Apart but together: tips for a cozier Zoom Thanksgiving

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This October 2017 photo taken in New York, shows a Thanksgiving spread with hot spinach and mushroom dip, turkey, cornbread stuffing and sauteed brussel sprouts. A meal like this can be cooked and readied to be enjoyed in multiple homes and connected via Zoom, or virtually, during this year’s Thanksgiving holiday. (Sarah Crowder/Katie Workman via AP)

We all know Thanksgiving is going to look different this year. If you’re lucky, you might live where the weather will still be nice and you have space to create an outdoor Thanksgiving with appropriate social distancing.

The rest of us are preparing for the fact that an in-person Thanksgiving with all of our loved ones is unlikely because of pandemic safety concerns. For us, 2020 will be the year of the Zoom Thanksgiving.

So how do we make that feel OK?

From shared menus to organized games and discussions, some planning and coordination can go a long way.

“The idea is to still feel unified in some way,” says Etsy trend expert Dayna Isom Johnson.

CAPTURING THE VIEW

For once, electronic devices at the table are something to celebrate. Think about how you will position your laptop or other device so those dining with you remotely can see as many people at your table as possible. This may involve changing up the seating arrangements, putting more people on one side of the table than usual.

Your computer or phone might sit on a buffet, side table or the table itself; move it around as the evening goes on.

Maryanne Sullivan of Jersey City, New Jersey, plans to leave the head of the table empty and put her laptop there, while her Massachusetts-based brother does the same at his family’s table. The effect, she says, will “be a continuation of one long table.”

FEEDING DISTANT GUESTS

If you want to celebrate with family who might be unable to cook for themselves, think about how to get Thanksgiving food to their home. If they are nearby, drop things off well ahead of time; provide any necessary chilling, reheating or serving instructions so they can share the meal with you and not get lost in the preparations.

If your virtual guests are farther afield, consider ordering the meal from a restaurant to be delivered on Thanksgiving Day. Many restaurants will be creating Thanksgiving takeout or delivery menus, and you might be able to get the whole shebang delivered to your loved ones’ door.

To personalize things further, see if a nearby caterer or restaurant might prepare specific recipes to be delivered. Perhaps your Thanksgiving doesn’t feel complete without Aunt Sue’s roasted butternut squash, or your sister’s famous streusel apple pie? This might still be possible, if budget allows.

COORDINATING MENUS

To feel more connected, create a menu together with remote friends or family. Choose specific recipes, and at least everyone can be eating the same Parmesan roasted Brussels sprouts and scalloped sweet potatoes.

Let everyone contribute a favorite recipe, perhaps. Then, when someone on the Zoom screen says, “Wow, this is the best green bean casserole ever,” you can heartily agree from your side of the internet.

Sullivan’s family is picking two recipes to make in tandem with her brother so she can feel like “you’re eating the same stuffing I’m eating.”

They are also both laying in a supply of the same prosecco to make it feel celebratory.

“Even though this is a very unusual time, it’s still a time we’ll remember, and we want it to be filled with positive thoughtful memories,” Isom Johnson says.

Send out the same cocktail-making kit or cheese boxes for everybody in advance, she suggests.

Matching cheese boards on Zoom? Very 2020.

SETTING THE STAGE

While many of us take care to set a nice table for the holiday, and perhaps create a seasonal centerpiece, this is a good year to take it up a notch to warm the homes of everyone celebrating with us virtually.

“There will be a lot more attention to detail with things like personalized name tags and fancy pieces of beautiful dinnerware and glasses, and all the bells and whistles of a very special, fancy dinner,” Isom Johnson predicts.

For the tech savvy, she also recommends creating a family holiday Zoom background for everyone. It could involve rotating or fixed images, perhaps of a childhood home, previous family gatherings, past vacations. Let the teens or millennials in your house take on this task.

Another good task for the younger set: creating a shared playlist.

JOINT ACTIVITIES

Post- or pre-meal games are a great way to connect and spark conversation. There are personalized, online bingo and card games for a crowd, for instance, and many board games work well over screens. You can have some lively Scattergories games via Zoom if you send everyone the word lists ahead of time, and a few rounds of virtual charades are easy.

Think about coordinating a pre-Thanksgiving non-perishable food drop-off to the local pantry. Everyone can share in the good feelings that come with making sure others have enough to eat.

And especially in these difficult times, psychologists say that finding things for which to feel grateful can lift your mood. A week or so before the holiday, ask everyone to write down one or more things they feel thankful for, large or small. Put them in a bowl or in an online chat, and during or after the meal take turns reading your own or others.

Katie Workman writes regularly about food for The Associated Press. She has written two cookbooks focused on family-friendly cooking, “Dinner Solved!” and “The Mom 100 Cookbook.” She blogs at http://www.themom100.com/about-katie-workman. She can be reached at [email protected]