Step Away from the Tofurky: Ten Tasty Alternatives to the Traditional Bird

Mmmmm, meat, it's what for Thanksgiving

Mmmmm, meat, it's what for Thanksgiving

If you haven’t purchased your frozen turkey yet or placed your order for a fresh one with your local butcher or co-op, don’t worry – according to the National Turkey Federation and Twin Cities poultry purveyors, there is no danger of a turkey shortage this Thanksgiving, despite the avian flu that hit Midwestern turkey farms hard, wiping out 9 million birds in Minnesota alone.

If you still need a turkey, doing a little price checking can make a big difference in the total cost of the bird, especially if you need a large one. Price per pound is all over the place this year. For example, at Clancy’s in Linden Hills, you’ll pay $2.99 per pound for a fresh turkey. At the newly opened Lowry Hills Meat, it’s $4.50 per pound while Mississippi Market is selling at $1.99 per pound. Frozen birds tend to be less expensive, and many large supermarkets sell them as a loss leader to get shoppers in the door; Cub is advertising turkeys for 99 cents per pound.

Turkey schmurkey you say? You’re a rebel who wants to shake things up and bring change to Thanksgiving dinner? Well, you’ve got history on your side: Although turkey has become synonymous with the Thanksgiving celebration, it wasn’t always the centerpiece of the table. It’s more likely the colonists ate other types of fowl like pheasant, along with venison.

But messing with family food traditions at the holidays can get dicey. If your friends and family are on board, we have some turkey alternatives for you. And there’s no rule that you can’t have a turkey plus a co-star, to keep everyone happy. Whether you’re feeding a small gathering, need to accommodate dietary preferences, or just want to mix things up, here are some festive suggestions.

A Smaller Version of the Big Bird

It’s not easy to find a small turkey; the average specimen weighs in at 15 pounds, and you can eat chicken any time. If you want to serve a small bird, get creative with your poultry options. For a fancy presentation, you can cook everyone their own Cornish game hen. If that’s a bit too precious for your crowd, try your hand at duck. You can roast a whole duck, or simply buy a couple of duck breasts.

Adding vegetarian and vegan options makes everyone feel like part of the festivities.

Adding vegetarian and vegan options makes everyone feel like part of the festivities.

Pork Shoulder

Erik Sather of the newly opened Lowry Hill Meats says, "pork works nicely with the flavors of all the traditional sides." And a big hunk of meat, like turkey, is hands-off once you season it and put it in the oven, giving you plenty of time to work on all the fixings.

Beef Tenderloin

While the price tag for this coveted piece of meat may send you into sticker shock, the great thing about serving an expensive main course at Thanksgiving is that there are so many side dishes to fill people up you don’t need as much of the beef as you normally would. Best served rare, the tenderloin cooks quickly, making it easy to coordinate your meal.

Leg of Lamb

Kristin Tombers of Clancy’s Meat and Fish favors a leg of lamb if you’re not tied to turkey for Thanksgiving. A bone-in piece of meat makes for an impressive presentation.


This choice also falls into the what-better-time-to-splurge category. Crab and lobster will definitely set you back more per pound than turkey, but for a small group, or just you and your sweetie, it’s a great treat. It’s not traditional, but it sure is good.

What about the pesky problem of picky eaters at your feast? Unless someone has severe food allergies, there’s no need to alter your tried-and-true recipes to please every appetite; if your cousin doesn’t like chestnuts, let her pick them out of the stuffing. And folks avoiding carbs should just stay home; taking the carbs out of Thanksgiving is like taking winter out of Minnesota. (You hear us, climate change?)

But for vegetarians and vegans among your guests, it’s nice to make sure they’re not relegated to munching on a plate of salad greens. You can tweak your side dishes by leaving out meat (no sausage in the stuffing), and subbing vegetable stock for beef or chicken broth in other dishes. If you’re feeding vegans, you’ll also want to remember to omit any dairy, so no butter or cream in the potato gratin.

You can opt to make two different versions of your sides if changing up Grandma’s secret gravy recipe would incite a revolt, or take the path of least resistance (and fewest dirty dishes) and find new versions of the sides that everyone can enjoy.

Although it’s easy to make a meal from all the side dishes, “it’s nice to have a centerpiece dish for your vegetarian and vegan guests,” says local cooking instructor Kelly Smeltzer, whose vegan Thanksgiving class is filled every year with hosts worried about what to serve their non-meat-eating guests. Here are a few options that, mercifully, don’t involve Tofurky.

Be Worldly 

All cultures have their celebration menus, and many cuisines rely a lot less heavily on meat as a centerpiece. Try an Indian feast, or do a Spanish tapas theme.


A perfectly bronzed turkey is a thing of beauty, but doesn't have to be the centerpiece of your meal.

A perfectly bronzed turkey is a thing of beauty, but doesn't have to be the centerpiece of your meal.

This vegetable version of turducken has been making the rounds online, and actually looks festive and flavorful, if a little putzy to put together.


A better choice for vegetarians than vegans, since much of lasagna’s charm comes from the copious amounts of cheese. You can celebrate the fall bounty by making a version that features butternut squash.

Vegetable Tart

You could go many ways with this one, but the texture and umami of mushrooms makes them a great stand-in for meat.

Stuffed Peppers

Fill red, yellow and green peppers with herby grains for a dish that adds color and texture to the table.