How to Have a Fully Remote Family Thanksgiving

By J. D. Biersdorfer

Skipping travel this year to stop the spread of Covid-19? Here’s how to digitally reimagine the holiday, from meal prep to after-dinner activities.

If you’ve never cooked your own turkey before, Butterball’s website is here to help.
If you’ve never cooked your own turkey before, Butterball’s website is here to help.Credit...Butterball
J. D. Biersdorfer

Because of the relentless pandemic, many people are staying home for Thanksgiving this year. No technology can ever fully replace an in-person holiday gathering. But it is possible to recreate some family traditions online or even learn new skills — like roasting turkey.

Here are some ideas to digitize the Thanksgiving experience.

After nine months of life in coronavirus times, most families have probably figured out a group videoconference option. If not, services like Google Meet in Gmail and Zoom, which start with an email invitation link and run in a browser, may be easier for the less technically inclined. (Keep in mind, free Zoom accounts have a 40-minute limit on group calls.)

Apps are plentiful, like Google Duo, which works for group calls on web browsers and Android devices, as well as iPhones and iPads. For families firmly lodged in the Apple ecosystem, the Group feature of the FaceTime app for mobile devices and Mac computers also brings everyone together on the same screen. The Rooms feature of Facebook Messenger is another option for group video.

ImageCreating a group of family members in Facebook Messenger makes it easy to share food photos and set up a private “room” for a group video chat.
Creating a group of family members in Facebook Messenger makes it easy to share food photos and set up a private “room” for a group video chat.Credit...J.D. Biersdorfer

Devices like the Amazon Echo Show, GrandPad and ViewClix require a bit of configuration but can simplify video calls. Of course, if streaming sessions are not an option for everyone, a well-timed audio conference call and photos by text or email keeps everyone included.

Many supermarkets have online ordering with delivery or curbside pickup for all your meal ingredients. If a whole bird is too much for your household’s dinner, Butterball, Jennie-O and other suppliers offer smaller turkey breasts and boneless roasts — and step-by-step videos that show first-timers how to prepare them. YouTube is also full of videos for creating regional variations, like smoked or Cajun-style turkey.

The Jennie-O site hosts its own videos and other aids for first-time turkey chefs cooking its products.Credit...Jennie-O

If you’re longing to mash yams and craft other favorite dishes while chatting with relatives, do a kitchen group call. Scan and share those treasured recipes via text or email ahead of time — or present them onscreen as everyone prepares his or her own version remotely (with the revamped Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on mute in the background).

A mobile scanning app like TurboScan makes it easy to capture and share old holiday recipes with other family members who are preparing the meal in their own homes.Credit...Indiana DAR Cookbook

Can’t cook? Consult your phone’s maps app for restaurants offering a meal for contactless delivery. Nationwide, Boston Market takes Thanksgiving meal orders online until 11:59 p.m. on Monday.

Dining in a group video chat brings the family around the virtual table, but it may not be for everyone. Restarting the webcam for the pie-and-gossip dessert course is another approach — or waiting for the after-dinner chatter.

Holiday gatherings are often a time for photos and stories. If your video-chat platform has a screen-sharing feature, a slide show of digitized old pictures is one way to gather everyone. (Holding up those album pages to the camera is a low-tech workaround.)

If you've scanned and uploaded old photos to an online album, you can share the images in a presention or online slideshow with other family members logged into the video call.Credit...J.D. Biersdorfer

Activities that specifically engage all members of the family can also create new memories via livestream, like cajoling the 10-year-old to play her piano recital piece, or getting Grandpa to talk about life before the polio vaccine. If everyone is reminiscing, take the opportunity to interview relatives for a family history project or share other genealogical material you’ve found online to keep the conversation going.

While the serious family gamers have already fired up their consoles after dessert, those who prefer more old-fashioned entertainment like card games can find them online. Trickster Cards, for example, offers free hearts, euchre, bridge and other classics for multiple players on computer or mobile device. The Houseparty platform also hosts games, including Uno and Word Racers.

If a card game is a customary post-meal activity, look for a site, like Trickster Cards, that lets you invite family to play online.Credit...Trickster Cards

If a group movie is tradition, consider a “watch party” app or browser extension to sync up the video and add a chat function for everyone viewing together. (Most of these work on a computer browser and require participants to have accounts with the streaming service hosting the video.) The Teleparty extension for Chrome and Opera works with many videos on Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max and Hulu. The Disney+ service has its own GroupWatch feature, and Amazon Prime has Watch Party.

The Teleparty browser extension works with Netflix, Disney+ and other services and allows you to invite people to watch video and chat together through a web browser.Credit...Disney+/Teleparty

The Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys are still scheduled for their annual Turkey Day games, and you don’t have to watch alone. Up to four people at a time can stream the games on a phone or tablet through the Yahoo Sports app for Android and OS.

A digitally driven Thanksgiving is about making the best of a bad situation, but there are upsides beyond staying safer: No airport delays or highway traffic.