Pasta, Cranberries and Bread

What does pasta, cranberries, and bread have in common? They are also all optional side dishes on your Thanksgiving table. In some families, pasta isn’t optional. It is a requirement, in other families, not so much. Cranberry sauce is very traditional but does anyone actually eat it (I don’t understand why someone wouldn’t eat it – but I always seem to have lots of cranberry leftovers). Bread comes in all forms for Thanksgiving, from home-baked yeast rolls, designer focaccia to store-bought. It’s always welcomed, but for the more intimate (I like that word better than “small”) holiday dinner, bread may not be needed. Bottom line: You can’t make everything! Check out the good, bad, and ugly of these side dish options and choose what makes sense for your dinner.



 It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving for many families if there wasn’t pasta on the table! For our purpose, pasta is definitely an optional dish. If it’s not Thanksgiving without it, it’s worth the effort.  NOTE: Just remember, you can’t do everything. Ask yourself if you need all this food for just your bubble?  The good news is that baked pasta dishes can be assembled the day before, so it just needs to be popped in the oven after the turkey comes out and is resting. Zhooshed up pasta with protein can double as a main dish for a non-turkey eater.

Option 1: Mostly Home-Cooked Baked Ziti (Stress rating: 5, Impress Quotient : 6)

Advantages: Baked Ziti can be made as simple or complicated as you want. Jar marinara sauce takes away the stress of making a sauce. No frills Baked Ziti is relatively simple, mostly assembly. For zhoosh, add any of the following: browned ground beef or sausage, sliced mushrooms (fresh, canned, or jar), chopped onions, minced garlic.

Downsides:  Although easy, it is time-consuming to cook the pasta, brown beef or sausage, slice & chop onions and/or mushrooms. Decide how much you can realistically do. TIP: If assembled the day prior, it just needs to be popped in the oven when the turkey comes out.

Option 2: Baked Macaroni & Cheese (Stress rating: 7, Impress Quotient  7)


Advantages: What’s not to like about Mac & Cheese? Just like the Ziti, you can keep it as simple or zhooshed as you can handle. Frozen or canned mixed vegetables (peas, carrots, beans) go great in Mac & Cheese. 

Adding cooked chopped ham will amp this side dish to a substitute main course for the non-turkey eater.

Downside: This will require you to make a cheese sauce (which begins as a roux), which is simple enough to do, but it may be out of your comfort zone.  Note: Making it the day before, assembled but not baked, will cut down on the angst. When the turkey comes out of the oven, that’s the time to bake the Mac & Cheese.  



Nothing says Thanksgiving like cranberries! While there is no law that says you have to serve cranberries, there should be. Whole Cranberry sauce is traditional. However, several adults and lots of kids prefer the jelled cranberry from the can that is served sliced up. Like the jelled cranberry, you can also buy whole cranberry sauce in a can. Simply open the can and serve in a cute bowl.  Making cranberry sauce from scratch is easy-peasy, takes only 10 minutes, and tastes sooo much better because you control the flavor (the sweetness and the tartness).  

Option 1) Canned cranberries, whole berry, or jelly (Stress rating: 1; Impress Quotient : 5)


Advantages: If you have a can opener, you are in business! 

Taste and appearance are consistent and appealing. 

Downsides: None

Option 2: Homemade Cranberry Sauce (Stress Rating: 3; Impress Quotient: 7)


Advantages: So EASY! All you need is a bag of fresh or frozen cranberries, water and sugar, and some orange or lemon zest if you want some zhoosh. The sauce can be made a day or two ahead of time. Cranberries are so plentiful in the grocery store right now, and they are considered a superfood. You can cut the recipe in half and use the other half of the bag for muffins or pancakes.  ranberries freeze well. Frozen cranberries are a great snack.  

Downside:  None. 

Homemade cranberry sauce is foolproof! (Make it – don’t buy it)


Overview: A basket of warm bread is always pleasing on a holiday table but is it necessary? Probably not, especially if you’re new to this holiday cooking stuff, and preserving your sanity is a high priority. My recommendation is store-bought brown & serve dinner rolls or my family’s favorite King’s Hawaiian Rolls. Amp up the Impress Quotient  by serving rolls in a wicker basket lined with a cloth napkin. It is a holiday, after all.

Option 1) Brown & Serve Dinner Rolls (Stress rating: 3, Impress Quotient : 7)


Advantages: A few minutes in your already hot oven will give these rolls a freshly baked look and aroma. Brushing them with some butter and sprinkling some garlic salt elevates this to the Mostly Home-Cooked category. 

Downside: You do need to juggle browning the rolls during the last few minutes while you’re dealing with carving the turkey, mashing potatoes, and getting your other dishes on the table. I have a history of forgetting the bread in the oven, and it never turns out well for anyone. Dinner rolls shouldn’t be a cause of stress. If you’re not well organized, it can mess with your kitchen zen. 

Option 2) Hawaiian Rolls – or other dinner rolls of choice (Stress rating: 0, Impress Quotient : 4)



Advantages: Open bag and place in a basket, hopefully well ahead of dinner time. No-fuss, no muss, no stress! Although not served warm from the oven, at room temp they will still be delicious.

Downside: While always yummy, they don’t really add any value to your meal or your table. Dinner rolls are easy to skip. No one will miss them – promise!

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