Ditch the turkey this Thanksgiving — and enjoy these affordable alternatives instead

A chef-instructor from the Institute for Culinary Education gives us some delicious suggestions

Published November 19, 2022 11:59AM (EST)

Thumbs down to the turkey (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Thumbs down to the turkey (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

While there may be no holiday that is more synchronous with a particular "main ingredient," turkey unfortunately may not be in its requisite starring role in many households this year. While this may be disappointing to Tom Turkey (though likely not), the reasoning are myriad: Avian bird flu, inflation at large, the seemingly soaring numbers of those opting for vegetarian and vegan diets and so on and so forth. No matter if it's impossible to find in your area or the prices are astronomical, it might be more feasible to go for a non-turkey main course this year. 

In the hopes of avoiding turkey purchasing becoming similar to this scene, many are reasoning that it might be best to instead pivot to a different main entree option entirely. Celebrity restaurateur Guy Fieri recommends lamb as a Thanksgiving showstopper while Chicago Diner, a meat-free comfort restaurant, serves up seitan, mushrooms and mixed veggies. Of course, there are many who will forever make a roasted turkey and call it a day. Conversely, though, many have sidestepped the traditional in recent years, going from an entire toast bird to instead a spatch-cocked turkey, a turkey breast, a deep-fried turkey, etc. This year, though, omitting turkey entirely seems to be on the menu, pun intended. 

In order to get to the bottom of this "trend" and discover some unique Thanksgiving approaches, Salon Food reached out to Stephen Chavez, chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education, who answered our questions about best preparing for a potentially turkey-free Thanksgiving meal, offered some ideas about nontraditional options and spoke about other preparations for this year's festivities. 

Salon: What other cuts of meat or birds can be enjoyed in lieu of turkey on Thanksgiving? 

Chavez: A. "Chicken! Roast chicken is less expensive, easy to roast, delicious, and has less portions than a large turkey, so it is perfect for a single, couple, or small family celebration. A simple chicken stuffed with mirepoix, lemons, fresh herbs (parsley, rosemary, sage) and roasted whole is a great alternative to a large turkey."

B. "Duck breast. Again it's easy to find, just be careful of cooking time. Overcooked duck is extremely tough. It really needs to be cooked medium rare to medium at most."

C. "Tamales or turkey mole. Go Mexican for Thanksgiving! Most traditional Thanksgiving side dishes actually fit well with Mexican dishes. Things like corn, and squash, are natural pairings. Forgo the mashed potatoes and replace with a rice dish. Instead of rolls, use tortillas."

D. "Turkey breast or chicken breast Schnitzel. Pounded and breaded thin cuts of meat fried to a golden brown. This is done all over the world (Katsu, Milanesa, cutlet) and is a great alternative to a large bird, and will be cooked much faster, giving you more time to spend with family and friends."

Thank you; these sound amazing! In addition, what are some plant-based Thanksgiving dishes? What specific vegetables or plant-based foods mimic the meaty, juicy taste of Thanksgiving turkey? Jackfruit turkey? Tofu, tempeh or seitan turkey?

A great meatless alternative is going vegetable. It is the perfect time of year to try roasting squash or cauliflower. There are so many varieties of squash available right now, from the more common butternut or acorn, to ones like kabocha or Blue Hubbard. Roasted squash is absolutely seasonal, hearty, and delicious"

Is turkey still a popular choice for Thanksgiving in recent years? Are more people enjoying other kinds of birds or dishes? If so, what are the specifics? 

Absolutely! Given what we have gone through over the last few years, people are looking for "comfort" or "getting back to normal" which is why a classic Thanksgiving meal will always be comforting to people. However, the trend to eat more plant-based or "healthy" has also become trendy so some of the alternatives that I have suggested will apply as well.

Aldi just brought back its Thanksgiving Ravioli, which is stuffed with cheese, stuffing, slow-roasted turkey and cranberries. It's basically Thanksgiving dinner inside a pasta! Are there other store-bought, Thanksgiving-themed foods that can be enjoyed? 

I have not seen it but that Thanksgiving ravioli sounds great to me. Honestly, my favorite meal of the year is the day-after-Thanksgiving turkey sandwich, with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and cranberry sauce. It is my one true indulgence for the year. So why not skip the big feast and just roast a turkey breast and slice it for sandwiches?  That actually sounds fun, if "fancy" is not a necessity for your holiday meal.

What are some other unconventional, unique dishes that people can enjoy this Thanksgiving?

You can try tamales, pizza, sandwiches, dumplings or lasagna. In addition, we spent a long time being isolated from friends and family. It would be great for people to either not spend as much time in the kitchen away from the rest of the family. Perhaps, find a food that everyone can share in the prep, or an activity food that everyone can do together like a Thanksgiving "pizza party."

Do you have any must-have recommendations for Thanksgiving appetizers, sides, or desserts?

The problem with most sides is that there are just too many of them. The reason people feel sleepy after the Thanksgiving meal is not the scapegoat turkey, it's that you just consumed huge amounts of (mostly) carbs from sides and your body needs a break. Mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, sweet potatoes, stuffing, it is all too much.  Limit your sides to the true stars, or opt for lighter alternatives such as fresh sautéed or roasted veggies like green beans, squash, or carrots.

In addition to inflation and/or turkeys being so hard to find this year, can you speak to this growing trend of Thanksgiving turkeys perhaps not being as popular an option anymore, instead being replaced with eating other birds or proteins, plant-based dishes, etcetera. 

A. The cost of turkey is a factor this year so I'd suggest either getting a smaller bird, roasting chicken or having a plant-based main. You could also make a big pot of soup, it is the perfect weather for soup!

B. Try looking for an all-inclusive package that includes the bird plus side dish items. This could potentially be a cost savings.

C. I think the best thing that you can do is to not over-buy. You do not need a huge turkey so that everyone gets leftovers. Get portions that are appropriate for your gathering size.  You can provide the bird and everyone else brings sides.

D. It is also a great time to clean out your pantry or fridge and use items that have been sitting there a while. That jar of olives you bought on vacation, or that can of water chestnuts can be added into your stuffing or vegetable dish.

These are great options. For the diehard turkey lovers out there, how should they strategize to best find turkeys this year? ​

I would suggest a local butcher shop for the best quality turkey. The ones in the stores are fairly generic, so short of going to an actual farm, I would suggest a butcher shop in order to get the best quality bird.

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. He loves hard cheeses, extra-crispy chicken cutlets, chocolate-coated candied orange peels, any and all pasta dishes, croissants, peach juice, coffee and admittedly stans Mountain Dew — as damning as that may be. He is a burgeoning movie buff and has an irrational distaste for potato bread. He is especially passionate about music, social justice advocacy, his loved ones and his dog, Winston.

MORE FROM Michael La Corte

By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon, covering Culture and Food. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.


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