By Lisa James
Thanksgiving should be a time of gratitude, togetherness and Aunt Marybeth’s sensational pie, not exhaustion, kitchen mishaps and unpleasant disagreements. Here’s how to pull off a successful Thanksgiving, in terms of both organized meal prep and maintaining a harmonious family dynamic.
Planning the Perfect Thanksgiving Dinner
“Plan” is the operative word here, and by that we mean starting the process early enough so that you can actually enjoy your guests’ company instead of panicking over undercooked turkey and burnt stuffing.
Obviously, every holiday get-together is as unique as the family that celebrates it. That being said, here is a sample timeline of what to do when.
Several Weeks Before
- Plan your menu and set your guest list, remembering to ask about any dietary restrictions. Keep in mind how much oven, stovetop and microwave space you have; don’t decide on a menu that requires more cooking capacity than your kitchen can handle at any one time.
- Order anything that may be difficult to procure at the last minute (turkeys, desserts, etc.)
- If you need to rent tables, chairs or other items, do it now. This may be especially important this year if you need to maintain extra space between guests; if you have to use outdoor space, rent a heater designed for the job (like the large pyramid-shaped heaters used by restaurants).
- Go through your cookware, place settings and linens. Is anything missing? Does anything need to be upgraded or dry cleaned?
- If you bake your own pies, make the dough now. Then form into individual discs, vacuum seal and freeze.
- Make a large pot of turkey stock; after it cools, pour into one-quart containers for freezing. Same for the gravy, if you make your own from scratch.
- Buy nonperishable ingredients, such as canned pumpkin and frozen cranberries, before the stores get crowded.
One Week Before
- Shop for heavy cream, which may become difficult to find, and sturdier produce, such as root vegetables and butternut squash.
- Purchase decorative items that don’t include live plants or fresh flowers.
- Write out the whole menu, including what beverages you are serving and what (if anything) other people are bringing, and photocopy recipes. Then create a schedule of what goes into the oven/microwave or on the stove when, and clip everything together for fast reference.
- Use the menu and recipes to create a grocery list.
Monday/Tuesday Before Thanksgiving
- Clean the house.
- If you have a frozen turkey, put it in the fridge—it needs a day of thawing time for every four pounds. If you’re brining the turkey first, start defrosting a day earlier.
- Do your baking except for apple or pecan pies, which should be made on Wednesday to maintain a flaky, crisp crust.
- Make anything, such as cranberry sauce, that can sit in the refrigerator for a day or two. That includes assembling casseroles, which can be held uncooked in the fridge.
- On Tuesday, move frozen prep items to the fridge and do your grocery shopping, giving yourself extra time to deal with crowds. If brining your turkey, make the brine and put it in the fridge to chill.
- Go through your recipes and chop/dice vegetables and herbs as needed, then place in airtight bags before refrigerating.
- If you make your own stuffing, sauté ingredients such as celery and onions, allow to cool, and refrigerate. Prepare other side dishes that can be held in the fridge.
- If your florist isn’t open on Thanksgiving Day, buy your flowers today and hold in a cool part of the house (such as an unheated garage).
- Set the table—including the buffet table, if that’s how you’ll be serving dinner. Keep social distancing guidelines in mind.
The Big Day
- Stuff the turkey and get it into the oven according to your schedule (the one you made several weeks ago).
- Boil and mash potatoes to be reheated (and have dairy added) just before serving.
- Once the turkey is out and resting, cook everything else according to your schedule.
- Remember to breathe—and enjoy yourself!
Keeping the Peace at Your Thanksgiving Table
No matter how close your family is, you probably have at least two relatives who don’t see eye to eye—and the events of this challenging year aren’t going to make things easier. If bickering has been a part of Thanksgivings past at your house, here are ways to set a mellower mood.
Ask People to Behave. Try taking a direct approach while being as tactful as you can: “Aunt Betty, I know you and Cousin Jim don’t agree on politics, so can we discuss something else this Thanksgiving? I’ll be talking to him, too.”
Find Neutral Topics. Are there a lot of sports fans in your family? (Pro football has played the role of Thanksgiving pacifier for years.) Are they outdoors enthusiasts? Craftspeople? Try to find consensus around shared hobbies and interests.
Enlist Assistance. You know there’s at least one other person in your family who would love to ditch the drama. Ask him or her to help you: “You know how grumpy Carl can be when the family gets together. You both love [insert common interest here]; can you get him into a conversation?”
Play the Question Game. Think of inquiries that require some thought—What era would you like to have been born in? What’s your idea of a perfect day? Things like that—and write them down on pieces of paper. Then distribute the papers after dinner and have each person ask a question.
Enjoy Gametime… Whether it’s touch football or board games, group activities can help keep people engaged with each other in an enjoyable way. Just don’t let the competitive fires roar uncontrolled.
…and That Includes Kids. Don’t force children to sit for hours listening to adult conversation. Set up an area with games (including video games), crafts or other activities for them to enjoy.
Lower Your Pets’ Stress Levels, Too. Some pets are perfectly happy to bask in extra attention from guests; others become overwhelmed and frightened. If your pets fall into the second category, give them a room where they can be alone and relax.