Holidays for Two - Cooking for Smaller Groups this Holiday Season

Holidays for Two - Cooking for Smaller Groups this Holiday Season

Last month, we asked our followers how COVID has changed your holiday plans, and we heard that many of you won’t be gathering with friends and family outside of your immediate households. This is a difficult and important decision to make, but we don’t believe that a non-traditional holiday season should mean foregoing your favorite holiday foods!

At Zest, we want to help you stir up your favorite holiday flavors with whatever modifications make it easiest for you and whomever you get to celebrate with this year. So we’re launching a series this month with recipes, equipment recommendations, ideas for homemade food gifts, and tips to help you make the most of the socially distanced holidays. And with Thanksgiving a month away, we're starting with recipe scaling for smaller groups.

If you’ve made the difficult decision to spend the holidays with just your immediate household, there’s good news - most of your favorite Thanksgiving recipes can be easily scaled for small groups. Next week we’ll be sharing a roundup of new takes on old favorites that work well for small gatherings, but if you want to stick with the classics and just need to know how to scale the recipe for the group size you’ll be feeding, we’re here for you.

First, let's address the turkey (get it?) The smallest turkeys sold at supermarkets are typically between 8-12lbs, and with so many people cooking for small groups those will fly off the shelves quickly. As of writing, Natural Grocers on 24th Street still had a few 8-12lb turkeys left for reservation. So if you’re dead set on serving a turkey, plan ahead and reserve a turkey or buy one now!

And while you can get smaller birds, this year it might just be easier to try a less traditional main course. Or perhaps you’re vegan or vegetarian, and only tolerated the whole trussed bird situation when you were visiting family. Next week we’ll be sharing a few recipes that eschew the big bird all together. For the rest of your Thanksgiving favorites, here are our tips for scaling:

Adjust the Measurements

The first, and most obvious step, is to cut the recipe measurements to suit the number of servings you want. If you’re cooking for three people, and don't want leftovers, plan for three servings. Do the math, and write it down. Being the nerd that I am, I use spreadsheets like this one to scale my recipes.

This method can of course leave you with some odd quantities - like .38 teaspoons of sherry vinegar and 1.13 tablespoon butter. If you're not baking, it's completely okay to use your best judgment to round up or down. In this case I'd just use 1/3 teaspoons sherry and 1 tablespoon butter. 

Baked goods are the hardest to scale

Baked goods are more complicated, because they require precise ratios of ingredients to be successful. Converting volume measurements to weight and then scaling from there yields the best results. You'll need a good kitchen scale and a little patience (again, spreadsheets help) but it works. We're going to do some math here, so stay with me:

If grandma’s pumpkin pie filling calls for two extra large eggs, two cups of pumpkin puree, and one cup heavy cream, by weight you'd need 4 ounces eggs, 16 ounces pumpkin puree, and 8 ounces heavy cream.

So if you’re using an Emile Henry 5" Modern Classics Pie Dish, which has 1/7th the  capacity of the regular, 9" Modern Classics Pie Dish, scale your recipe by 1/7th to ensure the same ratio. There's a little bit of rounding here, but it's small enough that you won't ruin the recipe. The last step, converting to grams by multiply your scaled amounts by 28.35, makes it easier to measure small quantities and is only necessary if you end up with ingredients measuring less than one ounce.

Eggs Pumpkin Cream
Original in Ounces 4.0 16.0 8.0
Scaled by 1/5 0.6 2.3 1.1
Converted to Grams 16.2 64.8 32.4


Use appropriately sized cookware

You’re used to making green bean casserole in your largest pan, but if you’ve cut the recipe in half or a quarter, that will result in a very thin, weird dish. Try a smaller baking dish for better results. The size of the pot, pan or baking dish will also affect the cooking time, so using the right size will ensure better results.

Adjust cooking times accordingly

Obviously a ten pound turkey will take less time to cook than a twenty pound turkey. The same goes for mini pies and smaller casseroles. Use visual cues, a good thermometer and your instincts.

Lastly, plan early

Whether it’s reserving a smaller turkey, getting the right size of cookware or doing all the math to scale your favorite recipes down, you’re going to need a little extra time planning your meal this year. I know all that math and spreadsheets can take some of the fun out of it. Getting multi-dish meals right is all about timing, so prep ahead as much as you can and have a plan for what  goes in the oven and when.

Despite all the extra work, and having fewer people to share the cleanup with, we think it's worth it to get the enjoy holiday flavors that feel like home.

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  • Marguerite Jodry
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