Forget Turkey: Try These Thanksgiving Main Course Alternatives

Turkey Alternatives

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Turkey Alternatives
Cheapism / Sumit.Kumar.99/shutterstock / Brent Hofacker/shutterstock / sarsmis/shutterstock

Winging It

Thanksgiving, at its core, is about gratitude, spending time with loved ones, and enjoying delicious food. A traditional roasted turkey is the centerpiece at most American dinners, but it is far from the only option. 

Whether the aim is to explore a different culture's dishes, to include non-carnivores in the meal, or to explore other protein options such as pot roast, pork loin, baked ham, or even roasting a whole fish, there are more main dish recipes than ever for an inexpensive star on the Thanksgiving table besides the usual whole roasted bird. 

Here are 30 main course alternatives to roast turkey.

Related: 16 Creative Thanksgiving Turkey Recipes

Closeup of Baked Ham (with Brown Sugar Glaze) with Slices Surrounded By Orange and Pineapple Slices
Brent Hofacker/shutterstock

Baked Glazed Ham

Honey-glazed ham is synonymous with celebrations during the holidays. This main course alternative meets all the requirements of maintaining tradition and having a meat-based protein as the focus. Baked ham often goes on sale this time of the year, making it an economical choice. This glazed ham recipe uses a brown sugar glaze, but a honey glaze would also be delicious.

Recipe: Dinner Then Dessert

Related: 24 Creative Twists on Ham

Focus on Vegetarian Thanksgiving Lasagna on a White Plate with a Fork
Instant Pot Corned Beef with Potatoes and Vegetables on a White Plate on a Grey Napkin with a Fork

Instant Pot Corned Beef

People may associate this main dish with St. Patrick's Day, but why not add some Irish flair to Thanksgiving? Most importantly, the leftovers are better. Forget those leftover turkey sandwiches and make Reubens instead.

Recipe: Dinner Then Dessert

Stuffed Roasted Butternut Squash on a Southeastern Style Ceramic Plate on a Blue Green Table
Three Tender Stuffed Cornish Hens on Rice on a White Plate

Cornish Game Hens

Cornish hens are small broiler chickens that always evoke a sense of festivity. They are often small enough that they can be served one per person. This recipe calls for stuffing the birds as a nod to the traditional stuffed turkey. In addition to being less expensive than a large turkey, they also take much less time to prepare — only about 20 minutes.

Recipe: Taste of Home

Top View of Peking Duck on a White Plate on a Light Grey Tablecloth
Svetlana Obrazzova/shutterstock

Peking Duck

Peking duck is a common dish at Chinese Thanksgiving celebrations. Many people choose to preorder their birds from a local restaurant that specializes in the dish. If you'd like to make your own duck, consider this whole roasted yet simplified version.

Recipe: Allrecipes

Ultimate Slow Cooker Beef Stew in a White Bowl with Three Slices of Toasted Bread

Slow Cooker Beef Stew

Thanksgiving can be stressful for many, many reasons, so make the meal a little easier. A beef stew cooked in a slow cooker will make the house smell delicious and requires little hands-on involvement once the mixture is in the pot. Then you have plenty of time to deal with guests grousing over your non-traditional Thanksgiving meal.

Recipe: Dinner Then Dessert

Related: Five-Ingredient Soups and Stews for an Easy Meal

Two Green Chile Chicken Tamales, One is Opened on an Avocado Green Plate


Tamales are a popular dish for celebrations. One of the best aspects of tamales is that you can flavor them however you like, including with turkey and cranberry sauce for a fusion menu. This recipe for green chile chicken tamales could absolutely use turkey instead, or be served as-is for an authentic Mexican-style taste of the holidays.

Recipe: Epicurious

Closeup of Tandoori Chicken on an Iron Skillet Surrounded By a Wood Underliner

Tandoori Chicken

Those who love to add spice and flair to their dinner tables will want to make this recipe at least once for their Thanksgiving meal. Intense spices like ginger, garlic, cumin, and chili powder give the marinade loads of flavor while tenderizing the meat. A quick cooking time — less than 20 minutes — also means less time spent in the kitchen. Between its big flavors and supple texture, this is an easy and inexpensive recipe that always impresses.

Recipe: BBC's Good Food

Related: Could Buying Thanksgiving Dinner Be Cheaper Than Cooking?

Two Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms on a Wooden Cutting Board

Stuffed Portobellos

Portobello mushrooms have been a favorite among vegetarians forever thanks to their naturally meaty texture that can stand in for anything from chicken to steak. This recipe for stuffed portobellos is easy to put together from inexpensive ingredients and elegant enough for any festive meal, plus the stuffed mushrooms require less than 30 minutes in the oven. Make it your own by customizing the vegetables and herbs that go into the stuffing; for a mushroom-centric dish with a Pacific Northwest bent, you could even stuff your portobellos with other wild mushrooms.

Recipe: St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Closeup of Stuffed Pork Tenderloins with Bacon and Apple-Riesling Sauce on a Wooden Cutting Board

Bacon-Wrapped, Stuffed Pork Tenderloin

Pork tenderloin is a lean, inexpensive, and flavorful meat that can be made fancy and festive with stuffing. This recipe echoes traditional Thanksgiving flavors by incorporating thyme, sage, and smoky bacon that contrasts with sweet-tart apple and riesling sauce. Serve this with some of the same riesling used to make the sauce, and it's a guaranteed success. If you have a bigger crowd to feed, you could try out dishes with other pork cuts.

Recipe: Food & Wine

Thanksgiving Salmon with Red Sauce and Garnish on a White Plate


For holiday meals, fish is not as uncommon as you may think. Make the meal feel celebratory by doing something special with a nice cut of salmon. This recipe pairs the fish with an herbed cranberry-mustard sauce. This preparation gives an unmistakable Thanksgiving flavor profile to a very healthy protein — all for less than 15 minutes of broiling time.


Closeup of Turkey Mole with White Rice and Salsa on a Blue-Lined White Plate with a Fork


Mole is a rich sauce from Mexico that can be made in many different styles. In Oaxaca, one of the most traditional ways to enjoy mole is with turkey. A Thanksgiving table set with a big pot of turkey mole is a fragrant way to make a statement. This mole is made from a long list of ingredients, but many of them are pantry staples and easy to find at any store, such as allspice, raisins, almonds, and dried chiles.

Recipe: Food Network

Related: 15 Memorable Things to Do in Oaxaca, Mexico's Culinary Capital

Roast Goose in a Baking Pan


Goose is another popular substitute for roast turkey on Thanksgiving, and closer to tradition than some other Thanksgiving turkey alternatives. A simple preparation is all that is needed to get crispy skin and tender meat. Aromatic vegetables and a dry white wine round out the ingredient list, keeping the costs low by avoiding any specialty items.

Recipe: Martha Stewart

Closeup of Roasted Lobster on a Silver Plate with Lettuce

Roasted Lobster

If you live close to the sea, lobster may already be a holiday tradition. Often available for great low prices, lobster always feels fancy and can pair surprisingly well with the intense flavors of a Thanksgiving spread. This recipe stuffs the lobster tails for a complex final dish.

Recipe: Cooking Light

One Large and Two Small Pumpkin Pot Pies on a Blue Checkered Napkin with Two Wooden Spoons
AS Food studio/shutterstock

Pumpkin Pot Pie

This recipe takes the comfort factor of pot pie and the seasonal cravings for all things pumpkin and fuses them into a crave-worthy dish. The dish is so hearty that many may not even notice it is a vegetarian option, which could also be made vegan with a few omissions. It also takes little time in the oven, baking for fewer than 40 minutes.

Recipe: Earthy Feast

Meatloaf-Stuffed Mini Pumpkin on a Green Plate with a Fork, Mini Tomatoes, and Herbs

Meatloaf Pumpkins

This sophisticated dish allows you to have pumpkins on the table, and what could be more appropriate for Thanksgiving? The whimsical presentation alone is enough to make this recipe worth it, but the warm spice layers throughout the dish also provide a festive flavor. While this dish takes a bit of effort, it's definitely a show stopper, and one of the more festive-looking options among these Thanksgiving turkey alternatives. Don't have little pumpkins lying around? These can also be baked in Mason jars, but the baking time changes to around 25 minutes.

Recipe: Culinary Cam

Related: 15 Classic, Affordable Thanksgiving Recipes

Beef Brisket with a Portion Already Cut on a Bamboo Cutting Board


Brisket can easily be swapped in for turkey without changing a thing about the meal otherwise. This classic recipe for sweet glazed brisket creates a meaty, tender main dish with hints of seasonal sweetness that will pair well with creamy sweet potatoes and earthy Brussels sprouts. It even yields its own gravy for all the sides, just as a turkey would.

Recipe: Food Network

Closeup of Simple Roast Chicken with Lemons and Herbs on a White Plate with a Knife

Roast Chicken

A simple roast chicken is inexpensive, easy, and a winner every time. It may not be the most creative or unique main dish, but it does offer a true comfort factor that can keep the focus on the occasion while still providing a hearty and tasty bird for the main course. Stuffing the chicken is also a way to mark the occasion with something special. This roast chicken recipe is a great starter bird, too, for someone who's never tackled a turkey before.

Recipe: Epicurious

Slow-Roasted Pork with Kumquats on a Wooden Cutting Board with Herbs and Garlic
from my point of view/shutterstock

Pork and Kumquats

For pork lovers, there are many ways to give dishes a seasonal flavor beyond using sage and cranberries. This pork roast recipe uses sweet and tart kumquats, which provide a citrusy pop. The layers of different flavors make this dish exciting to eat. For an even more succulent take on this recipe, try it using pork belly.

Recipe: Martha Stewart

Related: How to Feed a Crowd 15 Ways With a Cheap Cut of Pork

Closeup of Duck with Cranberry Mostaza and Garnish on a White Plate

Duck Breast with Cranberries

Using only duck breasts, as opposed to an entire bird, this recipe creates a sweet-and-savory interplay between the duck and the cranberries. Sliced and plated, it gives the feel of a restaurant entree at home, or it can be plated family style for a more casual feast.

Recipe: Denver Post

Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Brown Butter and Sage in a Copper Skillet
Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/shutterstock

Sweet Potato Gnocchi

Eating gnocchi always feels like a treat, and can easily be infused with classic Thanksgiving flavors like brown butter and sage. These little pasta pillows rely on sweet potato with ricotta cheese for texture and creaminess. The subtle hint of nutmeg also helps bring out the sweet and savory spice notes, making it a seasonal home run.

Recipe: Epicurious

Savory Pumpkin Ravioli on a White Plate with a Fork

Pumpkin Ravioli

Pumpkin ravioli is a must-have for many folks during the fall and winter months. This recipe is surprisingly easy and cheap to make and, though it does take some time to prepare, it requires less than 15 minutes of cook time. The texture and flavor of fresh pumpkin is a welcome change of pace amid heavier dishes on the Thanksgiving table.

Recipe: Taste of Home

Salt-Baked Fish in a Glass Baking Bowl with a Plate with a Fork and Knife
Irina Malikova/shutterstock

Salt Baked Whole Fish

Salt baking a whole fish is a very Italian way of preparing a celebratory meal. Aside from being inexpensive and easy, the salt crust ensures the texture of the fish remains juicy and tender while getting gently cooked and seasoned. This technique is fool proof, taking the pressure off the host when cooking for a large crowd, and bakes for less than 40 minutes. If the thought of a salt crust is intimidating, this recipe would also be delicious bacon wrapped.

Recipe: Food & Wine

Turkey Biryani in a Small Copper Skillet with a Fork and Dipping Sauce

Turkey Biryani

Biryani is an Indian and Pakistani dish that layers tender meat with aromatized rice to create a one-pot meal that is full of subtle and tantalizing spices. Often made for special occasions, it is ideal for an alternate Thanksgiving main course. This recipe uses turkey as a nod to American traditions, but a typical chicken, lamb, or vegetable biryani would be just as good.

Recipe: New York Times

Bucatini with Cauliflower and Brussels Sprouts in a Terracotta Bowl on a White and Terracotta Napkin
Antonio Danna/shutterstock


As pastas go, bucatini, a hefty straw-like noodle, makes the heartiest meals. This recipe loads up the cauliflower and Brussels sprouts to capture the flavors of the harvest season in every bite. The anchovies get hidden in the dish to add the extra layers of richness without being overtly part of the flavor profile. No need to even mention it to your guests!

Recipe: Food & Wine

Closeup of Cut Slow-Roasted Beef Prime Rib with Horseradish Sauce on an Wooden Cutting Board with Dipping Sauce

Slow-Roasted Prime Rib with Horseradish Sauce

Both the prime rib roast itself and the accompanying sauce are easy to prepare, although the former will take quite a bit of time in the oven to get it just right. And, if you're lucky, you'll have enough leftovers to be making roast beef sandwiches for days.

Recipe: Grateful

Thanksgiving Turkey Meatballs With Gravy & Red Wine Cranberry Sauce in a Cast Iron Skillet with a Natural Napkin

Thanksgiving Turkey Meatballs

There's no need to make a whole bird to include turkey on the menu. These turkey meatballs get a punch of flavor with smoked gouda and sage, and are served with a creamy gravy and a cranberry red wine sauce.

Recipe: Cooking With Cocktail Rings

Closeup of Crown Roast of Pork with Onion and Bread-Crumb Stuffing Surrounded By Orange Peelings
Closeup of Crown Roast of Pork with Onion and Bread-Crumb Stuffing Surrounded By Orange Peelings by ulterior epicure (CC BY-NC-ND)

Pork Crown Roast

Add a regal touch to your table with this showstopper of a recipe that also includes a savory stuffing made with onion, herbs, celery, apple cider vinegar, and ground pork. Few grocery stores carry this cut of meat, so visit your local butcher to pick up your crown roast.

Recipe: Epicurious

Vegan 'Celebration Roast' on a White Plate
Jay Ondreicka/shutterstock

'Celebration Roast'

For vegans, Thanksgiving can be difficult. This "celebration roast" mimics a piece of roasted meat with a traditional bread stuffing and mushroom gravy for those who want a nostalgic taste of the holiday. These turkey alternatives can be found easily during the holiday season at health food stores and markets that regularly stock vegan and vegetarian foods.

Related: 50 Healthy Thanksgiving Dishes for Special Diets