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Be creative with your Thanksgiving meal

URBANA, Ill. – This year is forcing families to rethink everything, from education to outings. Instead of stressing over the changes or feeling sad about what you’re losing this year, University of Illinois Extension has some creative ideas to help you focus on family this Thanksgiving.

Food is the centerpiece for many Thanksgiving celebrations. Put a spin on your holiday meal. Fewer guests at your table means fewer picky eaters and fewer preferences to accommodate. So, consider tossing out the traditional menu and trying something completely different.

Mix up the meal
Include local food products in your meal. “Supporting regional food providers encourages economic growth, benefits the environment, and promotes a safer food supply,” says Kelly Allsup, Extension horticulture educator. “Locally grown foods also have more nutrients since they have a shorter time between being harvested and reaching the consumer.”

For something fun, educational, and healthy, recreate the first Thanksgiving meal. Historians believe the meal was heavy on vegetables, including onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots, and cornmeal, and native fruits, such as blueberries, plums, grapes, gooseberries, raspberries, and cranberries. The meal most likely included venison and seafood.

For traditional menus, grocery stores are offering a great price on turkeys, says Ken Koelkebeck, Extension poultry specialist. "There’s going to be some good specials out there for consumers on whole birds,” Koelkebeck says, due to lower demand from canceled family gatherings. Find recipes, nutrition facts, history, tips for handling leftovers, and more on Extension’s turkey website.

“Create lifelong memories by having children help with the cooking this year,” says Tessa Hobbs-Curley, Extension family life educator. "It’s a great way to introduce them to family recipes." For a fun twist, pretend you're on a cooking show and have cooks livestream other family members while they prepare holiday favorites.

Do a Meal Exchange
Divide up the menu and have family and friends each prepare one item which they drop off at each other’s homes, creating a socially-distanced version of a progressive dinner. Each person divides their dish into storage containers, then delivers them to the doorstep of the other participating households on Thanksgiving day. Take advantage of unlimited Zoom calls to eat together or connect after the meal to thank and compliment all the chefs.

Skip the Cooking
Many grocery stores and restaurants are offering sides or whole-meal deals this year. Support local businesses by ordering early and buying this year's meal.

Donate your meal
If there are fewer folks around the table, consider donating canned food items you might have used to local food pantries instead. Use Extension’s Food Finder website to find food pantries in your area.

Reduce Food Waste
Thanksgiving is a great time to plan and consciously reduce your food waste. “We can reduce the amount of food we purchase by budgeting our trips to the store or thinking out meals in advance,” says Chris Enroth, Extension horticulture educator. “We can reuse food by working with local food recovery programs that take uneaten food from restaurants, farmers, or grocers to shelters or food pantries. And, we can recycle food through composting."

SOURCE: Cheri Burcham, Family Life Educator, Illinois Extension
SOURCETessa Hobbs-Curley, Family Life Educator, Illinois Extension
WRITER: Nicole Stewart, Communications, Illinois Extension,

ABOUT EXTENSION: Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities.