What Was on the Menu at the First Thanksgiving?

Every year on the fourth Thursday in November, we sit down to feast on a special meal with family and friends. Some gather to give thanks for all that we have received over the previous year; others get together to enjoy turkey and football. We all celebrate Thanksgiving in our own ways. Have you ever thought to yourself, how did this all begin? With Thanksgiving approaching, we thought we’d give you a little something to chew on ahead of time 🙂  Some of the answers may be surprising!

When we think back to what we learned in elementary school about the first Thanksgiving, it was the Pilgrims and the Indians sitting down together for a big feast featuring turkey and a number of sides. Today, the traditional Thanksgiving dinner includes any number of dishes: turkey, ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes, candied yams, rolls, casseroles, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.

So what actually started all of this?

There is limited account of what actually was served at the first Thanksgiving, but we do know that the Pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony (present day Massachusetts) shared a meal with the Wampanoag Indians in the autumn of 1621. According to a letter written by Edward Winslow, a senior leader who traveled on the Mayflower ship, he described that the colonists met with Chief Massasoit and 90 of his men for a feast that lasted four days. References are made to lots of wild fowl and deer.

As stated in the journal of the Plymouth Colony’s governor William Bradford, “And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion.”

Determining what else everyone ate at the first feast requires a bit of educated guesses.


First and foremost, there was wildfowl—most likely duck or geese, but potentially carrier pigeons or swans. The birds were probably stuffed with onions and nuts instead of the bread cubes and sausage more familiar to us today, then boiled or roasted. It is highly unlikely that turkey was at the top of the list for dinner! There’s also record of venison, which is deer meat being present.


While seafood seems like a rare addition to a modern day Thanksgiving spread, it is recorded that the colonists most likely had fish, eel, and shellfish, such as lobster and mussels, at their feast.


Vegetarians would have had a heyday in 1621. Native crops such as peas, beans, squash, pumpkins, and corn would have likely made an appearance on the Thanksgiving table alongside vegetables brought over from England, such as cabbage and carrots. It is true that Native Americans taught colonists how to farm several local crops.

What Was NOT Served at The First Thanksgiving

There were no mountainous heaps of mashed potatoes as white potatoes had not yet been introduced from South America. There was no gravy as there were no mills to produce flour. There was no sweet potato casserole, with or without mini marshmallows, as sweet potatoes hadn’t been brought over yet from the Caribbean.

Cranberries may have been incorporated into Native American dishes to add tartness, but it was a half of century before anyone was documented as using cranberries and sugar to make a sauce to pair with meat, not to mention sugar would have been extremely expensive at this time.

Therefore, with no flour or sugar, there would have been no pie at the first Thanksgiving table.

So how did the Thanksgiving menu evolve into what it is today?

Edward Winslow’s letter was eventually published and reintroduced in the 1800’s as there was a sense of nostalgia about the early colonial days. In the mid 1800’s, Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of a popular women’s magazine, petitioned her idea to President Abraham Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday as a way to unite the country during the Civil War, and so in 1863 it became official. Hale eventually published cooking recipes for Thanksgiving dinner suggestions to include more modern day items such as potatoes and pies.

The legacy that lives on from this holiday is about generosity and unity. It’s a holiday that brings all Americans, no matter their creed or disposition, together and that’s certainly something worthy of our thanks. This Thanksgiving let us know if Chef Will Birge and MEALBOX can help provide and deliver some delicious proteins, sides, and desserts to your special gathering so you can spend more time focusing on family and friends coming together.


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