Nov 17, 2021

Small Thanksgiving Dinner Menu and Recipes with Grocery List

Small Thanksgiving Dinner Menu and Recipes

This is your ultimate guide on how to make a small Thanksgiving dinner with less stress and some delicious leftovers too!

You'll learn what to make ahead of time, when to set the table, and you'll get my grocery list to help you shop for all the ingredients you need, as well as a timeline to help you get this small feast on the Thanksgiving table with less stress!

I include all of our family favorite Thanksgiving recipes to make things easier on the big day. The Thanksgiving recipes included in this collection are ones my family enjoys year after year. I'll occasionally make up something new just to surprise everyone, but what you see here is what we'll be enjoying for our small Thanksgiving dinner feast this year.
Thanksgiving Dinner Menu and Recipes graphic

How and When to Thaw the Turkey

I recommend thawing your turkey in the fridge for safety. In a pinch you can thaw in a water bath, but that is time consuming and requires you to change the water often.

So keep it simple, and be sure to purchase your turkey with enough time for the big thaw. Allow 1 day for every 4 pounds of turkey. That is 5 days for a twenty pounder!
How long to thaw turkey graphic - 1 day for every 4 lbs of turkey

What to Cook for a Small Thanksgiving Dinner

This is my menu for our small Thanksgiving dinner meal. Throughout this guide I also make recommendations for substitutions you might like, however, my timeline and grocery list below are based on this small Thanksgiving dinner menu. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to reach out to me for help.

Printable Thanksgiving Menu Grocery List

Use this grocery list to shop for the ingredients needed to make my small Thanksgiving dinner menu listed above. Remember to check your pantry, freezer, and fridge and cross off any ingredients you already have on hand.

What to Prepare the Weekend before Thanksgiving

The weekend before Thanksgiving is a great time to grab the grocery list and do your Thanksgiving dinner shopping if you haven't done so already.

It's also the time I recommend making your Thanksgiving desserts. As much as we LOVE desserts, we are having a small thanksgiving dinner gathering, so I try to only make one, but I sometimes make two, because, you know, everybody loves dessert.

I always make my Pecan Pie Bars for our small thanksgiving dinner. Pecan Pie Bars are so much easier to make than traditional pies, so they are my go-to Thanksgiving dessert! That being said, if it's not Thanksgiving in your house without a Pumpkin Pie, I recommend buying your pies at your favorite local bakery.

These are the absolute BEST Pecan Pie Bars! With a buttery shortbread crust and ooey gooey, caramel-y pecan pie filling, this EASY, make-ahead recipe will ensure your Thanksgiving has less stress and more time for family.

Pecan Pie Bars freeze well, so you can even make these up to a month ahead of time. Just be sure to hide them in the freezer. If your family is like mine, they will find these tasty pecan pie bars and eat them all before Thanksgiving!
Pecan Pie bars on a plate ready to serve

If you want a few more easy dessert options, I'm sure you'll like my Crescent Roll Apple Turnovers and my Apple Pie Bread Pudding, both are easy to make and delicious. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream for an extra special treat!

Keep in mind this is a small Thanksgiving dinner. You want to keep it simple so you can enjoy the holiday without losing your mind, so try to resist making too many desserts and side dishes.

What to Prepare the Day Before Thanksgiving

Brine turkey - On the day before Thanksgiving, put the turkey in a salt water brine. I recommend a whole turkey, but a turkey breast is great too if you prefer white meat only. I don't recommend a pressed turkey breast without bones as they are processed and not as flavorful.

Follow my steps in this recipe for How to Roast Turkey for a deliciously juicy turkey loaded with flavor every time!

NOTE: The above recipe is for a large turkey, so you'll have to cut the cook time in 1/2 for an 8-9lb turkey. In recent years I've been making a small Thanksgiving dinner for 2-4 people, so my turkey is typically less than 10lbs. If you want enough turkey for 4 adults with leftovers, you'll want to pick up an 8-9lb turkey.

Soup - On the day before Thanksgiving make the cream cheese Butternut Squash Soup. I like to have a soup starter on Thanksgiving Day, so I make the soup the day before Thanksgiving and then just reheat and serve on the big day. It's so easy!

Be sure to reserve a 1/2 cup butternut squash to make the Butternut Squash Dinner Rolls.

An alternative to a soup starter would be a nice garden salad or a charcuterie board.

TIP: Set the table with all of the place settings and serving dishes the DAY BEFORE Thanksgiving to save time. It also helps to ensure you have enough room for all of the serving dishes. If not, you can set up another table if needed. It's always good to know those things the day before.


I don't include casseroles in my Thanksgiving menu for small gatherings, but I know for many Thanksgiving casseroles like sweet potato casserole and/or green bean casserole are traditional Thanksgiving side dishes. If you want to include casseroles in this small Thanksgiving meal, I recommend making them the day before and reheating once the turkey is out of the oven on Thanksgiving day.

Thanksgiving Day Timeline

8:00 am - Thanksgiving Day remove the turkey from the brine (discard brine), dry turkey, put on roasting rack and back in fridge, uncovered, to dry out the skin so it will crisp up when roasting.

We usually enjoy our Thanksgiving dinner later in the day around 5:30pm, so I have time to enjoy a leisurely breakfast with the family before getting the side dishes prepped. It really helps to keep things stress free if you give yourself enough time.

11:00 am - Make the stuffing recipe, Sausage Apple Cranberry Stuffing. This is the recipe my family anticipates every year! I think it's their favorite part of Thanksgiving.

It really is the most delicious stuffing recipe, so full of flavor with fresh apples, fresh herbs and plenty of dried sage, this stuffing recipe is easy to make and smells so good when baking.

After preparing the stuffing, refrigerate until ready to heat it up while the turkey is resting.
Sausage apple cranberry stuffing ready to serve for Thanksgiving
12:00 pm - Make the cranberry sauce. My Homemade Cranberry Sauce recipe is quick and easy to make and oh so delicious! You'll never buy canned cranberry sauce again! Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Cranberry sauce in a pot ready to serve on Thanksgiving
12:30 pm - Start the stock for the gravy. Click here to learn how to make homemade turkey gravy. It's really quite easy and so much better than any store bought gravy.

While the stock is simmering away, clean up a little, and then you'll have time to put your feet up and hang with the family. Grab a healthy snack to keep you going throughout the afternoon.

1:30 pm - Remove the turkey neck and giblets from the stock and set aside. Then pour the liquid through a strainer into a bowl to reserve the broth.

2:00 pm - Prep the turkey and get it in the oven. An 8-9 pound turkey will take about 2 1/2 hours with a 30 minute rest time, so if you get the turkey in the oven by 2:30 it should be ready to carve and serve by 5:30 pm.

2:45 pm - Start preparing the dinner rolls and let them rise for 1 hour

NOTE: My butternut squash dinner rolls are a Thanksgiving tradition in our home. If you feel making homemade rolls will be too much, I recommend making my Cornbread Recipe instead. It's quick and easy and always a big hit! Be sure to take some butter out of the fridge to soften to serve with the cornbread.

3:00 pm - Remove the turkey from the oven and carefully flip the turkey per instructions in my brined and roasted turkey recipe. Put the turkey back in the oven to finish roasting.

NOTE: Have foil handy in case you need to cover any parts of the turkey that might dry out while roasting. You probably won't need it, but it's best to be prepared.

4:00 pm - Prep the dinner rolls for the 2nd rise and let them rise for 45 minutes.

NOTE: The rolls should be ready to go in the oven around 5pm when the turkey comes out to rest.

4:30 pm - Before everyone arrives, warm up the soup and have it ready so everyone can enjoy some soup. I set up the soup station on the bar top with bowls and spoons so everyone can help themselves.

4:30 pm - Start the mashed potatoes

4:45 pm - Once the potatoes are in the water, get the vegetables in the steamer. Don't turn the heat on yet, but get the vegetables ready so all you have to do is turn the heat on.

NOTE: This next section is the most stressful time of the day, so definitely get some help to finish things up and get everything on the table. Remember, it's not a problem if the turkey rests longer in order to get all the things done. Dinner doesn't have to be on the table right at 5:30pm, so don't stress it. Take your time. Focus on one thing at a time and grab help when you need it.

5:00 pm - Check the turkey for doneness with an instant read thermometer. If up to temp, remove from oven and set aside to rest.

5:00 pm - Put the dinner rolls in the oven and set the timer so you don't forget them! Put the stuffing in the oven with the dinner rolls.

While the rolls and stuffing are baking, make the gravy. Grab someone to stir the gravy for you while you mash the potatoes.

At this time, you'll want to turn the heat on to steam the vegetables. The vegetables should steam in just 8-10 minutes, so be sure to set a timer and remove them from the heat so they don't overcook.

5:30 pm - Ask someone to carve the turkey and enlist help to get everything on the table. Don't forget the cranberry sauce in the fridge! 


This small Thanksgiving menu for 2-4 people should provide you with a few leftovers. Store leftovers in the refrigerator in airtight containers.

We love turkey sandwiches, especially my Turkey Grilled Cheese with Cranberry and Brie.

Another favorite way to repurpose Thanksgiving leftovers is to make my very popular Leftover Thanksgiving Casserole. I know many of you have tried this recipe and love it, because it is very popular after Thanksgiving! We'll be enjoying this leftover casserole this year too! I can't wait. Next to the stuffing, I love Thanksgiving leftovers the most!

I hope you enjoy our family's Traditional Thanksgiving Menu. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to leave me a comment or contact me via email.

I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday filled with lots of love and gravy :)


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