Thanksgiving Ham Dinner: The Turkey Alternative

Looking for new Thanksgiving dinner ideas? We’ll take you beyond the traditional turkey menu with a much easier-to-serve Thanksgiving ham dinner.

For many people, what to make for Thanksgiving dinner isn’t much of a dilemma. Each family has its own traditional Thanksgiving menu—typically involving turkey—and deviating from it can be frowned upon. On the other hand, some families look forward more to seeing the same beloved faces gathered around the table each year, and are open to a little variety when it comes to what they eat together. And—let’s face it—some of us get a little tired of turkey every year. If you’re in the mood to change things up, consider the Thanksgiving ham dinner.

When you think about it, ham isn’t really all that non-traditional. In fact, many sources speculate that turkey wasn’t even on the table when the Pilgrims and Wampanoags celebrated the first Thanksgiving dinner. Most likely the meat was deer brought by the native Americans and wild fowl contributed by the English. Turkey showed up on traditional Thanksgiving menus in cookbooks many years later, usually one of several meats including ham.

Today ham remains a popular entrée for Thanksgiving and other holidays (primarily Christmas and Easter). It’s a great choice for smaller families who can’t put away a huge turkey and don’t want to eat leftovers for weeks, and is also used by many large families to supplement the traditional turkey. Plus, some people simply prefer ham; it’s lower maintenance and easier to bake properly, takes up less oven space, is easier to carve, and is moister than turkey breast. And its hardwood smoke and sweet honey glaze are perfect with the flavors of fall side dishes. So this Thanksgiving, let’s take a break from what everyone else does and make ham the centerpiece of the celebration.

Side Dishes for Thanksgiving Ham

Naturally, it all starts with the entrée…in this case, ham. And to complete the meal, we’re going to need side dishes and a dessert or two. Perhaps a nice wine. So if we’ve changed the entrée from turkey to ham, what does that do to our traditional Thanksgiving side dishes? What about Mom’s stuffing?

Fear not. What goes with turkey generally also goes with ham. The wine, for example. The best wines for turkey, according to wine professionals, are pinot noir (if you prefer red) and riesling (if white is your thing). And guess what? Those are exactly the wines these same professionals typically recommend with ham.

Not surprisingly, other foods often paired with turkey also have an affinity for ham. Classic fall sides like roasted Brussels sprouts, baked squash (savory with garlic and Parmesan or sweet with brown sugar and cinnamon), mashed sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce are naturals with ham.

The only thing that will almost certainly be different is the dressing (or stuffing). A ham can’t be stuffed as a turkey can…and, truthfully, many health professionals recommend that dressing not be baked inside the turkey anyway because of possible undercooking of the bird and bacterial transfer to the dressing. So you can still make your family’s favorite dressing (minus the giblets, unless you have some stashed in the freezer). One type of dressing that is especially good with Thanksgiving ham dinner is a Southern-style cornbread dressing.

But what about the gravy? No worries! If you’ve never had ham gravy, you’re in for a treat. TV’s The Pioneer Woman has an excellent recipe—and as an added bonus, it’s perfect to serve over biscuits for breakfast the next day.

Thanksgiving Ham Dinner Recipes

One of the great things about ham is that you really don’t need a recipe. Most hams are sold pre-cooked so they need only be brought up to temperature in the oven, and some hams even come with their own rich glaze already baked in. You can find fantastic baked hams in traditional bone-in form, easy-to-carve spiral-sliced, or the super-convenient boneless spiral-sliced.

Our Easter Ham article has easy tips on how to bake a ham and how to carve a ham…but again, it’s a very simple process that’s easier and quicker than roasting and carving a turkey.

One of the best things about ham is the wide variety of dishes you can make with the leftovers. Ham bone soup is a classic, of course, and is one of many ham leftover recipes to be found on Don’t forget the Swiss cheese for those incredible ham sandwiches!



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