A non-cook's guide to a small Thanksgiving

If you’re a non-cook like myself or just not used to cooking a Thanksgiving dinner on a small scale, you might find yourself wondering how you are going to keep Thanksgiving meal traditions alive during the pandemic.

My Jennie-O turkey breast turned out great again this year. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

When it comes to bringing food to share with a group, I’m the person that usually brings the veggie tray, or the pickles and olives. Perhaps a bag of rolls or carton of cookies bought ready made from the store.

I’m no cook. So it might seem odd for me to write a cooking/advice column pertaining to one of the biggest food-based events of the year, Thanksgiving.

But with a pandemic curtailing group gatherings, trying to do a full Thanksgiving spread is daunting so I thought I’d share my experience of cooking for two on Thanksgiving from last year when I found myself in charge of all the food. Additionally, I did another run through of the meal this year to see if I could repeat or in some cases, better my results.

Items from a shopping trip sit on the table before they are made during a Thanksgiving meal practice run. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch


If you’re a non-cook like myself or just not used to cooking a Thanksgiving dinner on a small scale, you might find yourself wondering how you are going to keep Thanksgiving meal traditions alive, since it seems a lot of Thanksgiving feasts are done by crowdsourcing the meal among an army of family and friends.

First things first, identify the essentials for your Thanksgiving meal. Mine includes turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy and a dessert (preferably something chocolate). You may have your own traditional foods like sweet potatoes or cranberry sauce. Just remember, with two people you don’t need as much food, so do you really need every dish you usually have at Thanksgiving? Figure out the top dishes that make the cut and plan your meal from there. And for your information, I refuse to even consider green bean casserole, even if it is a traditional Minnesota staple. You can fight me on this.

Last year, my first unforeseen challenge was rust/oxidation on the oven racks. Turns out, it had been awhile since I last used the oven. This shows how few attempts I make at the culinary arts. My goal is for easy and stress-free cooking with as little cleanup as possible. I'm pretty sure I didn't even use the oven in the intervening months between attempts so I wondered if the rust would be back but it wasn't so dusty or rusty that it needed a cleaning this time. Just in case, I made sure the fire extinguisher was on hand.

I decided to spring for the meat thermometer after last year's pop-up confusion. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

I had never cooked a turkey in my life so this was by far the most crucial piece of the meal I had to figure out. I bought a 2.75-pound Jennie-O Oven Ready Homestyle Boneless Turkey Breast with gravy packet. I got the last one in the freezer section at Cub last year. So if you are planning to take my advice I wouldn’t wait until the day before Thanksgiving to try to find one. There are plenty on hand at the moment, I got this year's on sale for $10.


It is so easy, even an extreme novice like myself can pull it off and it actually tastes good. There is no defrosting. It goes from the bag onto a roasting pan. Add a couple of slits in the inner plastic roasting bag and then into the oven for about three hours. I purchased little pop-up timers so I would know for sure it was done, but they popped about 30 minutes earlier than the stated cooking time so I was left wishing I had a meat thermometer. I split the difference and left it in for another 15 minutes and it turned out fine. Truly, Jennie-O is the real hero of this piece.

But I will add, the gravy that came with the turkey was OK but not spectacular, so if that is a make or break side dish for you, then you might want to find an alternative. This year, I tried Campbell's gravy in a can, to which I added some of the drippings from the turkey. I like this option better than the pack that came with the turkey.

For the mashed potatoes I bought some Hormel Homestyle Mashed Potatoes. It’s microwavable, super easy and in my humble opinion, a much better texture than instant mashed potatoes that come from a box. There are a variety of brands and flavor choices in the freezer section to choose from.

My turkey dinner sits at the table, ready to be eaten. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

For stuffing, I went with Kraft Stove Top turkey stuffing. My trick to adding some extra pizazz to a boxed stuffing was adding crumbled up bacon to the mix. The bacon was the microwavable kind (I’m not about to attempt actually cooking bacon so the microwave will do). Just let the bacon strips set for a couple of minutes to get them crispy, crunch them up and then stir the bits into the stuffing when done. I think about half the package of bacon was just right but you might have your own opinions on the correct amount of bacon. I also added turkey broth instead of using water like it said in the instructions, I had heard of this trick from somewhere and thought I'd try it. But I think it might make the dish too salty for some people.

Finally, I bought Edward’s Chocolate Creme Pie slices; just two slices for two people. Although in retrospect, two slices is a little stingy. This time I’ll get a whole pie just to have leftovers. It’s Thanksgiving so my diet can take a long walk off a short pier. All sorts of pies can be found in the freezer section so you should be able to find one that suits your needs.

This is not a fancy meal by any means. In keeping with my policy of not making extra work for myself, we ate off of paper plates and scooped right from the pots and pans. I used one fancy serving platter to place the turkey on purely for aesthetic purposes. But without that, the dish total was two pots, a measuring cup, serving spoons and sundry cutlery. Of course, I got a dishwasher over the summer, so maybe I'll go nuts and use real plates this time.


All in all it was surprisingly tasty for so little work and we didn’t come down with food poisoning so I deemed my small stress-free Thanksgiving dinner a success. Take what you will from this and have a safe, happy Thanksgiving.

Growing up in the Brainerd lakes area I realized that I never wanted to leave, so it is a true blessing that I was able to find a job at the Dispatch doing something I love. As a visual journalist, I work in the mediums of photography and videography to bring our readers everything from sports, hard news, weather and local events to slice of life documentation of our coverage area.
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