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Food Boards for the Holiday Season

Rachel Teichman
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Side dishes

Side dishes, such as sweet potatoes, marshmallows, gravy and Brussels sprouts, are the real stars of the Thanksgiving table.

As we plan to deconstruct our holiday celebrations this year in order to keep everyone separated and safe, it helps to think about the layout of the meals.

Food boards have taken off this year, as the go-to way to beautifully display food, and also as a fun way to enjoy everyday ingredients. Cheese and crackers have been elevated to works of art where every space on the board is taken into consideration from an aesthetic standpoint. 

With smaller groups getting together for the holidays, less food will be needed. A larger food board - for close family members living in the same home or those in your "Covid bubble" - can incorporate a few smaller portions in a more interesting way. Or individual small food boards can also be used to keep people from having to pass food and share serving utensils. 

salad board

Goodbye salad bar, hello salad board! Add some crunch to your Thanksgiving salad with ingredients such as corn nuts, chips and crispy onions. 

Since self-serve salad bars are now a thing of the past, a unique idea is to serve each person at your table their own personal salad bar. You can gather fresh and crunchy items reminiscent of Thanksgiving, and display them in small bowls on a board, alongside a small bowl of salad. Guests can help themselves to items such as dried cranberries, chopped apples, sugared pecans, potato or sweet potato chips, corn nuts, pumpkin seeds, dried stuffing cubes or croutons and crispy fried onions. Serve with a complementary vinaigrette - pumpkin pie spice is optional! 

DIY green bean casserole

DIY green bean casserole: Let your guests get in on the cooking with a make-your-own green bean casserole.

Another way to use a board is to deconstruct a dish for an interactive element during your meal since this is the year to mix things up. Green bean casserole lends itself well to this. The board can hold heated frozen or canned green beans, along with a small amount of warmed mushroom soup mixed with milk, soy sauce topped with a shake of black pepper and plenty of crispy onions. Everyone can mix up their own side dish and top with as many onions as they want. This way of serving food alleviates preparing a large casserole dish full of food which may not be completely eaten. 

green bean casserole dish

Here’s a new take on the classic green bean casserole dish. 

The star of Thanksgiving really is the sides, but don’t tell that to the turkey! You can create a literal “side-board” on any large cutting board, cookie sheet, platter or even directly onto a clean table covered with a piece of parchment or wax paper. It is also a nice way to add a personal touch to store-bought dishes. Gather the sides such as stuffing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, green beans and corn. Those can go in small bowls or on mini plates. Pour gravy and cranberry sauce into small bowls, cups or even shot glasses. Arrange everything on your board, making sure to organize with color, texture and container in mind.

For example, you don’t want items such as mashed potatoes and gravy near each other if they are similar in color. And you want items in bowls or cups intertwined with food placed directly on the board. You can use a variety of ice cream scoopers or spoons to lay out the food, and fill in the empty space with fresh or dried cranberries, corn nuts, pecans and bread if you wish. How much space you fill or not is up to you. You can even use inedible decorations (as long as it is obvious that they cannot be eaten!). 

Christmas and ice cream toppings go hand in hand. 

Ice cream sundae bars lend themselves well to a dessert board, since there are so many topping choices. Christmas makes a nice theme for toppings since there are so many lovely candies and nuts to consider, once you leave out jellied fruit cake cherries!

Some ideas include: crushed candy canes, marshmallows, cookies, M & Ms, colored cereal, dried cranberries, pecans with maple syrup, chocolate peppermint candies and chocolate sauce. Whipped cream gets jazzed up when mixed with cinnamon or cranberry sauce, while still remaining on theme. Chocolate chunks, whole candy canes and cinnamon sticks make good filler for this type of board. Mint chocolate chip, butter pecan, vanilla and chocolate ice creams would accompany this board well. 

You can play around with where and how to organize your board, and nothing is ever final until it is served. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Consider shapes and sizes of items, especially foods you cut yourself. Variety is the spice of food boards. 
  • You can consider three to four items as the main ingredients and place those first. Then work down from there in size, until you get to the fillers. 
  • Remember to vary which items are placed directly on the board, and which ones go in bowls or on plates. 
  • Make sure you have a variety of colors throughout, as well as textures and flavors, including savory, sweet, fresh, crunchy and creamy.
  • Consider your spacing and whether you want it all filled in or not, and with all edible items or not. 
  • Keep serving utensils or toothpicks nearby or on the board itself. If sharing with people outside of your home, give each guest their own personal serving utensil.

It’s time to get on board with the board trend, and have a happy and fruitful holiday season!

Editor's note: For more holiday recipe inspiration, see this month's Cooking Buzz with tips for the perfect turkey and appetizer recipes and more Thanksgiving recipes here.

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