Cooking Thanksgiving dinner. Words that can strike fear in the hearts of even the most seasoned cook. And heaven help us when we are young and inexperienced at preparing a huge meal for a crowd. After many years of making Thanksgiving dinner for my family and friends, today I am going to share the secrets behind how I plan for a Fun and Delicious Thanksgiving!
The key, as everyone will tell you, is organization and getting as much done in advance as you can. When I was young and heard this, I understood the concept but had no idea how to actually do it. It took time to hone what works best for me and it will be the same for you, but hopefully I can give you some ideas to shorten your learning curve.
7 Tips for a Fun and Delicious Thanksgiving
… or any large meal
1 – Figure out who you are inviting, how many will actually attend, and if anyone has any dietary restrictions. Get rough attendance numbers, you can fine tune them later.
If someone has dietary restrictions, be sure you understand thoroughly what is required. If it is a very serious allergy (such as a life threatening reaction to peanuts), it is probably safer to have them bring foods they know are safe to eat – you will both be more comfortable. But do your best to accommodate them and make everyone feel comfortable.
2 – Plan your menu. This can be all traditional foods, or a combination of classics with some new recipes added. Some people crave the exact same meal every year, and others are more adventuresome. Personally, I keep the main components very similar, but if I want to play a little, I do it with the side dishes and desserts.
I think it is better to have fewer dishes that are made extremely well than a huge buffet of less-stellar items. It also simplifies your workload, giving you more time to enjoy your guests.
3 – Make sure you have all the recipes you need. If you are making family traditional dishes and don’t already have the recipes, get them from whomever usually makes them. Sometimes families’ want Aunt Judy’s sweet potatoes or Uncle Joe’s biscuits, etc. When you get the recipes, be sure to ask if there are any tricks they use – there is usually something that doesn’t get written into the recipe itself, they just instinctively do it.
When planning the menu, note which recipes are made on the stove and how many need to be baked in the oven. When you’ve got a huge turkey to roast, the oven won’t be available for hours, so you need to plan for that. Choose recipes that can be made in saucepans or Dutch ovens on top of the stove – or better still, made ahead and just need reheating.
If you are trying something new for the first time, be sure you do some practice runs ahead of time. You do not want to be experimenting on the craziest day of the year when you have tons of people in your house, pulling you in a thousand different directions.
4 – Once you’ve locked the menu and have all the recipes, print out hard copies. I tape these to the cupboards in my kitchen so I can immediately see what I have done and what still needs to be made. Make notes on the pages, marking off steps as they are finished.
The next step is to write out a timeline … what recipes or components can be made ahead and how far in advance. This is a moving target, but start with a list of all the items that use the oven and at what temperature – some things can be baked together or the recipe adjusted so they bake at the same temperature. For those on the stove top, how many can be made a day or more ahead and what needs to be done at the last minute? Obviously, minimize any last minute choices if you can to give you more breathing room.
5 – When you are planning how much of each recipe you will need, don’t forget that because you tend to have more dishes to choose from, people will take much smaller servings than normal. This means you don’t always have to make massive amounts of food (unless you are serving an army). I usually figure that a recipe for 6 servings will feed 10 with some leftovers. If you have big eaters, adjust it accordingly. And be sure to have plenty of the real favorites.
6 – Clean out your refrigerator and freezer to make room for the holiday cooking and baking. You are going to need a lot of room to dry brine the turkey and any prepped ingredients … pre-chopping all the onions, celery, carrots, etc. that you need in all the recipes saves you time!
7 – Buy all your shelf-stable foods early and store them in one area of your kitchen, this will help you stay organized and you don’t have to hunt for ingredients when you start cooking. Leave only the perishables for the last minute shopping – you’ll be battling with all the other crazed shoppers, so save yourself as much hassle as you can by getting the bulk of the shopping done early.
Bread for Stuffing/Dressing – bake these a week or more ahead, slice and cube. Toast them to dry them out. You can store in the refrigerator or freezer.
Turkey stock – buy turkey parts (wings, legs, thighs), boil them with some onions, carrots, and celery to make stock. Use the stock to add flavor to your dressing (instead of baking it inside the turkey), make the gravy, and any left over can be used to make soup. You can make this far in advance and freeze until ready to use. Don’t throw away the fat that rises when it is chilled, use that to add more flavor to your gravy!
Pie crusts – if your family loves holiday pies, you can make the dough well in advance, wrap tightly in plastic, and store it in the freezer. While you’re at it, make enough for all your Christmas baking too!
Meals and snacks – you want to keep the kitchen clear so you can get your cooking done, so having foods prepared ahead will save you a lot of interruptions. Freeze them if possible or make them self-serve if you have older children, like sandwich makings, a pot of chili, etc. Make cookie dough, roll into a log and wrap with parchment paper. Write the baking directions on the parchment, and cover the whole thing with plastic wrap. Now you have slice and bake cookies any time you want them!
Breakfast Casseroles – having breakfast already prepped for the morning after Thanksgiving lets you sleep in and saves you from doing a bunch of cooking the day after. This can be sweet or savory and you assemble it the night before, let it rest in the refrigerator, and bake it in the morning. Another option is to take some of your leftover turkey and chop it. Add it to some leftover dressing and you have turkey hash! Fry up in a skillet, drizzle with a little turkey gravy and top with a fried egg. Breakfast in no time!
Part 2 is coming tomorrow where we’ll talk about the kinds of recipes I like to serve and other tips to give you the best and most delicious holiday!
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Let’s connect! If you ever need any entertaining or cooking advice, need to alter a recipe for gluten-free, or want recipe suggestions, don’t hesitate to ask. Feel free to quote me, just give credit where credit is due, link to the recipe, and send people to my website. Unauthorized use, distribution, and/or duplication of proprietary material from The Heritage Cook without prior approval is prohibited. If you have any questions or would like permission, please contact me. The suggestions here are not intended as dietary advice or as a substitute for consulting a dietician, physician, or other medical professional. Please see the Disclaimers page for additional details. Thanks for joining the Heritage Cook Family!