Little known fact: I started my career in catering. When I landed in Austin at age 21, I scored a job as an event planner at a catering company, having no idea how much I’d fall in love with planning parties and working with the chef to get the details just right. I even loved the adrenaline rush of making sure a high-pressure event went off without a hitch (and if something did go wrong, making sure my client never knew about it!) I was single and living in a new city, and I can remember staying up late at Quack’s coffee shop pouring over menu ideas to create a food experience that was the perfect balance of interesting and familiar, satisfying without being heavy.
It was in those late-night work sessions that my slight obsession with menu planning was born. For me, the process of settling in with my cookbooks and designing a menu for a dinner party is a true creative outlet.
Over the years, friends have shared that they feel ill-equipped in the area, and I get a lot of menu-planning questions from you guys here and on IG – especially as the holidays approach. Even those who don’t entertain throughout the year are suddenly faced with a group of hungry family members descending on their home, ready for a feast.
Although intuition is a key ingredient in my menu planning process, when it comes to Thanksgiving, I do lean on a tried-and-true formula that checks all the boxes for what the people want, without totally exhausting the host (me) or resulting in way too much food. Some leftovers are good; a massive casserole dish that barely got a dent put in it? Not so much. Read on for my tried-and-true formula for a perfect Thanksgiving Menu, then click through to some of my favorite recipes in each category so you can mix and match to make it your own.
I’d love to hear what the Thanksgiving menu looks like at your house! Leave a comment and let me know if yours looks similar to mine, or if you’ve got a totally different tradition on the table.
My Thanksgiving Menu Formula
Here’s the general formula I use when deciding what we’ll be serving each year. Thankfully, most of my family members are great cooks, so I also use this formula to divvy up what people will bring potluck-style.
Turkey – Adam usually fries one, and I often roast a second turkey for leftovers. If we’ve got a really big group, we’ll pickup a honey glazed ham, too.
Gravy – not my favorite, but it must be done.
Potatoes – mashed, roasted, or scalloped.
Dressing – or “stuffing,” depending on where you live. Cornbread, white bread, wild rice, oyster.
Orange Vegetable – sweet potatoes, butternut squash, acorn squash, carrots.
Green Vegetable – brussels sprouts, green bean casserole, broccolini, sautéed greens like collards or kale.
Bread – rolls, focaccia, cornbread. I usually pick these up from a local bakery.
Pies – pumpkin, pecan, chocolate, buttermilk, apple, I could go on and on.
*And remember, if you’re having a smaller group (as so many are this year!) choose your faves and leave the rest. Just because it’s Thanksgiving doesn’t mean you need to spend the entire day in the kitchen. Now for the fun part! Scroll on for my favorite recipes for Thanksgiving… choose one from each category, and you’ve got yourself a failproof Thanksgiving menu all served up.
Dry-Rubbed Roast Turkey, Bon Appetit
“Our never-fail turkey produces a holiday centerpiece that is excellent in every way that other turkeys often fall short. It’s not bland, thanks to a sugar-and-salt dry rub. It’s juicy as heck, because we nailed the optimal target temperature (might as well write 150° on your hand now).” Get the recipe here.
*photo by Michael Graydon + Nikole Herriott for Bon Appetit.
Sausage, Cherry, and Sage-Stuffed Turkey Breast
Though a whole roasted bird is traditional, l think that a turkey breast rolled up with stuffing is one of the most flavorful way to serve the bird on Thanksgiving (and perfect for a smaller group.) I ask my butcher to debone and butterfly the turkey so that the hard part’s done before I bring it home. If you’d like, prepare the stuffing the night before and keep refrigerated until thirty minutes before prepping the turkey. Get the recipe here.
The Best Mashed Potatoes, Gimme Some Oven
“These mashed potatoes are indulgently buttery, creamy, tangy, and made with a very subtle hint of garlic (which you’re welcome to amp up, if you’d like). They are perfectly dense and thick (not the whipped and ultra-light variety). They feature not one, but two popular kinds of potatoes (whose skins you are welcome to leave on or peel off). They can be as smooth or as chunky as you prefer. And they are simply so good.” Get the recipe here.
Crash Hot Potatoes, Pioneer Woman
“They’re a lovely twist on the tired old baked potato, and they perfectly embody a quality I always strive to achieve in my cooking: Flavorful, Crispy Surface Area.” And if there’s one thing I trust Lee Drummond about, it’s potatoes for my Thanksgiving menu. Get the recipe here.
Creamy Scalloped Potatoes, Martha Stewart
This is the creamiest most perfect scalloped potato dish on the planet. Bonus points that it can be made almost completely in advance so on the day-of, you can sprinkle with one more layer of cheese and pop in the oven. Get the recipe here.
Orange Vegetable Side
Athena Calderon’s Blood Orange and Beet Salad
Have you ever seen a prettier color combo? Bring the beets & oranges in a bowl separate from the yogurt, then arrange on a platter just before serving. Get the recipe here.
Ottolenghi’s Sweet Potato Gratin
These scalloped and layered sweet potatoes are a gorgeous presentation, and the combination of sage, garlic, and cream makes for an indulgence that feels worth of Thanksgiving. Get the recipe here.
Sweet Potato and Pomegranate Salad
Hearty roasted sweet potatoes tossed with tangy feta, sweet pomegranate seeds & toasted pistachios. It’s festive enough to bring to a holiday potluck, but simple enough to throw together for a weeknight dinner (and also lunch the following day if you make a little extra). Get the recipe here.
photo and recipe by love and lemons
Roasted Delicata Squash and Kale Salad
Sheela Prakash shared her kale salad recipe from her new cookbook Mediterranean Every Day. It’s warm, comforting and our favorite salad to include on our Thanksgiving menu. Get the recipe here.
Honey Roasted Carrots with Sage and Pepitas
Halved carrots are tossed with olive oil, salt, and pepper, then roasted at 425 until just cooked through and crispy on the edges. Meanwhile, I make the secret sauce on the stovetop: a deliciously syrupy mixture of orange zest and juice, rice vinegar for a burst of acidity, a big squeeze of honey, heat in the form of sliced jalapeno or a shake of red pepper flakes (I go back and forth), and the key addition of fresh sage, which perfumes the entire dish with autumn vibes. Get the recipe here.
Dressing / Stuffing
Spicy Poblano Cornbread Stuffing
“I’ve had cornbread stuffing on my mind lately and when I saw these cute little poblano peppers at the farmers market, I knew they would add just the right kick (of course you could use jalapeños if you can’t find poblanos). I mixed them with some traditional stuffing ingredients – onions, celery, carrots, and sage – as well as some southwestern accents – scallions, cilantro and mexican oregano. And for a healthy kick I even snuck in some kale.” Get the recipe here.
photo and recipe by love and lemons
Easy Sage Stuffing, The Kitchn
“This is the most classic, herby, moist, and fragrant bread stuffing — just like what you get out of the box, but even better… It’s the stuffing you crave, the one that is so indelibly connected with Thanksgiving. It’s remarkably simple, and oh so good.” Get the recipe here.
Green Vegetable Side
Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Dates
There are a couple flavoring heros in this dish: bacon and dates are what really take these sprouts to the next level. I don’t usually subscribe to the “bacon makes everything better” ethos, but here they give so much smokiness and depth of flavor that really transforms the entire dish. Get the recipe here.
Kale and Wild Rice Salad with Maple Mustard Vinaigrette
Bursting with harvest flavors, lots of crunch, hearty grains, seasonal fruit, and that insanely fall-feeling maple-mustard dressing. It’s your wild rice dish and your green salad all in one, and you’ll want to devour it. Get the recipe here.
Cacio E Pepe Brussels Sprouts
I’m already obsessed with Brussels sprouts, but when you add parmesan, lemon zest, and hazelnuts to the mix… consider me dead.
Pies & Tarts
Easier-Than-Pie Warm Apple Tart
This tart is hard to cut warm, but it melts in your mouth (and no one minds a warm crumbled apple tart spooned into a bowl, with ice cream melting on top). Cool, it is equally alluring and easier to serve in perfect slices. The best thing about this tart, though, besides eating it, is knowing how easy it is to make it again. Get the recipe here.
recipe from Every Day is Saturday, by Sarah Copeland
Mini Pumpkin Tarts with Speculoos Crust
Britt’s recipe uses Speculoos (aka Biscoff cookies) for the crust, which make for a much more exciting and delicious addition to your Thanksgiving menu. Also, by making them in individual tart shells (hers are technically crème brûlée dishes), you’ll happily say goodbye to any pie cutting fails. Get the recipe here.
Apple Ginger Pie (gluten-free)
Granny Smith apples keep the pie from being overly sweet and the warm spices make a slice of pie the most comfy cozy dish to curl up with after dinner…and for breakfast the next morning with a cup of coffee! Get the recipe here.
Chocolate Pecan Slab Pie
This always-delicious classic is bulked up to feed a crowd by doubling my favorite recipe and baking it in a jelly roll pan instead of a classic pie tin. Cut into squares instead of sliced in triangles, it’s similar to a pecan bar, but doesn’t skimp on the gooey pecan filling. Get the recipe here.
**and while we’re on the topic of pies, here’s a must-read from the archives: How to Decorate the Perfect Pie Crust for Thanksgiving!
I’m off to go post up in front of the fire with my hot tea and stack of cookbooks. Happy menu planning!