I may be the only person on Earth who likes grocery stores. Oddly fascinated by them, actually. I can spend hours in a supermarket, marveling over this new perverse concoction or that, engaging in some passive cart voyeurism. The one time of year I don’t enjoy the aisles, however, is around Thanksgiving. Harried people make uninteresting subjects, the lines get long and a general haze of anxiety sets over the whole place.
I asked three dozen food writers on their thoughts about how to make Thanksgiving stress-free. A common refrain? Make lists.
Now, here’s the thing about lists. You often don’t think of things that ought to be on the list. To help you out, I found two great shopping lists, one prepared by Real Simple magazine and a more generic list. You won’t need or want everything on either, but either can be a great starting point.
First, you’ll want to make a menu. Take a look at my menu planner. Then determine the number of guests.
How much to buy?
Big meals are big opportunities to waste a lot of food. Sure, that big box store might sell 20 pound sacks of potatoes, but if you’re feeding eight people, you’ll have 17 pounds more than you need. Here’s some basic guidance:
Allow per person…
Turkey – 1 pound to assure lavish leftovers
Potatoes – 6 ounces
Vegetable sides – 4 ounces
Cranberries – 2 ounces
Stuffing – 1 slice of bread / 1 ounce dried cubes
Salad – 1 cup greens (2 to 2.5 ounces)
Pies – One quarter pie (1 for every four diners)
So dinner for eight means purchasing an eight-pound turkey, three pounds of potatoes, 8 slices of bread (or 8 ounces cubed pre-dried), 1 lb. salad greens two pounds of green beans and/or Brussels sprouts, a pound of cranberries and two pies.
All the food writers I surveyed agreed its easier to split up this shopping business. Try to do two main shopping trips, one week before the holiday and a smaller excursion a couple of days beforehand, preferably no later than Tuesday.
Here’s what you can safely purchase in advance or in bulk a week or so before (provided you’ve got the space): Onions, potatoes, carrots, celery, garlic, shallots, root vegetables such as turnips and sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, cheeses, nuts, spices, crackers, packaged stock, flour, canned vegetables (such as pumpkin), ice cream, butter, frozen vegetables (such as peas), fresh or canned cranberries, eggs, frozen puff pastry. You can also pick up a frozen turkey. It will need time to thaw (or not – see the video below). Of course, goods such as napkins, foil, parchment, paper towels, etc. (Don’t forget plenty of bathroom tissue for those extra guests!)
Wait to buy: Salad greens, dairy items such as cream, fresh fruit for pies, bread and rolls, sausage, herbs, seafood, fresh mushrooms, more perishable fresh vegetables such as green beans or tomatoes, or a fresh turkey (unless it specifically has a sale date after Thanksgiving and you’ve got the storage space).
Fresh or frozen? Organic or heritage? What supermarket brand tastes best? See my Turkey FAQ.
On other matters, I consulted Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese, the creator of the TipsyBaker.com. The gist of her book was to evaluate the relative value and hassle factor of making something from scratch at home versus buying a shortcut such as a boxed or canned version. It’s a great book thanks to her objectiveness and pragmatism. She looks at the pros and cons of each option and suggests whether to make it or buy it. When you’re staring down the Stove Top and that non-dairy whipped creamer, keep these comments in mind.
Make it, Reese suggests. I agree.
Why? “It takes maybe five minutes longer to make scratch stuffing” than to make it from a box. In my Thanksgiving Firehouse Challenge, my taste testers overwhelmingly preferred homemade stuffing. So buy some bread and gently dry it out in the oven a day or two before the big meal, or buy a bag of cubed bread and move on from there. If you have a food processor, it dramatically reduces the prep time. Here’s an easy yet terrific stuffing with apples and bacon.
Reese is agnostic on this subject. I personally think it’s so easy to make cranberry relish and it can be done ages ahead of the meal, so why not? Here’s my recipe. But lightning will not strike if you buy the can and slice it up.
No one can deny that peeling potatoes is a hassle. Cost-wise, factoring in the cream and butter, homemade potatoes came out at .40 cents per cup, Betty Crocker Potato Buds at .50 cents per cup. Have kids around the house? Introduce them to a peeler. Prep tip: You can make mashed potatoes the day prior, and then rewarm them in a microwave and then hold warm in pan covered with plastic wrap in a pan simmering with water. See the recipe and video on making perfect mashed potatoes.
Pre-washed greens, yes. Pre-packaged salad “kits?” Not a good bargain. Just keep it simple and seasonal. Toss mixed greens together some feta or bleu cheese, some diced apple or pear, a few crumbled walnuts or pine nuts with some croutons (next) and top with an easy vinaigrette (see below).
Make them. “It’s ludicrous to the point of heartbreaking that factories are devoted to manufacturing pellets of stale-tasting bread…” Reese notes. Here’s an easy recipe from Alice Currah at SavorySweetLife. You just need to buy some bread, cut it up, toss it with some olive oil or butter, a few herbs and salt, then and toast it in the oven. Worth noting, if you’re making stuffing, you’re already cutting bread into cubes…
Anyone who has read my book knows I’m no fan of purchased vinaigrette. Get a bottle of decent olive oil and some vinegar. Then, watch my video on the basics of making it. A bit of whatever cranberry sauce you’re serving added to balsamic vinegar makes a great, yet simple holiday dressing.
“Your first 10 pie crusts may look like kindergarten art projects, but so long as the edges are presentable… no one who eats the pie will know or care.” Reese acknowledges it takes more time, but the resulting flavor is worth it. A homemade crust made with butter and lard (a la Kate McDermott‘s recipe via video lesson) cost about $1, while pre-made crust start at $1.99 for store brands. I’ve seen them top out at $3.79 each in a local co-op. However, if you’re planning to use puff pastry, buy it.
My belief is the host of a holiday dinner should be absolved from providing dessert — unless you love baking and gain true joy from pie making, of course. Personally, I have no problem with store-bought pies, especially from quality outlets like a local bakery or a supermarket with a good bakery. I assign dessert to two or three guests. If they show up with purchased pies, I embrace them for braving a crowded market. If they made pies themselves, I take many photos and lavish praise.
If you’ve got a mixer, make it. “Although it’s fun to spray and makes an exciting sound, most aerosolized cream tastes fake,” Reese notes. Here’s a recipe for whipped cream: Put a cup of heavy cream into a bowl, add a bit of sugar and whip with a whisk or beat with a mixer until soft peaks forms. That’s it.
Nothing beats homemade gravy for taste, but in my Firehouse Challenge, gravy from a jar was surprisingly close in flavor. If you want to take a shortcut and use a jar or two gravy as a base and then add in some pan drippings, no one is going to tell you pack your knives and go home. If you’re worried your gravy will be too thin, get a packet of gravy mix (Knorr’s the best) and whisk in if needed. “Never forget, you’re alone in the kitchen,” Julia Child once said. No one needs to know. Just be sure to make enough. Allow at least 1/3 cup per person.
Let’s not forget that Thanksgiving is a time for sharing. People want to help you out on the holidays. Don’t feel you’re shirking any duties by delegating a few dishes, or asking people to pick something up.
Years ago after moving to London, I decided to host a big Thanksgiving dinner for friends. For obvious reasons, the English don’t celebrate the holiday, so pumpkin pie puree isn’t a standard supermarket staple in the UK. I couldn’t find it anywhere. I asked my American friend Marietta if she knew where to find it.
“Leave it to me,” she said. I did. She showed up at my office the day before dinner with two can of it — from the food halls at Harrod’s. It was crazy expensive, something like $6 a can. I was deeply impressed by her pluckiness. That night, as I made two pies, I thought of my friend passing the famed caviar counter in pursuit of canned pumpkin. We talked and laughed about it all through dinner. Years later, we’re still talking about it.
I don’t even remember how the pie turned out. It doesn’t matter. As you’re going through the complexities of planning, remember that a holiday dinner isn’t about looking good, but enjoying and appreciating the good things in your life.
Get more great tip in my Fearless Thanksgiving Guide