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Many families are rethinking Thanksgiving this year. Here's what they have planned

As COVID-19 cases surge, families plan to ‘holiday-in-place’ and make new traditions.
Making the classic turkey dinner is one way to make this socially distant Thanksgiving feel a little less strange, but folks are coming up with new traditions to celebrate the holiday. TODAY illustration / Getty Images

Usually around this time of year Vicki Liston and her husband are preparing for their annual trip from New Mexico to St. Louis for Thanksgiving with his family. Her mother-in-law’s home gets so packed and so loud that they can be heard from down the block.

But this year the house with the boisterous Thanksgiving party will be quiet. Due to the pandemic, instead of packing up to head out of state with the kids, Liston and her husband will be staying home. Her mother-in-law won’t be hosting anyone. Instead of an in-person gathering overflowing with food and wine and laughter, everyone will be dining with immediate family only. They will see each other sometime in the afternoon over a Zoom call.

“[My husband and I] feel terrible about this 'holiday in place' but we just can't justify the risks,” Liston said, adding that her mother-in-law wasn’t too pleased about their decision. “Understandably, she was shocked and hurt — and heaped on a generous amount of guilt in her efforts to change our minds. My husband, bless his heart, took on the brunt of the blame. We'd even noted that our honeymoon to Italy next week had already been canceled and we haven't been able to reschedule that yet.”

A ‘holiday in place’ isn’t ideal, but it’s the safest option

As COVID-19 cases surge, folks across the country and abroad have found themselves in the same (anchored) boat as Liston. Roseann Foley Henry in Queens, New York, typically hosts at least 15 guests for Thanksgiving, along with her partner and kids, but this year it will just be the four of them. Liz Humphreys, a Canadian-American who lives in Berlin, is known to host epic potluck Thanksgiving dinners for up to 60 people (mostly catering to fellow expats) but with Germany back in partial lockdown, an indoor gathering of that size is off the table. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci is hunkering down for the festive holiday; he told CBS News last month that while he would love to spend the holiday with his children, “they would all have to go to an airport, get on a plane and travel with public transportation.” And travel, because it increases the risk of spreading COVID-19, is discouraged by the CDC.

Thanksgiving isn’t canceled, to be clear; in fact according to a survey from Toluna Corporate, a market research firm, 90% of people will be celebrating the holiday. In a sense, more people will be celebrating, because more people will be prepping their own dinner than in years past.

Grocery stores anticipate they’ll be sold out of some items by Thanksgiving week

Chris Mentzer, director of operations at Rastelli Market Fresh in New Jersey, anticipates a 40% increase in grocery shopping ahead of this holiday over 2019, and is already bracing for shortages of Thanksgiving dinner staples including canned/jarred gravy, stuffing, canned pumpkin and traditional autumn spices like nutmeg and cinnamon.

“If anything people seem to want to go more traditional this year,” said Mentzer. “They want the meal they had growing up: the turkey, the mashed potatoes and the stuffing. I think that with all this uncertainty, they just want some sense of normalcy. The only difference is they’re gearing up for dinners for one to two people or four to eight people as opposed to eight to 16 people. And they’re stocking up now. I discourage hoarding but if you’re going to have a Thanksgiving dinner, shop sooner than later. We will definitely be sold out of [key ingredients] the week of.”

How to make the best of a downsized Thanksgiving

Making the classic turkey dinner is one way to make this socially distant Thanksgiving feel a little less strange, but folks are also coming up with new traditions to celebrate the holiday. Here’s a look at what families are trying out to feel more together, even when they have to be apart.

1. A texting scavenger hunt with kids

Cassandra LeClair, in Texas, won’t be seeing her nieces and nephews this Thanksgiving, but she’ll still be spending time with them. She’s planning a spontaneous scavenger hunt with them over text. “I will ask them to text me pictures of different things they can easily find at their home (a pretty leaf, something they are thankful for, etc.),” LeClair said, adding that if you’re going to do this, make sure the parents are in the know so they aren’t thrown for a loop.

2. Drop off leftovers to family within driving distance

“This year will be the first year that my husband and I will not have spent Thanksgiving with our two sons, daughters in law, and new baby grandson, and other family members,” said Lynell Rossin Auburn, California, “And we are doing OK with our decision. I am going to cook the traditional Thanksgiving meal, along with some new recipes, set a beautiful table, and be grateful for what we have. I will make enough for 8-10 people so we can share our delicious food. The next day, I will package up leftovers and drop them off to friends and family so they can enjoy the ‘day after Thanksgiving meal.’ Who doesn't look forward to that?”

3. Host a bring-your-own Thanksgiving picnic

Michelle Stansbury in San Diego usually takes part in a large Friendsgiving, but amid the pandemic, she doesn't feel comfortable with that kind of exposure. So she came up with an alternate plan: a BYO-Thanksgiving picnic. “To continue to feel a sense of community, I'm getting together with my quaranteam for an outdoor, BYO Thanksgiving picnic. The advantage of living in San Diego is that the weather is still nice enough over Thanksgiving to enjoy the afternoon outside. Since so many families have fallen on hard times due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I'm going to donate the money I would have otherwise spent on the big Thanksgiving celebration to give back to those in need.”

4. Play football together — using video games

“One of our family traditions is a football game for everyone,” said Austin Varley of Scottsdale, Arizona. “Instead of playing football outside with everyone, we are doing a Zoom call with everyone while playing Madden ... The winner of the tournament gets crowned 'Turkey of the Year'.”

5. Splurge on the good champagne and the finest cheeses

Humphreys in Berlin will be heeding Germany’s partial lockdown guidelines and only having seven people over — as opposed to the 50-plus she has hosted in the past. Since she’s saving money on meal prep, she’s going big on the best booze and foods.

“I think the key this year is to really make Thanksgiving feel like a celebration,” Humphreys said. “We can splurge on the best champagne and wine, and are thinking about creating a special autumn-themed cocktail. For appetizers, we can buy more premium cheeses than we usually would — we recently tried truffle cheese and a Barolo grape wrapped cheese from Piedmont that were delicious, and would be too pricey to serve to a large group, but would be perfect for a more intimate one.”

6. Dine together on Zoom (or maybe just have a toast)

“While it definitely won't be the same, seeing [everyone] on Zoom will allow for the boisterous conversations part of the whole experience,” said Liston. “We'll all cook from our respective kitchens, discuss the recipes that we all concocted, see all the kids and hear about school and the remote learning challenges, and of course, the virtual toasting with drinks. It's tough to be away from family during Thanksgiving, but we are grateful that everyone is healthy and safe.”