This Thanksgiving turned out a little different for my family in a lot of ways. Between family health concerns, and COVID-19 forcing us to celebrate separate from relatives, the holiday definitely didn't  feel the same as it has in previous years.

We can all relate that the holidays are, and will continue to be, unusual from the typical traditions we love. If seeing our loved ones is out of the picture this holiday season, the meals are the second most critical aspect to give us any sense of normalcy. Holiday meals in the age of COVID-19 might seem out of the question if you’re unable to safely shop at grocery stores, but just because you can’t necessarily cook it yourself doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy a meal this holiday season. 

Knowing my family couldn’t feasibly cook for the holidays this year, my relatives stepped in and ordered us a Thanksgiving Dinner prepared by their local Shaws’ Market. I was skeptical - as someone who personally does much of the cooking during the holidays, I couldn’t tell how a grocery store dinner would compare.

Hours after stuffing my face with dinner, I sit here asking myself, how did each dish compare to what we would have made? What could have been better? And ultimately, is this an option I’d recommend to others in need of a little help during the holidays?

For around $60, Shaw’s Thanksgiving meal included a 12lb pre-cooked turkey, 2 containers of mashed potatoes, a container of gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, a package of sweet bread rolls, and lastly, a pie. That cost might seem hefty, but all you have to do is heat these dishes up, right?

To be fair, the turkey required warming in the oven for 2+ hours, and for a turkey that’s supposed to be cooked and ready to go, it seems a little much. It wouldn't take much longer than that to cook an uncooked turkey in the oven.

The mashed potato and stuffing could be microwaved, but heating in the oven was recommended. This took roughly 30 minutes+ in the oven. The gravy could be easily microwaved, the rolls quickly warmed in the oven for a couple of minutes, and the cranberry sauce was ready to go right away.

Most importantly though, how did these dishes taste? Does this grocery store holiday dinner match up to a home-cooked meal?

Turkey is something that cannot really be messed up.

A turkey is a turkey, the most you can do to alter the flavor is rub it with seasoning. The seasoning on our turkey this year was subtle, and if you cut yourself a slice inside the breast, you wouldn’t taste it. The skin was a little fatty for me, but there’s little that can be done to avoid this. Since it was already cooked, heating it in the oven for 2 ½ hours seemed a bit extra, but it did come out perfectly warm, and maybe a little dry (could be my oven!).

There's nothing a little gravy can't do to fix dry turkey.

The gravy honestly tasted like any other gravy you get from a store. My family typically gets those powder packets that you add water to and heat on the stove, and this gravy, already in liquid form, tasted fine, maybe better than that. I’m sure it doesn’t compare to homemade gravy, but if you’re like my family and don’t go the extra mile to make it yourself, this works great.

Some satisfactory stuffing.

The stuffing was quite good. It’s typical stuffing, nicely flavored, and tasted great with a forkful of turkey. If I made stuffing myself and added onions, or maybe apple chunks, there would be a nice flavor that you don’t get with store-bought stuffing. For this pre-made stuffing to taste as authentic as possible, I would recommend heating it in the oven. The packaging gave the option to heat it in the microwave, which I predicted would add sogginess to it.

Suspiciously smooth mashed potatoes.

The pre-made potatoes were okay. They’re the kind of mashed potatoes that you just know probably were made from those powdered mashed potato packets. The texture was very smooth, which is great, but I do miss the way our homemade mashed potatoes are never quite mashed enough. They add a homemade aesthetic to the dish. I also find that just adding butter to the potatoes is enough for me, especially if there’s gravy that can be added. The garlic flavor of these potatoes was unnecessary.

A sweet touch of cranberry.

Finally for the meal, there was the cranberry sauce. This sauce was a thick consistency, with little cranberry chunks. Considering I don’t make cranberry sauce by hand for the holidays typically, I can’t say this sauce is very different from what I’m used to. It tasted good on the turkey, and added a nice sweet touch to the mostly savory plate.

Pumpkin pie filling, saving the day.

The pie looked like a typical pre-made pie you’d buy at the grocery store. I typically steer away from these, but I didn’t mind their pumpkin pie. Crust in a store bought pie can almost never compare to homemade, and this was the case here. The pumpkin filling itself tasted quite good though, with a nice amount of cinnamon and spices giving it great flavor.

For a family of 4, this was plenty. We had enough of every dish for another Thanksgiving meal if we wanted. Had we been celebrating the holiday with our typical gang of 8-9 people, I would still say this was a decent amount - definitely not enough for leftovers, but enough for us all to eat comfortably and feel full the rest of the night.

That being said, this prepared meal felt like it was missing a lot of dishes we typically want on our plates. A main part of my Thanksgiving and Christmas tradition includes cooking and preparing veggies, which this meal lacked. No green bean casserole, sweet potato, peas, carrots, asparagus, or whatever else one might find on their plate. At least one traditional vegetable would have been a good addition beside the mashed potatoes.

If you want to take the stress off of the next holiday you’re celebrating, and spend more time with your loved ones than cooking in the kitchen, a grocery store prepared dinner is definitely worth considering. Our relatives did send us homemade veggies to go alongside this prepared meal, which balanced our plates nicely. If you find the time to cook one or two dishes yourself, you’ll find that a prepared meal like this will feel more complete. While heating the dishes up did take up 2-3 hours of the day, there is virtually no prep work to be had, making your life easier. In a time where grocery shopping, and even cooking for that matter, is out of your ability, purchasing a prepared holiday meal from your local grocery stores is definitely worth looking into. Your holiday cheer doesn’t need to be sacrificed this holiday season, so celebrate with a prepared meal to make your lives stress-free! Might I suggest to you Shaw's Holiday Spiral Ham Dinner for this Christmas?