25 Alternatives to a Basic Thanksgiving Turkey

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Group of friends enjoying a dinner party at home
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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 or to include non-carnivores in the meal, there are more options than ever for an inexpensive star on the Thanksgiving table besides the usual roast bird.

Stuffed butternut squash
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STUFFED SQUASH

Squash is one of the season's cheapest and most plentiful ingredients. This recipe turns it into a festive main dish by stuffing it with a medley of wild rice, vegetables, and cranberries. The dish looks like a roasted and stuffed piece of meat, which lets everyone know that this is the star of the meal.

Recipe: It Doesn't Taste Like Chicken

Vegetarian lasagna
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LASAGNA

Lasagna is always an inexpensive crowd pleaser, so why not make it the centerpiece at Thanksgiving? This recipe features different layers of seasonal flavors like pumpkin, butternut squash, sage, and nutmeg. Quick and easy to prepare, it could become an instant tradition, especially for vegetarians.

Recipe: The Kitchn

A large golden pot pie on a table with two smaller pot pies
Photo credit: 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.

Recipe: Earthy Feast

Two cornish hens in a baking dish with potatoes
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CORNISH 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.

Recipe: Taste of Home

Whole Peking style duck on a table with cherry tomatoes
Photo credit: 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 simplified version.

Recipe: Allrecipes

Whole roasted goose in a large pan
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GOOSE

Goose is another popular bird to roast on Thanksgiving. 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

Traditional Indian Tandoori chicken
Photo credit: Sumit.Kumar.99/shutterstock

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 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

Chicken tamales with green chile sauce
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TAMALES

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

Chicken or turkey with mole sauce and served with white rice
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MOLE

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

Large stuffed portobello mushroom with rice and cheese
Photo credit: cobraphotography/shutterstock

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. Make it your own by customizing the vegetables and herbs that go into the stuffing.

Recipe: St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Salmon fillet served with a cranberry sauce
Photo credit: Vaobullan/shutterstock

SALMON

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.

Recipe: Genius Kitchen

Stuffed small pumpkin
Photo credit: Nataliya Arzamasova/shutterstock

LAMB 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.

Recipe: The Tomato Tart

Sliced honey glazed ham
Photo credit: Brent Hofacker/shutterstock

HAM

Honey-glazed ham is synonymous with celebrations during the holidays. This alternative meets all the requirements of maintaining tradition and having a meat-based protein as the focus. Ham often goes on sale this time of the year, making it an economical choice.

Recipe: Allrecipes

Sliced brisket on a cutting board
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BRISKET

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: Chicago Tribune

Stuffed pork tenderloin
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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.

Recipe: Food & Wine

Whole roasted chicken with lemons and rosemary
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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. Stuffing the chicken is also a way to mark the occasion with something special.

Recipe: Epicurious

Sliced pork shoulder on a cutting board
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PORK AND KUMQUATS

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

Recipe: Martha Stewart

Sliced duck breast with a cranberry sauce
Photo credit: Shebeko/shutterstock

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

Bowl of sweet potato gnocchi with green herbs
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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

Pumpkin ravioli with green herbs
Photo credit: Brent Hofacker/shutterstock

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, though it does take some time to prepare. 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 whole fish in a dish on a table
Photo credit: 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.

Recipe: Food & Wine

Bowl of biryani
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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. 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

Roasted stuffed lobster
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ROASTED LOBSTER

If you live close to the sea, lobster may already be a holiday tradition already. 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

Bowl of bucatini pasta with sauce
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BUCATINI

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

Stuffed fake meat roast for vegetarians
Photo credit: 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.

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