Divine Dinner Party

Traditional Thanksgiving Food:
Thanksgiving Foods that Belong on Your Table

As with most traditions, what qualifies as traditional Thanksgiving food and what does not is usually in the eye of the beholder.

In one part of the country (or, given that many versions of Thanksgiving are celebrated worldwide, in one part of the world) Thanksgiving isn't Thanksgiving without that corn pudding or sausage stuffing. But in another, they wouldn't imagine serving anything other than their traditional au gratin potatoes and green beans.

The truth is, what qualifies as traditional Thanksgiving food is always going to vary from person to person... and that's a good thing!

When you're done reading all about traditional foods for Thanksgiving dinner, check out this page for everything you've ever wanted to know about planning a Thanksgiving dinner!

Food in the First Thanksgiving vs. Today

If you're looking to put together a traditional Thanksgiving menu, you probably think that the first Thanksgiving is a good place to look for inspiration. But the truth is, what we consider traditional Thanksgiving food today doesn't look very much like any of the food the first Thanksgiving colonists were served during that famous meal.

In fact, the first Thanksgiving was rather sparse compared to the huge feast we eat today, and probably included simple foods like:

  • Goose
  • Duck
  • Fish
  • Green salad
  • Grapes
  • Plums
  • Corn
We don't have a good record of what, exactly, was eaten. But we do know that the food in the first Thanksgiving didn't include those things that are hugely traditional Thanksgiving foods today: potatoes, cranberries, stuffing, and turkey.

Where Modern Thanksgiving Food Comes From

Autumn Harvest for Thanksgiving Food IdeasLocal Harvests. In the US and Canada, most of what we consider traditional Thanksgiving dishes have developed over generations. Some dishes came from what was readily available during local harvest time (and what was produced on local farms), including Thanksgiving food staples like
  • Apples
  • Squash & Pumpkin
  • Peas
  • Nuts
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Corn

Your Locally Grown Foods. If you want to keep with the spirit of the harvest season, take some time to research the foods that are grown and harvested during this time of year in your community. You may find that a local farm's butternut squash makes a wonderful casserole that will become part of your family's yearly Thanksgiving rotation. Or that local peas taste better this time of year than any other. Use this to create a local Thanksgiving menu!

Cultural Foods and Traditions. From family to family, traditional Thanksgiving foods have also evolved out of cultural backgrounds and unique customs. In this mix-and-match fusion of cultural and local tradition with new culinary concepts, Thanksgiving has a lot in common with Christmas. The main difference between the two big holiday meals? Probably just the shear size of the feast. Thanksgiving is an "eat til you can't move" kind of holiday.

Creating a Traditional Thanksgiving Menu. Between your cultural background, your family's traditions, and what's available locally, you have a lot of places to pull from to create a traditional menu for Thanksgiving. Want a little help? You'll find some ideas of how different traditional Thanksgiving foods evolved, as well as how to create your family's own traditional Thanksgiving menu by pulling from your cultural background here.

THE Traditional Thanksgiving Food: The Turkey

Perfect Thanksgiving TurkeyIn the midst of the feasting you'll find the most traditional Thanksgiving food of all and the VIP of the show – the turkey. Hey, you know that a particular holiday really revolves around a particular food when it's nicknamed for that food: Turkey Day! On any given Thanksgiving Day, Americans and Canadians can consume upward of $2 billion dollars worth of turkey. And even more gets consumed between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Traditional Ways to Cook a Turkey

Any way you cook this traditional Thanksgiving food will make it taste of the holiday. But the predominant way to cook a turkey is probably by oven roasting. When done right, oven roasting a turkey will give you that rich flavor and juicy meat, and you have a lot of recipe options.

But as time passes, a lot more options for cooking a turkey are becoming popular, too. Some of these can be great, as they save time and space in the oven. Instead of making a plain ol' roast turkey, many people do this traditional Thanksgiving food a little differently. You might want to try:

You can find recipes for all of these varieties of turkey here on my turkey recipes page.

Non-Turkey Options

What about people who don't like turkey? Well there are some traditional Thanksgiving food options for you too. Perhaps you'll enjoy a Thanksgiving duck or goose instead (a common choice in Europe). Some families even opt for roast beef, ham, crab or lobster, or even a tofu turkey or stuffed pumpkin for vegetarians. A Thanksgiving main dish food can be as unique as each family, and should always cater to their palates. (Though, of course, turkey wins out in popularity throughout the United States, and probably always will.)

Traditional Thanksgiving Side Dishes

Baked or fried, the Thanksgiving feast certainly doesn't end with the turkey. In fact to some people, the side dishes are a much more important traditional Thanksgiving food than the turkey itself. There's always such variety!

Traditional Thanksgiving Food Meal with Side Dishes

Turkey Stuffing or Dressing

Along with the bird there's the inevitable bread stuffing or dressing. Stuffing takes on many forms and is cooked in many ways. A popular flavor for a traditional turkey stuffing is simple sage, thyme, celery, and onions. But in other families or other parts of the country, the star of the meal might be sausage stuffing, stuffing with bacon or pancetta, stuffing with dried fruit or apples, and more! This is a dish you can have a lot of fun playing around with.

Cranberry Sauce

Cranberry sauce is probably never the highlight of your Thanksgiving menu, but it's always there, and it's always important. A traditional American version of this is the canned jellied cranberry sauce we've been eating for Thanksgiving for decades. Is it as good as some of the more gourmet versions? Probably not. But for some people, slices of this canned-shape treat is a tradition. Others make fresh cranberry sauce with ingredients like figs and port, bourbon, and even jalapeños.

Sweet Potatoes

The most popular way to serve this traditional Thanksgiving food is sweetened with marshmallows on top. While that's not my personal favorite, on some Thanksgiving tables this dish is the star of the meal. Other families do a sweet potato casserole with nuts instead of marshmallows or even savory or spicy sweet potatoes.

Other Thanksgiving Side Dishes

Things like sweet potatoes and stuffing are probably seen on 95% of Thanksgiving tables. But most families round out the meal with traditional Thanksgiving foods and side dishes of their own. Some of the most common Thanksgiving side dishes include:

In the Southern US you'll see some slightly different traditional Thanksgiving foods. Greens and black eye peas are a favorite side dish, as is a healthy portion of baked macaroni and cheese, dumplings, and hominy. And let us not overlook dessert!

Traditional Thanksgiving Desserts

For some it's the turkey. For others the stuffing or the sweet potatoes. But for many, the most important traditional Thanksgiving food is... dessert! While pumpkin pie is the traditional Thanksgiving dessert, there are tons of different desserts that are eaten for Thanksgiving in different families. The sky's the limit! Some options might be:

You can find lots of ideas for easy Thanksgiving desserts or good dessert ideas for the holidays here!

Beverages to Drink on Thanksgiving

Now, this is one that's hard to pin down a tradition for. In most families, it's all about traditional Thanksgiving foods-- people don't think about the drinks. But if you want to create a little extra tradition in your family, it can be fun to have a traditional Thanksgiving beverage.

Apple cider is certainly a good choice based on the season. Or, using the cider as a base, you can make an adult version (great as an after or before dinner cocktail) by adding rum and spices and warming the cider on the stove (or making hot caramel apple cider for the kids). You could also think about having a traditional wine you drink every year, or a bottle of champagne/sparkling cider with dessert, or a kind of soda you only break out once a year. The holiday doesn't have to be about traditional Thanksgiving food alone... you can create any Thanksgiving tradition you want!

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You Might Also Like...

There's more traditional Thanksgiving food here at Divine Dinner Party than you could make in a year! Also check out:

Great Recipes for Thanksgiving


Classic Thanksgiving Customs

Gobble Gobble Simple Turkey Clipart

Cooking a Whole Turkey
or Some Drumsticks?

Free Holiday Turkey Recipe Guide to How to Cook a Turkey

If it's a fat bird with a beard (no, I don't mean your Aunt Marjorie), we can help you cook it. Click on the icon above or click here to get started with recipes and tips on how to cook a turkey for Christmas, Thanksgiving, or any time of year.


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