Lessen the Leftovers: If it’s just the two of you, downsize your holiday meal

This Thanksgiving, what if you don’t need to add the leaf to the dining room table and lug up extra chairs from the basement? What if you won’t have enough guests to feast on an 18-pound turkey and Costco-sized sides? What if your dinner will resemble a date more than a family gathering? If you’re only cooking for yourself and another person, you’re going to have to find ways to pare down the traditionally massive banquet into a more manageable meal for two, unless you want to be eating leftovers until January.

Fortunately, as interest in cooking for one or two people has increased over the years, so have the suggestions from the culinary world on how to manipulate portions, even during the holidays, when we consume some of the biggest meals of the year.

“With the average American household down to its all-time low of 2.61 people, an entire industry has arisen to accommodate the new scope of our lifestyles, resulting in a major demographic shift impacting eating and meal preparation,” said Debby Maugans Nakos, author of “Small-Batch Baking,” a guide to desserts and breads for one to two people.

Several St. Louis-area cooking instructors said they’ve either taught classes on cooking for two or had students interested in the topic. At the Dierbergs School of Cooking, for instance, Nancy Lorenz, manager of the Ellisville location, has encountered many retirees who want to learn how to cook for themselves and their significant others.

No matter what stage in life, though, there’s a good chance everyone will cook for a small amount of people at some point, Nakos said. If you’ve reached that point this Thanksgiving, there are many approaches you can take in downsizing the annual holiday meal.

For the main dish, you’ve got options. If you don’t want to stray from tradition, Lorenz recommended boneless turkey breast or turkey tenderloins. If you decide on the turkey breast, you could try Nakos’ Rolled Turkey Breast With Cornbread Stuffing and Dried Cranberry Sauce. To prepare the turkey roll with stuffing, she said, lightly pound and nudge the cutlets with a rolling pin into rough rectangles large enough to roll around a cornbread mixture.

Or, you could rethink the meat altogether, Lorenz said. If you want to try something different, you could go with Cornish game hens. This small chicken weighs between 1.5 and 2 pounds and cooks quicker than other, larger holiday roasts.

Another alternative is roasted duck, which Anne Cori, president of Kitchen Conservatory, a Clayton cooking school, prefers. “The whole thing about Thanksgiving is having a whole bird, and duck is elegant enough to be a party food in a way that chicken is not,” she said. Cori recommended her duck à l’orange (see recipe).

Once you’ve decided on the main dish, consider the side items. Many of them can be made quite easily, Nakos said. Oftentimes, it’s just a matter of cutting all of the ingredients from a certain recipe in half.

For starters, sweet potatoes are simple. All you have to do is buy two. To whip up a small batch of sweet potato casserole, cut a standard recipe in half and use 2-cup baking dishes, Nakos said.

For bread or rolls, if you don’t want to purchase a large package, “Small-Batch Baking” offers tons of recipes for loaves small enough for one or two people. To make stuffing, especially for Nakos’ turkey roll recipe, pick up a couple of pieces of cornbread or corn muffins from the deli section of the grocery store.

Other sections of the grocery store also offer ways to reduce the amount of ingredients you put in your cart. For vegetables, consider stopping by the salad bar, where you can select only the amount of veggies you need. This way, you won’t have to purchase packaged or bundled items, which might come with more than enough for two.

Like sweet potatoes, vegetables are a relatively simple side item to scale back. Nakos recommended steaming or simmering a handful of fresh green beans and tossing them with 1 tablespoon of melted butter and some toasted hazelnuts or almonds. Or, you could grab Brussels sprouts (whatever amount you want to eat) and roast them, Cori said. Her recipe: Trim the Brussels sprouts and score the bottoms. Put them on a lined sheet pan and coat them with olive oil, salt and pepper. Then, roast them at 400 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes. Cori also suggested creamed parsnips (see recipe).

Unlike sides, desserts for one or two can be tricky, partly because with baking, you can’t always cut recipes exactly in half. “Amounts do not always reduce in straightforward proportions,” Nakos wrote in “Small-Batch Baking.” The recipes in her book, though, provide the formulas for small batches.

For Thanksgiving, she said that to make individual cheesecakes, you can buy individual, 4-inch springform pans at kitchen stores or on the Internet. Or, she suggested using the 8-ounce cans from water chestnuts or bamboo shoots and using them for baking desserts. Make sure to cleanly cut off the tops, remove the paper wrappers, empty the cans and wash them, she said. Another tip: To save money on ingredients, “pick up a mini-snack pack of cookies for the crust, so you don’t have to buy an entire box of cookies to make it,” she said.

If cheesecake doesn’t tempt your palate, consider two recommendations from Cori: a baked apple wrapped in a puff pastry or an individual tart for pumpkin pie, instead of a 9-inch size. Taking steps such as this to reduce the amount of servings will reduce the amount of leftovers lingering around after Thanksgiving. And cutting down on leftovers is one of the primary benefits of learning to cook for two.

“Nobody likes leftovers because you get tired of them,” Cori said. “It’s not that the food isn’t good. It’s just that you really only can eat leftovers for one more meal before you become sick of them or have to make them into something else.”

The key is to think creatively, and, during the holidays, to plan ahead. Even if you’re only cooking for two, try to tackle as much as possible as early as possible. You could bake a dessert, which might need to be refrigerated for a certain period of time before serving anyway, or take care of any side items that could be reheated. This way, on the big day, you can focus your energy on converting recipes and trying out new holiday dishes for two.