Instead of serving a formal Thanksgiving dinner this year, you might consider setting up a Thanksgiving buffet instead.
Having everything set out buffet-style allows your guests to evaluate all the offerings before they start serving themselves.
So instead of piling more and more food on your plate as each course is passed around the table — and mindlessly reaching for second and third helpings later in the night — everyone can eat mindfully and choose their favorite dishes and portions.
With that in mind, here are expert tips on how to set up a healthy Thanksgiving buffet
1. Make sure there is enough for everyone
You never want to eat too little, but you also don’t want to end up with pounds of potatoes and stuffing left in your fridge.
So how much food do you need for your Thanksgiving buffet?
“There’s no magic number for how much food to make for a gathering, as some people will go back for a second or third time or even bring an extra guest,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Masha Davis, MPH, RDN, founder and author of Mini Fish. Take your vitamins.
As a general guideline, Davis suggests you assign the following to each guest:
- A quarter pound of turkey (or other lean protein)
- 1 cup to 1/2 cup on each side
- Two rolls
- A piece of pie
Make sure to aim for variety in your entrees and side dishes – no everyone Loves green bean casserole.
2. Set up the buffet properly
For the main Thanksgiving buffet table, Davis recommends arranging everything in this order:
- Light, healthy sides (salads, vegetables)
- Lean protein (turkey, ham, tofu)
- Good starchy sides (mashed potatoes, stuffing, cornbread)
- Toppings (gravy, cranberry sauce)
That way, guests have plenty of plate space for the most nutritious meals.
When they get starches and sauces, they don’t have as much room on their plates and they naturally eat smaller portions of those foods.
Place butter dishes on the dining table, and place dishes, drinks and desserts on their own tables.
3. Label dishes
When you’re planning the menu for your Thanksgiving buffet, ask your guests if they have any food allergies or dietary restrictions.
If they do, be sure to let them know in advance what foods to avoid so that no accidents happen.
When you’re setting up your Thanksgiving buffet, label each dish and note whether anything contains common allergens — such as nuts, wheat or eggs — or is suitable for vegetarians or vegans.
If any guests bring food, ask them to do the same.
It’s also a good idea to have multiple serving spoons for each item, so guests will be less likely to use the same spoon for different dishes (which can be dangerous for guests with food allergies).
4. Make your plate smaller
At Thanksgiving, it’s tempting to use satellite-sized dinnerware. But “larger plate sizes can trick our minds into eating more,” says Davis, which can leave you feeling uncomfortably overstuffed.
(We’ve all been there.)
Davis recommends choosing small plates and bowls for Thanksgiving dinner. Guests can always go back for seconds if they’re still hungry.
5. Consider pre-sharing meals
“It can be a good idea to have pre-portioned items to keep all guests safe and to avoid congestion in the Thanksgiving buffet line,” says Davis.
You can pre-cut casseroles, make soup in ramekins, or even use small mason jars for cold meals.
6. Enjoy the taste of everything
Don’t skip breakfast! You eat as much as you normally do on any given day, so when it’s time for Thanksgiving dinner, you won’t be terribly hungry. This will help you avoid overeating.
When it’s time for the main event, go ahead and savor your favorite Thanksgiving dishes.
“This holiday is meant to be a time to celebrate with family, friends and good food, so do that,” says Davis. “One day won’t undo your healthy lifestyle. Remember a balanced plate filled half with vegetables, a quarter of starchy items and a quarter of protein. If you’re hungry after 20 minutes, grab seconds.”
7. Try this healthy recipe
Looking for inspiration for your Thanksgiving buffet? Choose healthy versions of your favorite Thanksgiving foods and mix in some creative side dishes and plant-based menu options.
Here are a few crowd-pleasing recipes for the best Thanksgiving dinner:
Healthy Green Bean Casserole
Creamy like the classic, this version calls for a bit more cooking — and it’s totally worth it. Get the recipe here.
Check the label of the bread you buy for this recipe to make sure it’s vegetarian. (Some brands add milk products or eggs.) Get the recipe here.
Healthy Cranberry Sauce
Use orange juice to add sweetness and depth of flavor. Get the recipe here.
Whole-Wheat Crust Pumpkin Pie
This healthy pumpkin pie recipe includes pumpkin puree, evaporated nonfat milk, maple syrup (or raw honey) for sweetness, and a whole wheat crust! Get the recipe here.