As I was explaining to some foreign visitors the other day, the best part about Thanksgiving is that it's all-inclusive — pretty much everyone can (and does) celebrate it.

To take part in Thanksgiving, you don't have to believe in a specific religion, god or gods, dress up in any kind of outfit, celebrate a controversial person (Columbus, cough!) or really know anything about history — you just have to like to eat. I think that all-inclusive vibe is what America is all about.

Which is why I'm always surprised by how many people feel beholden to traditional Thanksgiving celebrations, eating the same dishes year after year ... some of which they don't even like! It doesn't have to mean days of prep work, pumpkin anything, TV football or boredom. Why not make this year's celebration something you'll enjoy?

Here are four fresh ideas for Thanksgiving that are for all of us who love holidays, food and entertaining, but hate the expense and workload of a regular Thanksgiving meal.

Potluck Thanksgiving

Hosting a holiday meal is responsibility enough, what with the housecleaning and making sure you have guest towels in the bathroom. Invite your friends and loved ones to Thanksgiving at your house, but ask them to bring a dish for 10-12 people (you can even assign dishes to people if you are a bit of a control freak like me). Spreading the work among people not only guarantees that everyone has a stake in bringing something tasty, but means you will end up with some signature dishes (those that someone is the master of, like Uncle Joe's Chocolate Cake from Heaven or Mom's Perfect Mac 'n Cheese). If you open the menu to nontraditional foods, it will be an eclectic feast, and will be more memorable for it. Bonus: Fewer serving dishes to clean, as everyone takes their dishes home with them.

Themed Thanksgiving

I've had Italian Thanksgiving (not everyone hailed from Italy, we just all made Italian dishes — yes, it was amazing!), salad Thanksgiving (no guilt! Just seven different kinds of salad) and Middle Eastern Thanksgiving (the hostess just felt like protesting occupation of Afghanistan and experimenting with dishes she had never made). I can pretty much tell you exactly what I ate at each event, and who was there, because they were so original and different. This can be combined with potluck Thanksgiving or the host can put the meal together. Either way, it's a culinary adventure. (I'm still waiting for Chinese food Thanksgiving, because I always want to order half the menu at Asian restaurants.) And I'm just putting this out there: All-dessert Thanksgiving?

Friends (non-family) Thanksgiving

Plenty of us don't have family, think seeing them once a year at Christmas or over the summer is plenty, or just don't have any family in the city/state/country where we live. I'm in the latter boat; I'm the only one left in the U.S. The rest of my family is in Australia. I've attended friends' Thanksgiving dinners many times and had a blast. Now that I think of it, I've actually had a far better time at friend celebrations. Unlike family, we get to choose our buddies, and they tend to be like-minded. Feeling stressed about seeing the family twice in one season? Duck out of it and plan something with friends who want to have a fun day of food rather than bickering.

Cocktail party Thanksgiving

Who says you have to gorge on too many carbs and pie? It would be great fun to host (or attend) a turkey-day get-together where the focus is on the drinks, not the food. Arrange a mixology session, or serve themed drinks (these recipes sound amazing), and munchies to go with them; cheese and crackers, crudites, maybe a hot hors d'oeuvres or two if you're feeling ambitious. Nobody has to be at work on Friday anyway, so why not have one too many with your guests, play some charades and have the rest of the weekend to sleep it off? Also: easy cleanup!

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

4 alternative Thanksgiving celebrations
Try these nontraditional turkey day gathering ideas for a holiday that's less stressful and more memorable.