What to Serve Before Thanksgiving Dinner

These recipes will stall your starving guests without filling them up prematurely.

Cranberry sorbet, anyone?

Source: Souders Studios/Getty Images

If you’re anything like me, Thanksgiving is not a well-scheduled affair. You airily say “We’ll eat at 4” (or 1, or 7), and then the turkey stubbornly refuses to cook. Or someone accidentally turned the heat off under the potatoes. (Fortunately, the turkey will only benefit from a little rest before the dismemberment.) Or the gravy stubbornly refuses to come together … and in the meantime, there are all those people with hungry expressions, standing around and politely NOT asking when, exactly, they’re going to get to eat. …

This is what appetizers are for. But the Thanksgiving appetizer presents a peculiar conundrum. On the one hand, you do not want to cram your guests so full of Brie en croute and spinach-artichoke dip that they can but politely pick at the turkey you spent all day roasting. On the other hand, many of the folks in your living room have been all but fasting for the last few days in order to leave adequate room in their stomachs for the Big Event. If you do not give them something to take the edge off their hunger, you are apt to return from checking the turkey to find that they have started gnawing on the coffee table.

Navigating this perilous journey between the Scylla of famished guests and the Charybdis of prematurely sated guests is tricky. That is, there is a trick to it: low-fat, low-carb, low-meat appetizers that will put something in their stomach without satiating them.

Now, reading those words probably does not make your heart sing with excitement. It sounds like an advertisement for the sort of diet book that you have carefully buried under some old tennis rackets in the back closet, lest it trouble your conscience while you’re gorging on turkey and stuffing. Never fear: I am not going to urge you to make a delicious quinoa-kale spread for the delectation of your guests. I am going to presume that if you have invited these people into your home, you actually like them.

But there are things that are a) good and b) not all that filling. Many of them are not even weird, which is to say that your Uncle Ed will eat them without making remarks about latte-sipping liberals.

The shrimp cocktail, for example, is a perfect Thanksgiving Day appetizer. For one thing, it requires no cooking; just lay out some shrimp on a plate with a bowl of cocktail sauce. If you are pressed for time, buy the cocktail sauce. If you wish to give the impression that you worked harder than you did, gussy it up with a little horseradish to make it taste a little less like it came out of a bottle. If you are pressed for money, buy frozen cooked shrimp; your guests won’t care, because the shrimp is going to taste primarily of tomato and horseradish by the time it makes it into their mouths.

Into this category also falls the crudité platter. Little baby carrots, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, celery sticks, zucchini cut into spears: All the labor, what little there is, can be done in advance. Bottled blue cheese or ranch dressing will do just fine, as will the sour cream onion dip sold under the trademark “Helluva Good Dip.” But if you wish to make the dressing yourself, you can find endless recipes on the web, or for that matter, buy the little Hidden Valley Ranch packets, some buttermilk and some Greek yogurt, which will make a fresher-tasting dip.

Greek yogurt, by the way, is your secret ally in the Thanksgiving appetizer. It will proudly step in for sour cream with little noticeable difference in flavor or texture, and can pinch-hit for mayonnaise in many applications, such as the deviled egg. It can also substitute for mascarpone or cream cheese if needed. Sour cream, mayonnaise and cheese, however delightful they are in other contexts, should be resolutely banned from your Thanksgiving hors d’oeuvres, unless you wish to return your Thanksgiving dishes to the kitchen nearly as full as they left.

But what if you wish to convey the impression that you spent more than five minutes on the appetizer? This is where we turn to the canape. The canape, for those who do not spend a lot of time perusing 1960s cookbooks, is a piece of bread or puff pastry or a cracker, topped with some sort of a spread. But to my way of thinking, this is too narrow a definition. A canape ought to include anything that can be topped with a spread, which includes many vegetables.

For example, you can cut cucumber into slices and top it with a spread made of four ounces of Greek yogurt, ½ teaspoon lemon zest, ¼ teaspoon lemon juice and a bit of salt. This is your base recipe upon which you may layer many things. Throw some fresh dill into the mix, for example, and it will be lovely topped with small pieces of smoked salmon. Toss in a little chopped mint, and pair it with thinly sliced radish. Or saute small shrimp in a little garlic and olive oil, and you have a nice break from the eternal shrimp cocktail.

Endive leaves, those brave little canoes in the sea of appetizers, make a lovely holder for any sort of spread or mousse you care to put in them. Small potatoes, boiled just to the point where they are soft enough to cut, can be paired with lightly salted Greek yogurt and a small (emphasis: small) piece of bacon or ham. If you want to upgrade to prosciutto, you can, of course, wrap it around pieces of cantaloupe, which takes very little time, can be made ahead, and will not fill up your guests, because most of what they’re eating by volume is watery fruit instead of fatty ham.

Or you can actually break out the toasts. The secret is to use small cookie cutters to cut your rye or other bread into shapes before you toast it. This is a good job for children, who if not helping in the kitchen might otherwise be off quietly messing up some part of the house that you had cleaned for the big day. Pile the toasts with some of that lemon Greek yogurt and salmon, or saute mushrooms with a little butter or sherry until they are dry, then chop and place onto the toast with a teaspoon. Deviled egg stuffing (¼ cup Greek yogurt and 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard for every six yolks) can also be spread on crackers and dressed up with any number of things, from capers to a drizzle of truffle oil.

And if you need a real showstopper? Say, because your mother-in-law is coming to dinner for the first time, and bringing your husband’s wildly successful and ageless college girlfriend along with her? Well, if you want to pull out all the stops, and you have an ice cream machine, I vote for something frozen. People aren’t expecting it, it looks fussier than it is, and people will definitely remember the year you served ice cream before Thanksgiving dinner. Plus the hard parts can be done ahead.

If you have access to sushi-grade tuna or salmon (often available in the sushi section of your supermarket) you can make a Japanese-style salmon tartare, and serve it over avocado ice cream with a bit of wasabi mixed in. (Wasabi tastes and tolerances vary, so proceed with caution.) Serve a small scoop (use a melon-baller or teaspoon) in little cups or shot glasses that have had a bit of shredded iceberg lettuce placed in the bottom. The mix of textures is pleasing, and the small servings mean no one will fill up. Salmon also pairs well with a cucumber granita. (If you want to make it more substantial, add a dollop of the lemonized Greek yogurt.) You can use a tartare with the granita, or just small slices of a good-quality smoked salmon.

Or you could just make a straight sorbet that tastes of fall, like cranberry-thyme or carrot-ginger. There’s a reason that sorbets have been used as palate cleansers for centuries: They whet the appetite rather than dulling it.

Which means you’d better not stand around too long, collecting accolades on your inventive appetizers. Keep that turkey moving toward the table! Your guests will be ready for the main course.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Megan McArdle at

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.