6 tips for throwing a safe socially distanced Thanksgiving

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With the novel coronavirus pandemic still a threat, the holidays will look different for many families this year, my own included. While every individual has to evaluate their own risk and make a decision that's right for them, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Thanksgiving guidelines are now strongly urging families not to travel. For my family that means forgoing our usual massive gathering of extended family in a rented house in Vermont. While we're sad that the holiday won't be quite the same this year, my husband and I are still looking forward to finding safe ways to connect with family, make new traditions, and share a delicious meal this Thanksgiving.

The good news is that small, socially distanced gatherings are generally considered lower-risk for most individuals, and the CDC says Thanksgiving outside with a small group from your immediate community is likely OK. If you've been tasked with planning a socially distanced outdoor Thanksgiving this year, here are six tips for making the meal festive, safe, and fun.

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Rethink the traditional meal
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While there will be plenty of traditional turkey dinners in our future, now is the time to get creative — think less Norman Rockwell, more Jackson Pollack. Take a cue from how businesses and restaurants have gotten creative in response to social distancing measures. Maybe dinner this year takes place al fresco, on your porch or patio; or maybe you offer a Thanksgiving open house with dedicated time slots, so you can minimize the number of people gathered together at one time. Consider a "tailgate" Thanksgiving; find a public parking lot and have everyone pop their trunks and share a meal from a distance. Or offer a drive-by or drop-off meal if there are people in your life who are high-risk but could use some cheer from a traditional home cooked meal. 

You can cut down on some stress by leaving the cooking to the pros; lots of restaurants are offering fully prepared or take-and-bake meals. Local restaurants have been hit hard by the pandemic, and outsourcing your holiday meal to them is a great way to show your support. Goldbelly is also offering Thanksgiving essentials from restaurants around the country. Offerings include sour cream apple walnut pie from Little Pie Company — a Black-owned business dubbed the "best mail order pie in America" by Rachael Ray — Cajun deep fried turkey from Uncle Ray's in Dallas, TX, and rainbow stuffed apple piñata cake from reality-show famous Carlo's Bakery

For those who aren't traveling, it might be your first time cooking the whole holiday meal on your own. If you're daunted about cooking the whole shebang by yourself, meal delivery kit services like Hello Fresh, Blue Apron, and Gobble are offering Thanksgiving kits that have step-by-step recipes and all the ingredients you need. For those with dietary restrictions, Purple Carrot is offering a vegan Thanksgiving box and Home Chef has a number of dishes available that are low-carb, or without allergens like nuts, wheat, or soy. While you're at it, consider letting someone else make the wine pairings; wine clubs like Firstleaf, Winc, and Plonk take the guesswork out of curating the wine selection for dinner. 

Expand the cooking outside the kitchen
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For many cooks, the huddle of guests in the kitchen while you're trying to prepare a meal is overwhelming even in the best of years. To avoid the kitchen clog, encourage guests to bring fully heated, ready-to-eat dishes and make it clear that reheating might not be an option. If your guests simply must bring something that needs to be cooked a la minute, encourage them to think of dishes that can be prepared outside of the kitchen.

Your grill is great for cooking or smoking turkey, or even for warming up previously prepared casseroles. Slow cookers and Instant Pots can be operated from any outlet in the house — even your bedroom or living room as long as you use a grounded, 3-prong outlet or surge protector — and there are plenty of delicious gravy and soup recipes that utilize these convenient appliances; a slow cooker is also a great option for preparing mashed potatoes. Toaster ovens can similarly be safely operated from other rooms, and many can fit small casserole dishes for cooking stuffing or sides. If you're feeling particularly MacGyver-y, you can use a sous vide machine to cook in a cooler outside, as long as you have an outlet rated for outdoor use nearby. It's a great option for cooking large batches of meat, and since sous vide machines heat food to a precise temperature and hold it there, it's impossible to overcook the meal if you get distracted.

Make it cozy and festive
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The CDC recommends that if you're going to gather with folks outside of your immediate household, it's safest to do so outdoors. Depending on where you live, that can mean a pretty brisk meal if you're not prepared properly. Make sure to give your guests a heads up that they'll be dining al fresco so they can layer appropriately. We've put together buying guides to the best patio heaters, fire pits, and electric blankets; all products that are great options for keeping guests toasty. Candles — like the cozy-smelling Toasty candle from The Koop New York — and string lights also give off some warmth and make for a festive ambience.

Keep packs of Hot Hands nearby and mugs of hot mulled cider on offer for guests to warm their cold fingers. If you're considering party favors, cozy throws, fuzzy socks, and warm mittens all make cute and functional gifts. Bonus points for thematically appropriate designs, like these socks from Native Seeds that celebrate the three sisters of indigenous North American cuisine: corn, beans, and squash.

Embrace disposables and single-serving packaging

While disposable plates, bowls, flatware, napkins, serveware, and drinkware certainly make cleanup easier, they also help keep things sanitary by eliminating cross-contact. Hefty and Dixie both make solidly built disposables, but there are also plenty of eco-friendly, compostable brands out there if you're concerned about the environmental effects of using disposables. There are also a number of disposable products that look like real dinnerware or flatware, if you can't imagine parting with a meticulously set dinner table. We love the festive and cute designs from Coterie and the Oh Happy Day Party Shop.

Another option is to go picnic style and pre-package the food. You can make ready-to-go picnic boxes, or individually package single servings of mains and sides so people can grab what they want without any of the fuss of sharing serving utensils or passing platters and bowls back and forth. Kraft paper boxes tied up with string or ribbon make for a cute presentation and double as to-go containers for leftovers or dropping off meals for those who can't be there in person. 

Finally, avoid passing bottles around and consider going single-serving for beverages, too. Vinebox makes perfectly-sized single pours in neat little vials; and you can choose a variety of sips to please every palate. More and more vinteurs are embracing canned wine, as well, and brands like Cocktail Squad and Cutwater Spirits make ready-to-drink cocktails you can order through liquor delivery apps like Drizly

Offer sanitation stations
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My experience is that most people will use hand sanitizer when it's made readily available. Set up a few sanitation stations with hand sanitizer near entrances, exits, and bathrooms (in addition to soap) to encourage guests to wash their hands. Our guide to the best hand sanitizers has recommendations for products that are effective, smell good, and are easy on your skin. You can also offer sanitizing wipes along with fresh masks and gloves for anyone who will be preparing or serving food. 

Plan some socially distant fun
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The after-dinner board game is a tradition in my house, and there are plenty of games that can still be played from 6 feet across the table. Heads Up! is always a favorite, as are classic games like Charades or "Who Am I?" Lawn games are also a great way to keep warm and have fun from a distance; some good ones include cornhole, ladder toss, Spikeball, or bocce.

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