There’s a reason traditional Thanksgiving meals include the same classic dishes year after year—everyone loves to be comforted by the meals their families used to make. Indeed, these tastes are a big part of the holiday, which is why they don’t change much from year to year. But the truth is these dishes often skew one-note in terms of flavor, oh-so-smooth and buttery rich.
If you’re ready for creative Thanksgiving ideas without losing the nostalgia of your favorite dishes, you’ve come to the right place. Small tweaks have the power to dress up traditional dishes, adding freshness, crunch, and even some “wow factor” to the same-old sides. Small ingredient swaps, like subbing apples for pears in your signature pie, can make the meal feel less predictable. Or you could mash a different potato type, skip butternut squash in favor of acorn, or use yellow beans rather than green.
But if you’re eager to make bigger changes to this year’s menu, check out these unique Thanksgiving recipes. And who knows—maybe one will solidify itself as a “classic” in your house and become a permanent part of your holiday spread.
Top green beans with a lemony twist
Traditional green bean casseroles are made with canned mushroom soup and fried onions. Some families prefer the almondine treatment for this veggie dish, which is lighter in taste yet still familiar with its mixture of shallots and almonds. But the same beans can deliver a different flavor if you cook them to a crisp-tender and shower the dish with gremolata, a lively Italian combination of parsley, garlic, and lemon zest. For speedy prep, make the topping in a mini chopper. Don’t want to give up the nuts? Toasted walnuts and goat cheese are also delicious additions.
Serve sweet potatoes with tangy yogurt
All the kids (and even some adults) will crowd the kitchen to get a glimpse of those toasted marshmallows on the sweet potato casserole as it emerges from the broiler. And while these puffs are certainly impressive, their cloying taste is ripe for a refresh. Instead of this traditional Thanksgiving side, try rubbing your tubers with olive oil and some kosher salt. Roast sweet potatoes until tender on a sheet pan for easy clean up, then cut them in half and offer a topping of Greek yogurt thinned with lime juice, salt, pepper, and snipped chives.
Make cranberry sauce pop with pomegranate seeds or nuts
There are two camps when it comes to cranberry sauce—those who revere the canned jelly and those who insist on having a whole berry mixture. Both are perfectly delicious, working well as a sweet-tart counterpoint to the buffet and as a sandwich spread when it’s time for leftovers. But the smoothness of cranberry sauce is much improved with a bit of crunch and pomegranate seeds are an excellent upgrade. Both canned and homemade whole berry sauce can be sprinkled with pomegranate arils, though if you don’t love these, try chopped toasted pecans or hazelnuts for added crunch.
Perk up plain pumpkin pie with meringue or streusel
Pumpkin pie is practically a guarantee on every Thanksgiving dessert table, but it, too, can be dressed up a bit. For those who might miss marshmallows on the sweet potatoes, consider a meringue topping for this pie as a worthy substitute. Meringue has literally two ingredients: egg whites and sugar. And when it’s toasted under the broiler, it elicits the same oohs and aahs as marshmallows. Want an even simpler swap? Make a streusel with brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, butter, and chopped nuts and sprinkle it over the pie for the last 10 minutes of cooking time.
Toss fresh spinach with fennel and citrus
Creamed spinach is yet another heavy, cheesy dish that’s traditional for some, but also a prime candidate for a lighter approach because of its thick, rich texture. And while not everyone believes salad should be allowed on the Thanksgiving table, a tangle of fresh spinach offers a welcome crisp taste. Instead of wilting baby greens with cream and Parmesan, combine spinach leaves with thinly sliced fennel and red onion, black olives, and a small can of drained baby oranges. Toss this combo with a sherry vinaigrette or a flavor-packed ginger-carrot dressing.
These small changes have the power to surprise and delight even the staunchest Thanksgiving meal purists. Looking for more help with this big holiday meal? Check out smart ways to prep dishes ahead to store in the freezer and yummy ideas for creating new dishes out of Thanksgiving leftovers.