I have hosted Thanksgiving dinner for years at our home for anywhere from 3 to 15 people, and my goal every year is to host a cozy, comfortable, scrumptious Thanksgiving dinner with a minimum of stress and as much fun and celebration as possible. Thanksgiving is my absolute favorite day of the year – the sole purpose of the day is for family and friends to spend time with each other surrounded by love and a bounty of delicious food. I have long since faced the fact that no matter what constitutes your “perfect” thanksgiving,” there will always be a certain level of stress involved with planning such an important meal, but my goal is always to keep the day as stress-free as possible, and to keep the focus on gratitude, love, and an incredible meal. Here are my tips to keep the preparation and the actual day running as smoothly as possible:
1. Make a master shopping list.
I always make one master list with the ingredients for every single dish on my menu, as well as all of the incidentals I will need for the big meal (milk for coffee, butter for bread, etc.). As I shop from my smaller lists (see #2 below), I cross off what I have bought, so nothing is forgotten.
2. Start shopping as early as possible.
Some supermarkets are better than others at stocking Thanksgiving staples, but you never want to run the risk of finding out that all of the turkey stock or canned pumpkin puree is gone before you’ve had the chance to buy what you need. It also eases the financial burden if you shop over several small trips, rather than completely emptying your wallet on one gigantic shopping trip right before the big day. I try to break up my shopping into at least three trips – about two weeks ahead of time, I buy the shelf-stable products and others that will keep for a while – boxed turkey broth, canned pumpkin, fresh cranberries, etc. The weekend before Thanksgiving, I do my “big shop” of all remaining non-perishable ingredients, as well as any perishables which will keep unopened for at least a week, like eggs, heavy cream, etc. Finally, a day or two before turkey day, I buy produce and any remaining perishable items.
3. Don’t be afraid of disposable help.
I like the look of a well-set table, but I also detest cleaning dishes all night after the feast is over. There are several brands of sturdy, plastic looks-like-china plastic dishes and looks-like-sterling plastic flatware that give the effect of a beautiful place setting, but have the advantage of being thrown out instead of washed after dinner. Especially when mixed in with real crystal glassware and linen tablecloths and napkins, these dishes and flatware are real lifesavers, and totally worth the little bit of extra money you will spend on them.
4. It IS ok to try out new recipes for the holiday.
Most best-tips lists will tell you that Thanksgiving is not the time to test out new recipes. I completely disagree – what better time is there to try out something new than when you have a bunch of loved ones to use as guinea pigs? I absolutely love trying out new recipes for a table full of honest opinions – just take a deep breath and go for it! I usually browse the internet, research my cookbooks collection and magazines such as Food & Wine and Foodnetwork Magazine for new recipes worth trying.
5. If people ask what they can bring, ask them to bring dessert.
Guests bringing appetizers could arrive late, and you probably have your dinner menu pretty much set, but there is no such thing as too much dessert on Thanksgiving. You may want to suggest some guidelines so that you don’t end up with all chocolate desserts, or all pumpkin pies, but other than that, dessert is a pretty easy category to delegate.
6. Map out a production plan and get as much done ahead as possible.
I make a list of each recipe step that I can do each day leading up to the big feast. From dicing veggies ahead of time to making cornbread to leave out to dry for stuffing, there are tons of things you can get done during Thanksgiving week to make the big day easier for you to accomplish. Also note which recipes can be completely prepared a day or two before Thanksgiving Day – getting those done ahead of time will take a huge load off of you on turkey day, and allow you to spend more time with your friends and family. I also include chores like ironing my table linens and setting the table on my list so that they don’t get forgotten in the shuffle.
7. Realize that not everything will go as planned, and be prepared to roll with it.
You are surrounded by loved ones, not judges. These people will understand if something doesn’t go as planned. Just don’t freak out when your gravy doesn’t thicken or your turkey ends up being cooked way earlier than planned. Just ask your gravy-maven brother to give you a hand with the gravy, tent the turkey, and roll with the punches.
8. Be sure you stock up on plastic storage containers so you can send your guests home with some leftovers.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t keep any leftovers for yourself – leftovers are one of the best parts of the post-Thanksgiving hangover – but it is always nice to share the wealth.
9. Most importantly, make sure you take time to take a breath and enjoy the day.
I know you will have a lot to do as host, but again – these are your loved ones, and they want you to enjoy the day along with them. Be sure to take a lighthearted enough approach to everything that you are able to enjoy the day spent with family and friends and the fabulous feast you created.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone – I wish you all a delicious day spent with those you love!