Opting Out: A Non-Traditional Thanksgiving

Note: This is not like my regular blog posts with travel details; instead, it is an essay about our decision to celebrate Thanksgiving a little differently this year. We opted out of the traditional feast and chose to #OptOutside.

In the dark, quiet pre-dawn hours of Thanksgiving, my mom would rise and put the turkey into the oven. By the time I awoke much later in the morning, the kitchen would be bustling with the smells of a feast as my mom ambled around in her faded pink housecoat. Our feast was always the same, a rather simple one as far as feasts go.

Stuffing from a box, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top, homemade mashed potatoes, and a few more favorites. The same foods would be prepared whether the meal was for two or twenty of us. Mom always fussed about making Thanksgiving, complaining about the mess. And yet, every year, she would make us a meal, save the wishbone, and put away the leftovers to be enjoyed again. Very rarely did we deviate from this tradition.


We have now spent four Thanksgivings without my mom. In those years, I’ve felt like I’ve lost my bearings, with no firm traditions of my own. Should we gather with other family members? Head to a restaurant? Skip it altogether? Prepare a big meal for just us?

A couple of years, I attempted to play the role of matriarch preparing the Thanksgiving feast, standing in my mother’s own kitchen, feeling as though she were looking over my shoulder. I would glance at the collection of wishbones from Thanksgivings past as I set my gleaming turkey upon her same platter, one she bought for less than ten dollars at the local Dollar General.

This role didn’t come naturally to me. Though I have many memories of my mom cooking our Thanksgiving feast, I never learned how to make this feast myself. Of course, I had opened the cans of green beans, mashed the potatoes, and buttered the rolls many times over the years, but I never participated in the whole process.


When I cooked my first couple of Thanksgiving meals without my mom, I had to search the Internet to see how to prep the bird and urgently called my mother-in-law once when I couldn’t locate the giblet in the bird. Each year, I fretted about whether the turkey was fully cooked inside. The heat of the oven would warm my face as I opened it to stick the thermometer in the turkey again and again to carefully check. Then, I would worry that opening and closing the door was lowering the oven temperature, making it less likely the bird would ever cook properly.

Aside from fretting about the turkey, everything else was easy enough. I prepared the same foods my mom would prepare as we gathered around her same kitchen table in her very own kitchen. But, it felt a little hollow and false, as if I were trying on someone else’s clothes for a role not meant for me.


This year, I decided to opt out of Thanksgiving. We had celebrated with my husband’s family the weekend before the holiday, so no one truly missed out on turkey. However, the idea of sitting at home on Thanksgiving Day sounded depressing—without a feast at the center of the day, there’d be nothing to mark it as different from any other day, and yet, I didn’t feel like preparing a feast for our family of four.

If we stayed home, I knew we’d fall into our weekend routines of housework and homework, screens and more screens. I didn’t want that. That didn’t sound like a proper way to show our gratitude for family and all the things we relish in this world. Thus, I decided we would opt out of the traditional Thanksgiving this year and head to the great outdoors.

Thanksgiving is about remembrance and gratitude. Spending time with those we love doesn’t have to happen around a kitchen table with a turkey in the middle. With that in mind, I knew our family was free to do something entirely new and different. With unseasonably warm weather in the forecast and several days off of school, I decided our family would go camping this year for the holiday.

Since we’ve started RVing, I’ve noted that we are different people when we travel. Without the traditional trappings of home, we find better ways to spend our time, connecting more deeply as a family. For this Thanksgiving, I wasn’t craving turkey and dressing, rather, I was craving this connection.

Our Thanksgiving was totally different than those in years past. Instead of a never-ending pile of dishes to clean, we conquered a never-ending hike through the woodlands of Johnson Shut-Ins State Park. Instead of gathering around a kitchen table for a feast, we curled up on our bed in the travel trailer for a card game. Instead of enjoying a beautiful bird hot from the oven, we had some deli lunchmeat that accidentally got frozen in our RV fridge and was thawed with the electric heater—surely, this is a memory our boys won’t soon forget. Instead of being surrounded by many generations of loved ones, we were surrounded by the great outdoors. Instead of chasing sales on Black Friday, we were chasing sunlight from the top of Elephant Rocks State Park.


Despite all of the differences between our non-traditional Thanksgiving and those we remember from the past, there were plenty of similarities. Thanksgiving is a time to gather with family, to share in our reflections and remembrances, to show gratitude about all we are and all we have. This Thanksgiving, I spent quality time with the three people I love most on this Earth, and what better way to appreciate the comforts of home than to live without them for a couple of days.

This Thanksgiving, I honored the memory of my mom, though I didn’t try to step in her shoes this year. This Thanksgiving, I gave thanks for the love of family, the beauty of the great outdoors, and the spirit of adventure. This Thanksgiving, our dinner plates may have been lean, but our hearts were full. For that, I give thanks.


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Lisa Tillman
Lisa Tillman
7 years ago

Such a beautiful post. Thank you, Kerri! I admire you so much.

David Hinkle
David Hinkle
7 years ago

Hi Kerri, I just got around to reading your post and it hit home with me. This Thanksgiving leaving my older brother’s home after spending most of the the day with parts of the remaining family, I looked at my wife and asked her if she had FUN. She was quiet for a moment, then said no, not really. After listening to some podcasts and reading some blog posts I’ve think i may break tradition and hit the woods too.

7 years ago

Lovely post, lovely Thanksgiving! Dave and I are lucky enough to still have all of our parents around, but I definitely feel a loss of tradition since my grandmother died a few years ago….until then I’m not sure I ever missed a Christmas at her house. Here’s to new traditions!

Nurse Dixie
Nurse Dixie
7 years ago
Reply to  Kerri Cox

Kerri, I so enjoy your blogs, they are like sitting down with a good book, a book that includes pictures! Please share with me about Jerry and Carolyn and their move to England. Is it a mission trip? I was wondering why we had not seen them at various Community /Christmas/Church functions this year.