Holidays & Celebrations

Planning a Thanksgiving meal abroad

Four countries in the world mark the end of the harvest season with a Thanksgiving meal every year. Just because you’re living abroad doesn’t mean that you have to abandon your traditions, though. Plan the perfect Thanksgiving meal with these recipes and tips.

Planning a Thanksgiving meal abroad

By Adam Nowek

Updated 9-1-2024

Expats all over the world know how frustrating it is to not have your favorite foods from home, whether you’re craving lamb tajine or shoyu ramen. When it comes to the holidays, though, these feelings are amplified. But the truth is that anyone can plan a fabulous Thanksgiving meal, even while living abroad.

Get inspired for the harvest holiday with a few great recipes (plus a few new twists), ideas for decorating your dining table, and a little history of Thanksgiving itself. There’s something for everyone – whether you’ve been doing it for years or are a Thanksgiving dinner first-timer.

What is Thanksgiving, anyway?

Although best known around the world as an American holiday, Thanksgiving is officially observed in four countries:

  • Canada: the second Monday in October (2023 date: 9 October)
  • Liberia: the first Thursday in November (2023 date: 2 November)
  • Saint Lucia: the first Monday in October (2023 date: 2 October)
  • United States: the fourth Thursday in November (2023 date: 23 November)

In these countries, Thanksgiving arose out of the autumn harvest and a desire to show collective gratitude. This holiday feast historically featured ingredients freshly harvested from autumnal crops. Although the dishes commonly made for a Thanksgiving meal have changed over the years, the idea remains the same: getting family and friends together to enjoy food that we associate with the onset of winter.

Other countries and regions also celebrate Thanksgiving to a lesser extent, often because of historical ties with the United States. Liberia was established by former American slaves, while Grenada uses it to commemorate a US-led invasion. Norfolk Island also celebrates Thanksgiving, largely because of American whalers who spent time on the island.

Thanksgiving dinner is a great occasion to gather your friends and colleagues to show them a bit of where you come from

Thanksgiving is a statutory holiday in the four countries that observe it. However, you’ll have to consider your friends’ and colleagues’ schedules if you plan to invite them. Thanksgiving falls on a weekday, so you can’t expect many people to binge on turkey, potatoes, and a bit of wine on a work night.

Few families that prepare a Thanksgiving meal today are actually farmers. As a result, the focus shifted from the autumn harvest to the ideas of togetherness and giving thanks. The most important part about Thanksgiving isn’t even the meal; it’s about sitting around the table together with close friends and family to share the food that you have.

One way to demonstrate the best part of Thanksgiving to anyone that doesn’t celebrate it is to get every guest to bring a dish; this brings everyone in line with the spirit of the occasion. As it’s typical to serve all of the dishes at a Thanksgiving meal at once, this is the perfect occasion to try a little bit of everything on offer.

Recipes for cooking a Thanksgiving meal abroad

Every family prepares a Thanksgiving meal differently. There are a few common themes that most people celebrating Canadian or American Thanksgiving follow, like turkey and mashed potatoes. Others are common but not ubiquitous (think sweet potatoes with marshmallows or Brussels’ sprouts). Here’s a few recipe ideas to make sure your Thanksgiving dinner impresses your guests.

Green bean casserole

Green beans are pretty standard Thanksgiving fare, especially as a baked casserole. Thankfully, ingredients for this hearty side dish are available from any reasonably stocked grocer.

Step up your green bean casserole with a homemade gravy and a better crust.
Step up your green bean casserole with a homemade gravy and a better crust.

Looking to spice up your green bean casserole? Swap the condensed soup for a proper gravy and the canned fried onions for some freshly fried ones.

Mashed cassava

This dish is a staple across West Africa, including Thanksgiving-celebrating Liberia. Generally made with mashed cassava, fufu is a dense dish that absorbs flavors and sauces quite well.

Fufu, which is made with mashed cassava, is generally served with stews, soups, or dishes with plenty of sauce.
Fufu, which is made with mashed cassava, is generally served with stews, soups, or dishes with plenty of sauce.

Potatoes are not the most commonly eaten staple food in Liberia, which is why the Liberian Thanksgiving meal uses the locally-celebrated root vegetable. If you live in a country where cassava is widely available, incorporating it into your Thanksgiving dinner could add a local flavor to your own holiday.

Cranberry sauce

Few condiments are as well-suited together as well-roasted turkey meat and tart cranberry sauce. Conventional cranberry sauces outside of North America, though, tend to be hard to find, extremely expensive, or are more of a jelly than a sauce.

Forget cranberry sauce from a can; make your own and your Thanksgiving meal will love you for it.
Forget cranberry sauce from a can; make your own and your turkey will love you for it.

The alternative? Make your own! A zesty homemade cranberry sauce lets you add the flair that gelatinous, store-bought cranberry sauce was always missing; all it takes is an orange and a bit of maple syrup.

Mashed potatoes

One of the simplest dishes in a Thanksgiving meal, but that doesn’t make it any less important. It’s a vessel for all of the delectable sauces that touch your plate, but creamy mashed potatoes can steal the accolades of your guests.

Creamy mashed potatoes are even better with a healthy heap of garlic.
Creamy mashed potatoes are even better with a healthy heap of garlic.

Thick and creamy mashed potatoes are great (try milk, cream, or yoghurt to achieve peak creaminess), but throw in a bit of garlic for some extra flavor.

Turkey and gravy

Most importantly, there’s the traditional turkey. There’s always room for deviating from the script, but there’s a few things that any cooked turkey should have.

If there's one thing that almost every family agrees on, it's having a turkey as part of a Thanksgiving meal.
If there’s one thing that almost every family agrees on, it’s having a turkey as part of a Thanksgiving meal.

Turkeys are large birds, which is part of why preparing a Thanksgiving meal abroad takes up so much time. They can also be hard to find outside of North America, which is the area that turkeys are native to. Having trouble finding a turkey? Try another kind of poultry; go with something dependable like chicken or maybe think outside the box and try duck, goose, or pheasant.

Decorating the table for a Thanksgiving meal

While you might have trouble tracking down some cute little pumpkins to use as decorations where you live, there are plenty of other ways to embrace the autumn aesthetic during your Thanksgiving meal:

  • Use berries and autumn fruits as table decoration.
  • Go for a natural look rather than formalized centerpieces.
  • Emphasize the autumn theme with napkins and serviettes colored with golds, browns, and rich reds.
  • Candles give soft light and gilding them can make them shine even brighter.