach, then kick it up a few extra notches with onion, garlic, black pepper, and Parmesan cheese. Beaten eggs bind the whole mixture together into snack-size balls. If you have kids who won’t eat spinach, this is the dish to change their minds. To feed a large group, double the recipe.
Get the full recipe on Emily Bites.
5. Updated Pigs-in-a-Blanket
It’s hard to find an easier hot appetizer than the classic pigs in a blanket, which uses cocktail franks wrapped in refrigerated crescent roll dough. But there are ways to put a dressier spin on the old favorite.
For instance, you can swap out the crescent roll dough for fancier puff pastry for an elegant look. Brush the dough with Dijon mustard before wrapping it around the franks, then glaze the tops with an egg wash and sprinkle on caraway seeds before baking.
And there are numerous other twists you can put on this classic recipe. For jalapeno popper pigs in a blanket, spread the dough with cream cheese and chopped jarred jalapeno peppers. To make pretzel pigs in a blanket, dunk the rolled-up sausages in boiling water and sprinkle them with coarse sea salt before baking. And for German-style pigs in a blanket, replace the franks with chunks of Bratwurst, spicy brown mustard, and sauerkraut.
Get the full recipes for all these variations on Good Housekeeping.
Vegetable & Fruit Sides
No one would call veggies the centerpiece of a Thanksgiving dinner, but the meal isn’t complete without them. These budget-friendly options are both traditional and reasonably easy to make.
6. Green Bean Casserole
For some families, the one must-have vegetable dish for Thanksgiving is the classic green bean casserole topped with French-fried onions. If you crave something more exciting but don’t want to break with tradition altogether, consider celebrity chef Alton Brown’s more sophisticated take on this dish.
It uses blanched fresh green beans and replaces canned cream of mushroom soup with a savory homemade sauce made from sauteed mushrooms, chicken broth, and rich half-and-half seasoned with fresh garlic and fragrant nutmeg. For the topping, Brown uses freshly sliced onions tossed with flour, salt, and panko breadcrumbs baked until they’re golden and crispy.
Get the full recipe at Food Network.
7. Slow Cooker Balsamic-Bacon Brussels Sprouts
People who think they don’t like Brussels sprouts will change their tune when they taste tender, slow-cooked Brussels sprouts drizzled with a balsamic glaze and topped with bits of crisp, smoky bacon. This incredibly simple dish is perfect for busy cooks. Just cook the halved sprouts in the slow cooker for three to four hours on low (or one to two on high), then add the glaze and bacon bits. Keep them in the crock to stay warm while you transport them to your potluck party.
Get the full recipe on Family Fresh Meals.
8. Roasted Butternut Squash
Perhaps the easiest way to prepare butternut squash is to peel and cube it, then roast it with a touch of maple syrup and cinnamon. It comes out beautifully tender with a caramelized coating so delicious you’ll be tempted to sneak a few cubes right off the pan. And don’t worry too much about keeping it hot on your way to the potluck. According to the Kitchn’s Hali Bey Ramdene, most roasted veggies are even more flavorful when served at room temperature.
Get the full recipe on Well Plated by Erin.
9. Easy Succotash Casserole
There are many ways to prepare this blend of lima beans and corn. Some recipes simply combine the two cooked veggies with a touch of butter and herbs. But to really wow your potluck pals, try a rich baked version loaded with cheese, green onions, pimientos, eggs, and cream. Held together with eggs and topped with crumbled saltine crackers, it’s almost substantial enough to be a main dish.
Get the full recipe on The Spruce Eats.
10. Easy Vegan Cranberry Sauce
Cranberry sauce is a must-have for a traditional Thanksgiving meal. However, according to Ocean Spray, more than 3 out of 4 Americans simply buy it in a can. Perhaps they simply don’t realize how easy it is to make your own.
All you have to do is simmer whole cranberries in a mixture of sugar, water, and lemon zest until the berries pop, spilling out their tart and flavorful juices. Don’t worry if the freshly cooked sauce looks a bit thin. It will thicken as it cools.
Get the full recipe on It Doesn’t Taste Like Chicken.
Many people cook stuffing along with the bird, but many families like to serve some additional starchy foods on their Thanksgiving tables. These include endless variations on potatoes (both white and sweet), along with a few less common alternatives.
11. Olive Oil Mashed Potatoes With Garlic & Sage
According to a 2019 YouGov poll, mashed potatoes are Americans’ second-favorite Thanksgiving side dish, narrowly edged out by stuffing. (In the Midwest, they came in at No. 1.) They’re also extremely easy to make (especially if you take a shortcut by using leftover boiled or baked potatoes).
If you crave a more intense flavor, try dressing up your mashed potatoes with olive oil, garlic, and sage. It’s almost as easy as the traditional version: Just boil the potatoes along with the other ingredients until tender. Remove the solid chunks of sage and garlic, then mash everything until smooth and creamy. You can make these potatoes up to three days ahead of time and store them in the fridge until Thanksgiving Day.
Get the full recipe on Martha Stewart.
12. Sweet Potato Casserole With Pecan Streusel
Everyone knows about the classic sweet potato casserole with marshmallows. However, this sweet potato casserole topped with a pecan-brown sugar streusel offers a snazzy alternative that gets top marks from reviewers. It starts just like the traditional casserole. Boil the sweet potatoes, mash them, and combine them with butter, eggs, milk, brown sugar, vanilla, and salt. Then load this mixture in a baking dish, top it with the sweet and crumbly streusel, and bake it until it’s golden on top.
Get the full recipe on Food Network.
13. Multicheese Mac & Cheese
Macaroni and cheese is a favorite Thanksgiving side dish in the South, according to YouGov. Rich, creamy, and warm, it’s comfort food at its finest. To make this simple dish even easier, cook the noodles in a slow cooker or multicooker, then stir in the milk (or cream), butter, and cheeses to form a creamy, molten sauce. A touch of Dijon mustard adds extra piquancy to the flavor.
Get the full recipe on 5 Dollar Dinners.
For a fancier alternative, try this baked four-cheese casserole with a panko breadcrumb topping. It replaces the macaroni with textured rotelle (wagon wheel) pasta and tops it with sharp cheddar, fontina, Asiago, and Gruyere cheeses. Drench it all in a milky sauce spiced with onion, cayenne pepper, mustard, and nutmeg, top it with breadcrumbs, and bake it until it’s golden brown and bubbling.
Get the full recipe on Food.com.
14. Buttery Dinner Rolls
According to YouGov, dinner rolls or bread show up on about 69% of Americans’ Thanksgiving tables. While more than half of them are store-bought, making them from scratch isn’t that hard.
With the help of a stand mixer, you can whip up a soft dough in just 15 minutes. Give it 20 minutes to rise, punch it down, shape it, and let the rolls rise for another 20 minutes before baking. They only take 12 to 15 minutes to bake up golden brown. In about an hour total, you can have warm, fresh-from-the-oven rolls for your fellow potluck guests.
Get the full recipe on Our Table for Seven.
If you still find baking from scratch too intimidating, compromise with bake-and-serve rolls. Located in the freezer section at the grocery store, they provide oven-fresh taste with minimal work. Just brush them with melted butter before popping them in the oven.
15. Old-Fashioned Cornbread
Cornbread is a staple of Southern cooking. There are multiple versions, both savory and sweet, but for hardcore traditionalists, cornbread must be sugar-free and baked in a cast-iron skillet. This classic version uses self-rising cornmeal mix blended with oil, eggs, and buttermilk until it’s just a little thicker than pancake batter. Pour it into the skillet and bake it in a hot oven for half an hour, and it comes out crispy and beautifully browned on top.
Get the full recipe on Feast and Farm.
16. Corn Pudding
While Southerners love their cornbread, corn pudding is more prevalent in the Northeast. Like cornbread, it can be either sweet or savory, but it always contains whole corn kernels in a soft, eggy custard. One super-simple version has only seven ingredients: eggs, sugar, butter, milk, cornstarch, whole kernel corn, and canned creamed corn. Beat the eggs, then blend in the other ingredients before baking into a lightly sweet custardy treat.
Get the full recipe on AllRecipes.
The most traditional dessert for Thanksgiving is pie. However, it’s not the only option on the table (literally or figuratively). Cakes, cookies, and other sweet treats are also possibilities.
17. Pumpkin Chiffon Pie
By far the most popular Thanksgiving dessert, YouGov notes it shows up at 2 out of 3 holiday meals. The filling is easy to make: just combine canned pumpkin puree with eggs, sugar, cream or milk, and spices.
Making a pie crust from scratch is harder, but you can always pick up a ready-made one. Or for a middle ground between store-bought, and homemade, try a graham cracker crust. Simply crush graham crackers into crumbs, blend them with sugar and butter, and press the mixture into a pie pan with your fingers. Learn how in this recipe from The Kitchn.
With the crust out of the way, you can devote more effort to making the filling special. One option is a light and fluffy pumpkin chiffon pie. To achieve this texture, separate your eggs, whip the whites into a froth, and fold them into a mixture of pumpkin, egg yolks, gelatin, and spices. Chill until firm, and serve topped with whipped cream and caramelized almonds.
Get the full recipe on The Spruce Eats.
18. Bourbon-Brown Butter Pecan Pie
If your family prefers pecan pie to pumpkin, try this special variation: bourbon-brown butter pecan pie. Made with dark brown sugar, golden syrup, nutty brown butter, and a shot of bourbon, its flavor is richer, more complex, and less syrupy-sweet than the typical pecan pie. Browning the butter only adds five minutes to the process and gives the pie a nutty, aromatic flavor that’s well worth the extra effort. It includes a homemade pie crust made easier with the help of a food processor. However, if you’re not ready to tackle that, you can substitute a store-bought one or your go-to crust.
Get the full recipe on Once Upon a Chef.
And remember: Pecans are on deep discount this time of year. If you frequently cook with them, buy several bags, and freeze them for use throughout the rest of the year.
19. Pecan or Pumpkin Pie Bars
If making a whole pie from scratch seems too complicated for you, try preparing your pecan pie in a bar form. Instead of messing with pastry, you can simply pat a cheater crust into the bottom of the pan. While it’s baking, prepare a sweet pecan filling, then pour it onto the crust and return it to the oven. It takes less than an hour, and it’s easy to slice and share.
Get the full recipe at Just a Taste.
For an even simpler alternative, try pumpkin pie bars. After pressing the shortbread crust dough into the pan, whip up an easy custard mix from canned pumpkin, sugar, evaporated milk, eggs, pumpkin pie spice, and a bit of salt. Pour it directly onto the unbaked crust and pop the whole thing into the oven.
Get the full recipe at The Chunky Chef.
20. Rhubarb-Apple Pie With Walnut-Brown Sugar Streusel
Although tart rhubarb is technically a vegetable, it’s delicious in a pie — either on its own or combined with sweeter fruits, such as apples. For a special Thanksgiving-friendly fruit pie that’s not too complicated, try a filling made from sweetened rhubarb and Granny Smith apples spiced with cinnamon. To keep the crust simple, use store-bought pastry for the base and top the pie with a walnut-brown sugar streusel rather than a lattice.
Get the full recipe on MyRecipes.
21. Easy Baked Apples
If you prefer to avoid messing with pie crust at all, make baked apples instead. Cored and filled with a spicy-sweet mixture of oats, butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg, they’re like individually portioned apple crisps. Bake them in a bath of warm water (or for an even richer flavor, apple cider) to prevent them from drying out. This dish is ideal for guests with food allergies since it’s gluten-free, nut-free, and contains only six ingredients in total.
Get the full recipe on Sally’s Baking Addiction.
22. Swirled Pumpkin Cheesecake
Rather than a pie, some families prefer their pumpkin in the form of an indulgent cheesecake. For the ultimate in Thanksgiving dessert decadence, try a creamy marbled cheesecake with chocolate and pumpkin cheesecake batter swirled together — all resting on a chocolate brownie base. It’s the perfect choice for those who don’t see the point of a dessert without chocolate.
Get the full recipe on Food & Wine.
For a simpler alternative, try swirled pumpkin cheesecake bars. They have three layers: a graham cracker crust (or for an interesting variation, one made of crushed gingersnaps), a pumpkin pie custard, and a simple cheesecake filling. Swirl the pumpkin pie and cheesecake layers before baking for a pretty marbled effect. These bars are easy to make ahead and are served chilled, making them ideal for a potluck.
Get the full recipe on The Novice Chef.
23. Cranberry Bread
If you have extra cranberries from your sauce, put them to good use in a sweet cranberry bread. This easy loaf cake features whole fresh cranberries suspended in a sweet, buttery batter that’s simple to make. It requires only 15 minutes of prep time and about an hour in the oven. You can make it straight or add orange zest and replace the milk with orange juice to make orange-cranberry bread.
Get the full recipe on Dinner then Dessert.
24. Pecan Shortbread
Cookies are a traditional dessert for Christmas, but they’re just as welcome at Thanksgiving. One choice that fits perfectly with the flavors of a traditional Thanksgiving meal is pecan shortbread. It’s nutty, buttery, and salty-sweet, with chopped pecans in the dough and a pecan half on top of each cookie. As a bonus, the slice-and-bake recipe calls for no pesky rolling and cutting.
Get the full recipe on Southern Living,
25. Thanksgiving Turkey Cookies
If you have kids who want to take part in the excitement of preparing the Thanksgiving meal, these easy and adorable Thanksgiving turkey cookies are an apt choice. Prepare ready-to-bake sugar cookie dough according to the package instructions, and top them with an arc of candy corn for the turkey’s tail, mini M&M candies for the eyes, and orange icing for the turkey’s beak and feet. Little chefs will enjoy decorating the cookies and have just as much fun gobbling them up.
Get the full recipe at Pillsbury.
A potluck meal is one of the easiest ways to have a budget-friendly Thanksgiving. But for many people, what’s even more crucial is how much it reduces holiday stress. When you’re in charge of preparing an entire Thanksgiving dinner for a crowd, you have to spend most of your day in the kitchen juggling different dishes, trying to get the turkey, potatoes, and veggies all onto the table at the same time. That’s no way to enjoy Thanksgiving Day.
With a potluck, you can focus on the one dish assigned to you. It’s much easier to cook your best when you only have one dish to make, which means every single dish on the table can be someone’s best effort. And everyone has more time to spend on what matters most about the holiday: family, friends, and feeling thankful.
Have you ever done Thanksgiving potluck-style before? Would you be more or less likely to consider a (socially distanced) potluck during the pandemic?