Thanksgiving is coming up, and in normal years, that typically means feasts and large gatherings with friends and family. But due to the pandemic, the holiday is going to look a lot different this year.

Here’s what health officials are suggesting as we approach the holiday season, and how you can adapt your meal preparations for a smaller crowd.

How to celebrate Thanksgiving in 2020

Who should I invite? And how many people can I invite?

As coronavirus levels have recently reached an all-time high in Washington state, health officials warned the public this week that “any in-person gathering is risky,” including Thanksgiving dinners.

To slow the spread of the virus, officials have stressed the importance of limiting gatherings, wearing masks and maintaining physical distance.

So what does that mean for you? Fewer people? Only family? Only the people you live with?

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“Please do not have Thanksgiving gatherings unless you’re positive everyone there has quarantined for 14 days (before),” Gov. Jay Inslee said in his statewide address on Thursday, as he implored people to be smart about their choices this Thanksgiving.

There are a lot of unique factors to consider.

“Is it indoors or outdoors? Are people wearing masks? Who has everyone interacted with? What is risk with each activity?” says Alison Drake, an infectious disease epidemiologist and an assistant professor at the University of Washington.

Here are things you can do to mitigate the risk of spreading the coronavirus. While nothing is foolproof, layering several precautions will help make your Thanksgiving and other holiday gatherings safer:

  • Limit your gathering to fewer than five people.
  • Hold your gathering outside, or in a well-ventilated open space where people can spread out.
  • Do not travel, or invite people who would have to travel to attend your gathering.
  • Ensure that everyone wears masks while not eating.
  • Plate food beforehand, or have everyone bring their own food, to minimize touching surfaces.
  • Only invite people who are in your COVID “pod” and those you live with.
  • Connect virtually with friends who may be immunocompromised, at risk of contracting COVID-19 or those who are showing any signs of sickness.

“Consider the safety of those who are more vulnerable, particularly the elderly or those with conditions that put them more at risk of contracting COVID-19,” says Drake.

“Any interaction you have with others, does have some level of risk,” says Drake.

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What should I cook?

Unless you’re happy with an exorbitant amount of leftovers, you probably shouldn’t plan on cooking a 16-pound turkey for a small group of people. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a great Thanksgiving feast.

From stuffing to sweet potatoes to macaroni and cheese, there are a ton of delicious, downsized dishes you can cook up this year.

But, if you’re adamant about having a turkey-centered meal, there are still ways you can adapt it to your smaller dinner. Kristina Glinoga, a Seattle-based butcher of Butchery 101 fame, recommends breaking your turkey down before cooking it, and either saving some pieces in your freezer or splitting the bird with another household.

Kristina Glinoga encourages people to butcher their own poultry, and store parts together in the freezer. On nights where she wants to cook thighs for dinner, the breasts are already separated. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Kristina Glinoga encourages people to butcher their own poultry, and store parts together in the freezer. On nights where she wants to cook thighs for dinner, the breasts are already separated. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

“The whole big, beautiful turkey is kind of an American myth, a la the Norman Rockwell aesthetic. But more often than not, that doesn’t create the best eating experience,” says Glinoga. “There are a lot of people that have heavy preference of dark versus white meat, so it might be beneficial to reach out to your friends. You can buy a turkey together, break it down and split it up.”

To ensure a flavorful, juicy turkey, Glinoga also suggests brining the turkey ahead of time. This requires a few days of preparation, so plan accordingly.

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If you’re looking for a locally sourced turkey, reach out to your nearest farmers market or butcher, who can point you to some Washington-based farmers with fresh turkeys.

Glinoga also suggested contacting your favorite restaurant. Many are doing Thanksgiving specials for takeout, and since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, some dining establishments have pivoted to selling meal kits or wholesale ingredients, so you may be able to find great foods there as well.

In general, don’t be afraid to switch up your menu for this year. Many associate Thanksgiving with tradition, but that doesn’t mean you can’t usher in some changes.

“2020 has thrown a lot of curveballs at us, and so much is different,” says Glinoga. “But it’s also a really good opportunity for us to reassess what is important for our Thanksgiving meals.”

How can I include at-risk people?

No matter what kind of event you’re hosting, it’s best to start planning as soon as possible, to accommodate food preparation and guests.

“In the past, poor planning meant salmonella or dry turkey. But poor planning now could be possibly extending the pandemic or potentially hosting superspreader events,” said Glinoga. “But even with distanced or online gatherings, we can still have a lot of human connection during the holidays.”

Ultimately, it’s always best to err on the side of caution. If you want to include friends or family who are more at risk of contracting COVID-19, hold a virtual Thanksgiving meal. Beyond just Zoom calling, here are some ways you can stay even more connected.

  • If friends or family live nearby, do a food swap. You can do a no-contact drop-off at their home, and eat the same meal together over video call.
  • Have a cook-off. Make the same meal as others, and compare your results.
  • Order takeout from the same restaurant, and “share” your same meal.
  • Take this virtual event as an opportunity to host friends and family who live too far away to normally visit for Thanksgiving.