The One Thing Your Thanksgiving Dinner Desperately Needs

It's salad. Your gravy-drizzled holiday dinner needs to be paired with a simple green salad.

I've never related to Thanksgiving contrarians who see the meal as bland or boring. Thanksgiving winnows down the whole concept of a holiday to the basic elements that make any celebration great: relaxing with people and eating good stuff. A good roast turkey is a wonderful centerpiece, and I love every last one of the avalanche of sides that usually accompanies it. Few meals endure as long as the Thanksgiving dinner has without actually tasting good.

That said, it's undeniable that Thanksgiving is a punishingly heavy meal. Complaints that the holiday is full of nothing but mushy starches are factually accurate, although that's half the reason everything tastes so good. Even the vegetables like green beans get casseroled beyond recognition, indistinguishable from every other pile on your plate. The meal really could use something to cut through it all—but you don't need to remove anything you love to make Thanksgiving even better. You just need to add a simple green salad.

Why you should add salad to your Thanksgiving spread

Salad won't be the star of your dinner, and it doesn't need to be. Instead, it acts as an important palate cleanser that will help you take down even more mashed potatoes and gravy before you start to feel like you're going to pass out. A fresh bite of greens at Thanksgiving is like a splash of water on a runner's face that wakes them up for the rest of the marathon.

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If there are two things Thanksgiving is missing, it's acid and crunch, and salad delivers both. Acidic ingredients like salad dressing don't just taste good, they also wake up everything else you're eating, and they lend a balance to your meal that will make all those rich and savory bites that much more satisfying. The crunch factor is just as important: Textural variety is always something to strive for in a meal, as it breaks up the monotony of a meal just as much as different flavors do. A crisp bit of lettuce makes you all the more excited to dive back into the stuffing.

As a small aside, salad is also pretty! That might not sound like much, but the visual appeal of green salad in a sea of brown and beige makes the whole meal more appealing to the senses. If you are going for a picture-perfect holiday tableau as people sit down for dinner, salad is going to make your table look that much nicer, too.

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Perhaps most compelling of all is that a fresh salad is just about the easiest side you'll make for Thanksgiving dinner. You can of course delegate this task, since an undressed salad can be made ahead of time and stored with no issue, but even if you need to make it yourself it can be done in minutes. With so much on your plate already, your salad doesn't need to be complicated or full of a variety of ingredients. Some dressed greens are all you need, maybe with one or two additions.

The only extra effort I would recommend is making your own dressing. Most vinaigrettes are easy enough to make with pantry ingredients, and the improvement in flavor over store-bought is enough to make the couple extra minutes of work worthwhile. (And hey, you can serve the vinaigrette with the salad and on the turkey.)

The best green salad to serve at Thanksgiving

You can, of course, pick any salad recipe you like, but I have a few favorites that are special enough for a holiday meal while still being very easy.

The first is a simple kale salad with a mustard vinaigrette. Kale's robustness fits in well at Thanksgiving; its bitterness is another flavor that is usually missing from the table, and it's also in season in November throughout much of the country, so you can get the real good stuff. Mustard dressing is strong, but it's got the acidic punch you need, and its got enough flavor that even kale haters like this salad. There's a mustard vinaigrette recipe here, and if you like it spicy, you can try this one, which uses giardiniera. Or just follow Nora Ephron's lead.

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The only other things I add to my kale salad are some sliced shallots or onions and roasted nuts. Both add some extra crunch, and you get a little more brightness from the alliums. For nuts, I like walnuts or hazelnuts, but pecans or sliced almonds would also be good.

Another holiday favorite is a shaved brussels sprout salad with apple cider vinaigrette. Like kale, sprouts are in season in the fall, and they make a crunchy, slaw-like salad when sliced thinly. It helps to toss them with the dressing a half hour before serving, so as to tenderize them a bit. This base is great with just pine nuts and dried cranberries, but some diced apple or crumbled feta are also nice additions.

Finally, you can make a basic and enjoyable approximation of a little gem salad with any lettuce that has a good mix of crunchy parts and greener parts. Romaine or green leaf lettuce both work. Chop up your greens, slice some onion, toss it with a citrus dressing like a lemon vinaigrette, add some nuts (pistachio or almond or whatever), and you're done. Just use a light hand with the dressing to keep it from getting soggy.

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Adding a salad at Thanksgiving isn't about trying to be "healthy." The holidays are a time for joyous indulgence. Having some fresh greens on the table really is all in service of making the best, most satisfying meal possible. Get it right once and a salad will become just as much a staple as cranberries or sweet potatoes on your Thanksgiving table.

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