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What are Common Side Dishes for a Thanksgiving Meal?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 16, 2024
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While the turkey could be considered "the star" of the Thanksgiving meal, side dishes are certainly important and necessary "co-stars." Many people look forward to enjoying stuffing, or dressing, and cannot imagine a Thanksgiving meal without it. Others dream of sweet potatoes made sweeter with marshmallow topping or maple syrup or brown sugar. Cranberries, for many, are another popular Thanksgiving side dish.

While the terms "stuffing" and "dressing" are often used interchangeably, stuffing refers to what is stuffed into the turkey and dressing refers to what is baked in a separate dish. Traditional stuffings and dressings are made with bread, or for those in the Southern United States, cornbread. Basic bread stuffings, or baked dressings used as a Thanksgiving side dish, usually include melted butter, onion, celery, and herbs such as sage, garlic, parsley, and thyme as well as salt and pepper.

Variations of standard turkey stuffings and dressings include using rice rather than bread or cornbread. Some people add meats such as bacon, pork, or sausage to the bread, cornbread, or rice base. Resourceful chefs often use the turkey's giblets, or the gizzard, heart, and liver, to add to their stuffing or dressing. Mushrooms can also be added and go especially well with a rice-based stuffing or dressing. Fruits such as apples, pears, raisins, or prunes, are other possible additions to a Thanksgiving side dish of dressing or turkey stuffing.

The word "yams" is often incorrectly used to describe sweet potatoes. Yams are named from the African word "nyami," meaning the starchy white-fleshed root vegetable; sweet potatoes have orange-colored flesh. Yams are often "candied" with sugar, while sweet potatoes are often baked as a side dish with marshmallow topping or praline topping in the South.

Regular white potatoes are a common Thanksgiving side dish usually served in addition to sweet potatoes or yams. Mashed potatoes and turkey gravy are a classic accompaniment to the roasted turkey, but some people may serve roasted or baked potatoes instead. Variations on mashed potatoes include adding an egg and baking the mashed potatoes with a topping of breadcrumbs and grated cheese baked until the top is lightly golden brown.

Additional vegetables commonly served as a Thanksgiving side dish are carrots, Brussel sprouts, or green beans. Collard greens are a popular side dish for Thanksgiving in Southern states. Pickles and relishes are also commonly found on many Thanksgiving tables.

Cranberries are also a very common Thanksgiving side dish. They can be homemade or canned, and served as a relish, a sauce, or in a gelled mold. Native Americans ate cranberries for many years and early settlers in Massachusetts ate cranberries from bogs in Cape Cod.

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Discussion Comments
By baileybear — On Nov 18, 2010

@Pimiento - I like to consider other religions and cultures when planning the holiday and considering Thanksgiving ideas. We usually have a lot of Thanksgiving side dish ideas, but normally conform to something that is essentially a melting pot, having one person pick a country and do a dish from that country. It's really a great idea as we get a lot of exposure to different foods. We make a recipe book from all the different recipes and give them out for Christmas.

By Pimiento — On Nov 18, 2010

@plaid - We do the Thanksgiving menu like a potluck in our home every year, rotating who does the turkey. Let me tell you - it is definitely a blessing and such a relief to not have to make everything yourself. Maybe you should try it sometime, maybe even this year if you haven't already made plans.

As for side dishes, we are really non-traditionalists and one year we had Alfredo as a side dish along with all the other more traditional or common dishes.

By plaid — On Nov 18, 2010

@abiane - I love tradition when it comes to the holidays. It makes you feel like you are home. While I have a ton of recipes for Thanksgiving, my family and I almost always end up going to some one's house. I think since my children were born we've only had one Thanksgiving at home and that one, everyone else in the family came over. I was at the oven literally ALL DAY and I really hated it. I think I would like a pot luck type of Thanksgiving much better.

By abiane — On Nov 18, 2010

I can't believe there are no comments! I could go on for days about side dishes for Thanksgiving. My family is very formal and very traditional, so we all like to have classic dishes like green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, and stuffing.

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