5 main dishes to serve up as alternatives to turkey at Thanksgiving
The bird isn't everything.
This story has been updated. It was originally published on November 24, 2020.
Despite the upheaval that the pandemic has caused on supply chains this year, there’s no sign yet that the country is facing a turkey shortage. At least in most locales, if you desperately need and want a gobbler to celebrate the holidays, you’re more likely than not to find one.
But even if you luck out and buy the right-sized bird, you may not feel like going through the entire process of basting, flavoring, and cooking it. Here are a few cheaper, easier, or just different alternatives to turkey as the Thanksgiving centerpiece (with bonus vegetarian and vegan options).
Salmon is stock full of healthy nutrients. A standard portion (about 3.5 ounces) of the farmed fish contains about 2.3 grams of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA and EPA, which are essential for health. White fishes like cod or halibut have a flaky texture, so using them as a stand-in for turkey won’t always do the trick. But salmon is far chewier and meatier, not to mention full of flavor. Plus, it’s far easier to cook than you might realize. Food writer Mark Bittman’s “Salmon Roasted in Butter” recipe has just three steps and three ingredients, and takes, on average, 15 minutes to prepare.
Rotisserie or roasted chicken
If you want to stay in the bird family, a good fallback is chicken. From both a nutritional and textural standpoint, it’s an excellent sub for turkey. That’s to say that it tastes like turkey—and any foodie or chef will tell you the differences between the two is astronomical. But if you’re having a smaller Thanksgiving celebration this year, a whole roasted chicken could be a great option. The average rotisserie chicken, which is slow-cooked under direct heat and often sold in grocery stores, is about 2 pounds. That should serve a family of three to four people. If you’re cooking for even more people, opt for a larger chicken that’s about 5 to 6 pounds.
[Related: Is it safe to travel for the holidays this year? Here’s the CDC’s advice.]
Still want to go the chicken route but want to make it a real home-cooked meal? A roasted chicken isn’t a complicated dish to gin up in your kitchen. This Ina Garten recipe takes about two hours to complete and only requires a handful of ingredients.
If you want to skip the traditional Thanksgiving meal all together, this all-in-one pasta dish is always a hit. There are also countless ways to change it up depending on what your family or roommates likes. Meat-based lasagnas often call for beef or pork, so that would work well if you can’t get your hands on a turkey. Vegetable ones call for any combination of carrots, cauliflower, green, and other produce. Or just stick to the classic method with Saveur’s simple recipe.
Cornish game hens
Nothing says personal like an individual Cornish game hen. These birds are a cross between the Cornish breed of chicken and the White Plymouth Rock. They’re harvested when they’re young, and weigh in around a pound or two when cooked. Depending on how many guests you have, they may take quite a bit of time to prepare—but they can be a great touch if you’re willing to put in the effort. Again, check out Saveur for expert recipes.
For vegetarians and vegans, the traditional Thanksgiving meal offers a plethora of amazing side dishes to choose from. And while that’s usually enough food to fuel up, sometimes it’s fun to be able to indulge in a plant-based main course, too. To treat a meatless palate, go with an easy-to-make stuffed squash. The Washington Post has a nutritious recipe that’s packed with flavor.