fbpx Print Friendly Logo

Want to share this page with your friends?

Rethinking Thanksgiving During COVID

Posted on: October 28th, 2020 by Anne Fishel, Ph.D

Thanksgiving is usually my favorite holiday of the year. It reduces celebration down to its essence–cooking, eating, and spending time with your loved ones. No need to send cards, go to shopping malls, or wrap presents. Thanksgiving is a lot like family dinner, only with more aromas, dishes, and stories, which is why I call it the mother of family dinners. But this year, what I’m thinking about most are the empty chairs around the table.

This will be the first Thanksgiving in 40 years when I haven’t hosted a big gathering. Because of COVID-19, my family, like so many families across the country, will be gathering virtually. I’ve toyed with the idea of throwing in the towel this year– just staying in bed all day with a good book or binging on TV rather than on my son’s chocolate tart. But that plan is too sad, so I’m going to muster my strength and try to persuade my family to join me over zoom.

Here are some of the things I’m thinking about that may be helpful to you, too, if you can’t get together with your usual cast of characters.

  • Create Thanksgiving in a box
    This year, The Family Dinner Project team has put together a treasure trove of resources that you can send to your family and friends and share over your virtual tables. There are placemats that will help you elicit family stories and recipe cards to record your favorite holiday recipes with questions to ask about their origins. There are games for the young and young at heart—”Would you rather drink a gravy milkshake or eat a cranberry pizza?” I plan to download some of the games, particularly “Top Four,” and send them in a package along with some candles, cookies, and a few other surprises.
  • Rethink the Cooking
    This may be the year that no one has to call the Butterball hotline. If each family member cooks a turkey in his or her own kitchen, there can be a lot of tip-sharing via text. Do you brine with buttermilk or a saline mixture? Has anyone been poisoned in our family from eating stuffing cooked in the cavity of the turkey? This may be a good opportunity for the elders in a family to host a remote cooking class for the younger generation where parents and kids can cook alongside one another. Think Julia Child on PBS with an interactive audience. Alternatively, family members could agree on a new recipe everyone can make, separately but simultaneously for the first time, problem-solving and cheerleading as you mince and stir.
    One family I know is divvying up all the different side dishes of a Thanksgiving meal. Each person is making multiples of a family favorite (5 pecan pies, 5 plastic containers filled with mashed potatoes, and 5 mason jars of cranberry sauce) and then they are meeting in the early afternoon to swap so that everyone walks away with all the fixings for their Thanksgiving dinners.
  • Focus on what is essential to the holiday
    The holiday is going to feel weird and different. Maybe you just want to focus on one aspect of it or do only the part you like the best. If you like telling family stories, you might want to write them down this year and ask others to do the same. If food is the main event, then maybe you want to make extra and drop some off at your neighbors, or use this year to fill out the recipe cards in TFDP’s Thanksgiving Virtual Care Package. You’ll have those recipes for posterity and for next year in person.
    If seeing family is the most important, this could be year that you extend the table by zooming in loved ones in far-flung places who are too distant to come to a traditional in-person gathering. I’m hoping to do some virtual pie-making with my California family this year. Or maybe what you like best is watching a favorite holiday movie. This could be the year you skip all the work of Thanksgiving and enjoy not having to shop, cook, and bake. As my oldest childhood friend wrote me recently, “Sometimes enough is as good as a feast.” What is your “enough” this year?

If I can convince my sons and their partners to cook our turkeys together, and if I can persuade my brother-in-law in California to teach me how to make his apple pie, and I can wrangle everyone to play a round of “Top Four”, then maybe this holiday can be salvaged. But, no matter how fun it is this year, I don’t want anyone making alternate plans for Thanksgiving 2021. I’m already looking forward to next year in the flesh.


by Dr. Anne K. Fishel

Anne FishelAnne Fishel is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School and the Director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. She has lectured and written about the benefits of family meals.

Her book about family dinners, Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun and Conversation for Happier Families and Healthier Kids, is available through Amazon.