Let’s face it, hosting Thanksgiving is a big deal. You have people looking forward to this amazing meal and it comes with great expectations. Often, a lot of the menu is set ahead just because it is Thanksgiving. Turkey, stuffing, gravy, sweet potatoes, gravy and the list goes on and on. That’s a lot of pressure. Balancing entertaining guests with cooking multiple courses and multiple choices is hard enough, but add in the planning, shopping, prepping, cleaning (before, during and after) and the whole thing can be overwhelming. But, you can make this whole experience one of enjoyment with a little planning. Well, actually a lot of planning and a lot of lists. LOL Getting organized is the key to this entire day.
I’ve created a detailed step-by-step guide for handling the whole event. Follow these guidelines for a much more enjoyable holiday. Let’s get started.
COLLECT AND ORGANIZE RECIPES EARLY
I find I’ll be tweaking and editing for at least a month before I’ve got it set. You start seeing all these great recipes and ideas in magazines and on blogs and then TV shows are full of ideas. So, I like to leave room for last minute additions throughout the month. While creating your menu, you’ll want to consider the number of people at the event and the type of event you want to host. (Casual? Elegant? Buffet? A sit down dinner?)
I find that once the menu is set, I then can move on to everything else. So, I start early, organizing ideas, recipes and my direction for the event.
CREATE A GUEST LIST
If at all possible, nail down your guest list. (In my house, that is always a moving target… LOL) So, I plan accordingly. I always over estimate, always have leftovers and always have a plan for that too. (Think plastic to-go containers, tin foil, baggies and mini-shopping bags.) I rarely have a guest that doesn’t want to take home food. Get the number of guests as close as possible so you can decide on the type of dinner you will host.
DECIDE WHAT TYPE OF EVENT YOU’LL HAVE
You need to decide on the theme and type of Thanksgiving you want to host. You thought about it while gathering your recipes but now you need to nail that down so you can decide “how you’ll serve everything”.
Are you passing appetizers in a cocktail environment or putting out “snacks” for people to pick on before the “main event”? In my house, football is on all day and those guys need sustenance to keep going! I know appetizers are really more about football snack food. If this sounds like your event, decide on the appetizer/snack menu for this casual setting. You don’t want anything too heavy or the big meal could be too much.
Or, are you having a more elegant, sit-down meal? Serving a cocktail or Prosecco cocktail upon their arrival with some warm Marcona Almonds before dinner might be an option.
Would a Thanksgiving buffet work better at your house? I’ve done a sit down dinner and buffet and it is all about knowing your guests and setting a tone. No matter what format you choose for the dinner (And I’ve done them all.), set the tone, inform your guests and proceed with the finalization of the menu and planning.
CREATE A MENU
Now that you have the type of event you want to host, the number of people and a stack of recipe ideas (old and new), it is time to pull your menu together. I like to get this down a month ahead but I’ve done it a week before too. The sooner the better.
Decide on the appetizers based on the style of entertaining, then move right into the main event. DA TURKEY! It’s a must, right? Well to be fair, I’ve been to big Italian Thanksgivings and there have also been trays of lasagne. My brother dated a vegetarian once, and my poor mother wanted to know what they ate? We certainly weren’t whipping up some tofu. She was a great lady and said she’d eat everything else on the table, so it was no problem at all. If you’ve ever watched Everyone Loves Raymond, there is that infamous Thanksgiving where Deborah thinks a nice “fish” was in order. Hysterical episode if you haven’t seen it! I digress…
So, assuming you are making the turkey the main event (feel free to add or change according to your family’s needs and wants), this holiday has been and will always be about the side dishes. Stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potato concoctions, gravy and vegetables people actually want to eat will all have to be prepared. So make sure you have a list of all your favorites and leave room for a couple of new recipes. This is the time to create new memories and new recipes that the family will love for years to come. It’s also the perfect thing to ask guests to bring to your home. Everyone has a favorite side dish, so ask your guests to contribute one.
Dessert is a must (Although, please leave some time between the feast and dessert… people need time to digest all that food!) As a family, we’ve always purposely created a gap by cleaning the table, cleaning up the kitchen and doing some dishes. It has become an all-hands-on-deck approach to getting ready for the dessert round!!! Everyone gets up, moves around, stretches, and gets ready for the dessert course.
Decide on your dessert menu. Again, I always allow the style, my guests and theme of the event to dictate how I handle this. If I have a big group, I want to offer lots and lots of choices. Some desserts may be store bought (boxes of candy, pastries from the bakery, fresh fruit, etc.) and others will be homemade. I may have a couple of homemade dessert options like creme brûlée or a cheesecake and there will always be pie at my house. My brother must have coconut custard and my mom insists on pumpkin. My nephew needs pecan pie and I’m always looking for apple pie. Here is another food category that guests can contribute to. Ask them to bring their favorite pie or favorite cookies.
BUT, if I’m doing an elegant Thanksgiving for just a couple of people, I may make a plated dessert. No options, just one elegant dessert. A nice cheese tray also goes great with dessert.
As the host, you decide.
Now, did we get our menu done? Have we decided on the number of guests and the type of event? (Large, rowdy and buffet style? Intimate, elegant and quiet? Large family, lots of choices and lots of sides?)
If so, you are ready for the most important part of actually having this event. The hardcore planning, mapping out and organizing of the timeline, lists (lots and lots of lists), shopping, prepping, cooking, serving, cleaning and left overs.
FOOD SHOPPING LIST
First, create a recipe-by-recipe food list so you don’t forget anything. I use the good old fashion “cross off the list”, as I buy. I often shop weeks in advance for basics and staples and certainly, all pantry items. I keep that master list and mark off items as I purchase and add items as I add recipes. There’s always a last minute addition or two!!
However, I always have a couple of significant “back up” items and regular go-tos that I make sure are in my kitchen for every holiday.
- Cooking Spray
- Chicken or turkey stock (Lots of it! Bobby Flay was on to something when he instructed the world years ago to keep a hot pot of stock on the back burner. It cures all kinds of issues: dry turkey, cold turkey, dry stuffing, dry potatoes, etc.)
- Bell’s Poultry Seasoning (I always mean to check my cabinets every year for poultry seasoning, but I don’t and I always pick up a box. Bell’s is an East Coast classic, so if you can find it, grab a box. Seasoning really should be used within the year anyway, so buying a new one each year works for me.) FYI: can’t find Bell’s brand? Just use a good one. You’ll be using it for stuffing, the turkey and other poultry dishes all year.
- Jarred or canned turkey gravy, canned cranberry sauce and a box or two of stuffing mix. (I can hear you all screaming in the background…lol.) Let me explain. It doesn’t matter if this is your first or fifth time making a big holiday meal, something can and will probably go wrong. Hey, it’s the holidays and the kids are screaming, dogs are barking, people are coming and going and it can get chaotic. No matter how well you prepare, having these basics “just in case” has gotten many a first time hostess across the finish line. And no one has ever said in the middle of this massive meal, “is this canned gravy”? They will, however, say, “where’s the gravy” and if you burned it, forgot to make it or dropped it on the way to the table, you’ll be sending me emails thanking me for forcing you to buy that jar. You’re welcome! Having store-bought gravy, cranberry sauce, a box of stuffing and some frozen veggies on hand (just in case) will give you peace of mind. You don’t have to use these items and you probably won’t have to, BUT knowing they are there “just in case” can be very comforting.
KITCHEN EQUIPMENT NEEDED LIST
- Roasting Pan
- Baking dishes
- Tongs, ladles, spatulas, knives,
- Turkey baster
- Kitchen twine
- Chef’s knife for carving
- Cutting board
SERVING ITEMS NEEDED LIST
- Serving spoons and Serving forks and serving tongs
- Carving knife
- Gravy boats (yes multiple)
- Butter dish (s)
- Bread basket
- Salt and Pepper shakers/bowls
TABLEWARE & BAR ITEMS NEEDED LIST
- Tablecloth (s)
- Napkins (cloth and paper… cocktail, dinner and dessert)
- Dinnerware (appetizer plates, soup, salad, dinner and dessert plates)
- Glasses (wine, water and cocktail)
- Silverware (don’t forget extras for appetizers and dessert if serving)
- Knives (other than butter knives) for cutting
- Stirrers (for cocktails)
TAKE HOME SUPPLIES LIST
- Plastic food containers
- Tin foil
- Mini-shopping bags
- Plastic utensils
And remember to stock up on paper towels, paper napkins, dish towels and sponges for cleanup.
CHECKING ALL YOUR DISHES, SILVERWARE AND SERVING PIECES
With menus done, and head count in place, I now know how many place settings I need, how many serving bowls, platters, serving spoons and forks are needed. Get those out of their hiding spots, clean them and make sure they are ready for the big day. I’ll do this at least two weeks before Thanksgiving so I have time to fill in any missing items. That includes extra place settings you might need.
I usually set the table the night before and have all the serving pieces out and ready to go.
MAKE-AHEAD DISHES WILL MAKE YOUR LIFE SO MUCH EASIER
Getting as much done before Thanksgiving is the key to success. You don’t want to be a short order cook at your own dinner. Making as many dishes ahead of time will keep you organized and on schedule on Thanksgiving. It also reduces stress. There are usually tons of dishes to get to the table and you want them all hot, so being organized is so important.
I’ve got great make-ahead recipes for all the main components of the dinner menu. All can be made 1 -3 days ahead. I usually have all these “must haves” done days before. Check them out here:
Once you have all your make-ahead dishes out of the way (don’t forget any and all desserts you can get done before hand), you need to map out your timeline for the day of Thanksgiving.
CREATE A TIMELINE FOR THANKSGIVING DAY
What time have you asked guests to arrive? Remember, if you are making appetizers and drinks or putting out a football spread as soon as guests arrive, be prepared for that. You don’t want guests standing around looking for food. This is where great cold and room temperature appetizers are a must.
In my house, there is always a big bowl of walnuts and nut crackers (definitely a family tradition), but I’ll also put out some sweet and spicy nuts like my Sriracha Nuts. A great Cheese Board is a must and I have all the details for laying that out here. (Yes, you can do it ahead of time. Cheese is better at room temperature.) Nothing is better than a self-serve bar. If it is casual and football is on, I might have a big metal washbasin filled with ice and beer on the porch. It keeps your guests out of the kitchen! Or have a pitcher of a welcome cocktail ready to go. Have the bar stocked with your guests’ favorites, glasses, garnishes, napkins and stirrers and invite them to help themselves.
Dips and cold seafood like shrimp, crab and clams is always great and requires no use of that valuable oven real estate. If you are serving warm appetizers, see if you can make and serve in things like a crock pot, a fondue pot or in heated trays. Investing in good warming trays always comes in handy around the holidays. You can also rent them from local rental companies.
If you are making a sit down appetizer, a cold shrimp cocktail,or chilled salad is the perfect start and you can have that already on the table when guests arrive. One more thing is done before guests get there.
Planning your cooking schedule is critical for success. Once you know the time dinner is to be served, work backwards. If the turkey takes 4 hours and needs 1 hour to come to room temperature before roasting and needs 1/2 hour to rest before carving, (and another 20 minutes to carve and plate), you know you need to take that turkey out of the fridge at least 6 hours before dinner. Lay out your schedule for any dish you are making from scratch that day and any dish you need to heat or finish cooking. Don’t forget to add wiggle room. Map out what needs to be heated or cooked in the oven. What can be done on the stove or in the microwave? Use all your tools and plan it out.
ASK FOR HELP
Most guests want to help. They’ll volunteer to bring dishes (bought or homemade). They’ll volunteer to help with cleanup and serving. Take it. You know where your strengths are and you may even know the strengths of some of your guests. Your nephew used to bartend in the summer? Assign him to the bar setup and drink making. Have a baker in the family? Get them for some desserts. Actually have a few people that like to clean? (Lucky me…one of my nieces loves doing dishes. She didn’t get that from me!!! LOL) Take the help. This is the time to actually take charge and assign people chores. Otherwise, you wind up with a kitchen filled with women drinking wine and watching you work while the guys scream at the TV. (I’ve been there!)
CLEAN AS YOU GO
Sometimes, easier said than done, but if you can wipe up a spill, load the dishwasher, get plates scraped and rinsed while you go, the cleanup at the end will be so much easier.
PACK UP LEFTOVERS
I almost always send leftovers home with my guests. I have a small household and I can’t have four half-eaten pies and 1/2 a turkey and a bunch of side dishes in the house. The food will go bad. So, I make sure I have a lot of NEW plastic containers, baggies and tinfoil ready to go. I have a hangup on those plastic containers. I won’t use beat-up containers to send food home with my guests. I always buy new ones so I can send guests home with clean, new containers that they can keep. PLEASE DON’T BRING THEM BACK. I have nowhere to store them. LOL I think it is just a thoughtful thing to do. No one wants your used containers with spaghetti sauce stains in their house. Trust me. I usually buy different sizes so I can pack dessert separate from turkey and even get small containers for sauces and gravy (if there is any left over). Remember that emergency gravy and cranberry sauce you bought? Feel free to pack that along with your brother’s turkey if there is no gravy leftover. He will appreciate the thought.
If you have little shopping bags, even better. Pack up everything in containers and baggies and send everyone off with their own little midnight snack or lunch for the next day.
Remember, this is supposed to be fun, so do yourself a great favor and plan ahead. Follow the steps:
1. Collect recipes and ideas and organize
2. Create your guest list.
3. Decide on the type of event you will host (buffet, sit down, elegant, casual, etc.)
4. Create a menu.
5. Time to make lists:
. Shopping list
. Kitchen Equipment needed
. Serving items needed
. Tableware and barware needed
. Food to go supplies
6. Check all your service pieces, clean, count and replace.
7. Identify made-ahead recipes, and get them made in advance.
8. Create a timeline for Thanksgiving Day.
9. Create a cooking schedule for Thanksgiving Day.
10. Ask for help (before, after and during the event)
11. Clean as you go.
12. Be prepared for packing up leftovers. Pack everything and send each gift home with a bag.
And there you have it, a complete guide to getting ready for Thanksgiving. All you need now are more tried and true recipes to bring it all home. Here are some of my favorites (by category). I hope you try one or all of them. Don’t forget to ask for help and go with the flow! Happy Thanksgiving.
DA TURKEY (or substitute)