Holiday meals can cause even confident cooks anxiety. I asked some of my food writer friends for their best advice. – Kathleen.
General Planning Tips
1. Make Lists
“Make lots of lists,” advises Diane Morgan, the author of The New Thanksgiving Table and The Thanksgiving Table. “Make a grocery list and divide it among the different stores you will have to shop at – butcher shop, bakery, wine shop, supermarket.” Sheri Wetherall, editor in chief of Foodista.com, says not to beat yourself up for using some thoughtful prepackaged items. “Order rolls from your local bakery; buy pre-washed salad greens,” she says.
2. Write down your menu
Check out the CookFearless guide to Thanksgiving menu planning. Don’t overlook cheese as an option for dessert. “It seems like people forget the option for Thanksgiving,” says Judith Finlayson, the author of a dozen cookbooks, including 750 Best Appetizers. “My husband goes crazy on buying cheeses for a final course…served with port.
3. Include “flexible” dishes
Here’s food writer Jess Thomson’s big secret. “I always try to reduce the number of dishes I feel have to be piping hot. I think there’s a huge misconception that all the food has to be ready at exactly the same time. With that in mind, I always include dishes that are more flexible–roasted carrots, for example–and dishes that are really better after they sit for 15 or 20 minutes, like a potato gratin. ” (I have made her mustard carrot recipe the past two years.)
4. Don’t be afraid to serve the same menu from last year
Speaking of repeating her carrot recipes… “While food editors at magazines try to find ways to spice up the traditional favorites, the reality is that many people look forward to the classics. “I always make the same thing…no one will allow me to change it,” Finlayson says. “Turns out that’s great because I don’t need to spend any time thinking about what to make: turkey, giblet gravy, mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts and my grandmother’s sage and onion stuffing.”
5. Develop a schedule
Write down a full schedule for cooking, setting the table, all the tasks you need to do, including fixing up the bathroom, advise Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, co-founders of Food52.com. “Start as early as you can, even a week ahead,” Hesser says. “You don’t want to have all of your cooking done before the big day, you want to have everything else done, so you can cook in a relaxed way and hang out with your family as you do so.”
6. Get your knife or knives sharpened
If you’ve got a good chef’s knife, take it in to get it sharpened ahead of the big meal. Some options: Most Sur La Table outlets, cutlery shops, good local hardware stores and even restaurant supply outlets. Don’t have a decent chef’s knife? Maybe it’s time for an early holiday gift for yourself. This is a good time to sharpen your knife skills.
7. Review your recipes a few days ahead of time
This tip comes from veteran cookbook author Cynthia Nims. Not only can you be assured you’ve got ingredients covered, but also “make sure techniques don’t trip you up,” she says.
8. Enlist help with the cooking
Who says you have to do all the cooking? “Just because the Pilgrims invited the Indians for the first harvest feast didn’t mean the Indians came empty-handed,” Morgan says. She suggests making a menu and then calling up guests to assign them a dish. Be sure to specify if they plan to bring it in a table-ready service piece or if they’re showing up with their tomato tart in Tupperware, so you’ll know whether to be prepared with a serving dish and utensils for their contribution. Don’t forget to get kids to help — that’s me in the photo left, at age five, helping to stuff a turkey.
9. Embrace a holiday dinner routine
Cookbook author Judith Finlayson’s strategy of enlisting help has developed into a holiday routine. “We have regular guests who do specific things every year. One couple makes gravlax for the starter. They bring it already-sliced on a platter, accompanying dill sauce in its small bowl ready to be unwrapped, pumpernickel rounds ready-to-go. We all expect it and look forward to its arrival and the uncorking of the champagne. Our regular family guests (six in total) bring dessert, and friends bring sides. It varies from year to year but we have our rhythms and it all works out. ”
10. Use Technology
If you use Evite, you can even jot down a menu and guests can claim what they want to cook. “Hey, you can even assign someone kitchen duty — just be sure you give them an extra beverage to sip while they’re elbow-deep in dishes,” Morgan suggests.
11. Allow enough time for the turkey to thaw
“If you are using a frozen turkey, allow at least five days for it to thaw slowly in the fridge,” says meat guru and cookbook author Bruce Aidells. “Better still, spend the money and buy a fresh heirloom turkey.” For more turkey tips, see the Turkey FAQ.
12. Set your table the night (or even two) days before.
Restaurants make sure all their tables are set for the next service. This includes making sure water pitchers are ready for filling, corkscrews are nearby for wine, water glasses are in place and so on. If you’re going to serve coffee, make sure you’ve got the coffee cups and set up the coffee ahead of dinner to be ready at dessert.
13. Don’t forget the kids table
Lay in some sparkling cider and add some fun factor to their table. TipJunkie has some great ideas that reach beyond your usual hand turkey drawings.
14. Pull out your table linens a few days in advance
Another good reason to set your table ahead of time is to be sure it’s all clean. “Splurge and have your table linens pressed by your dry cleaner!” Wetherall suggests.
This is particularly important if you’re new to entertaining. Write out your menu, then pull down the dish you plan to serve it in from what you’ll use to serve the turkey to whatever will hold butter for rolls, plus every single utensil you need. Put a post-it note on each item and leave them out if you can. In most cases, “missing” items can easily be borrowed. It’s better to know ahead of time than freaking at the last-minute that you forgot to think about a ladle for the gravy. Also, I can’t stress how valuable little tongs and pie servers are when hosting a big dinner.
16. Mise en place
In French, this loosely translates to “everything in place,” and it’s a common chef’s strategy for kitchen efficiency. It means get as much prepped as possible before cooking. In my house, I do most of the peeling, chopping and measuring of ingredients a night or two prior to cooking; simply put chopped stuff into storage bins or bags and mark them as needed.
You can even measure out ingredients for each recipe ahead of time, right down to spices. (Tip: Use little Dixie cups.) Put them all together with a photocopy or printout of the recipe. The next day, it’s not only a simple assembly job, it’s also a great place to steer that relative who arrives midday and says, “Can I help?” Now they can, without bothering you every couple of minutes to ask where you keep various items.
Note: The one exception I make are potatoes for mashing. While you can store peeled potatoes in water overnight, they keep their color and taste better when freshly peeled.
17. Butter trick
Take sticks of butter and cut them into one tablespoon squares and set inside your fridge in a bowl. All the pros do this.
18. Use your grill
If temperature friendly outside, use your grill. It can act as an extra burner. Heck, you can even cook your turkey on the grill. Meat expert Aidells demonstrates how in this whimsical cartoon from Sunset magazine.
19. Out of counter space? Go vertical
Professional kitchens employ vertical racks known as “speed racks.” Depending on your kitchen, consider clearing out a cupboard hoarding cereals and pantry items and set it into a box in a bedroom so that you can use that area for extra space to set finished dishes, pies or collect all your mise en place while you’re cooking. (While you’re putting it back, go through the box and see what you’ve not used in the past six months and consider donating it to a food bank.
Thanksgiving Day Tips
20. Make punch
“For big gatherings, I like to make punch with a twist,” said Monica Bhide, author of Modern Spice and the blog A Life of Spice. “That way people can help themselves and you are not tied to your bar doling out specialty cocktails to a large crowd.” Try the orange St. Germaine pitcher cocktails, left.
21. Know the turkey to take longer than you expect
“In my experience of cooking turkeys since I was 14, I learned this — the turkey always, ALWAYS, takes longer to cook than all the cookbooks say,” says Olga Massov, the founder of The Sassy Radish. “The best thing to do is buy one of those thermometers that can be inserted and monitored remotely so you don’t open the oven door and let heat escape, thereby losing precious cooking time and let the turkey get to 161 degrees. Then pull it out and let it sit for 30 minutes. Because it will continue to cook (and the temp will climb to the approved 165) while it sits… “
22. Hold food over steam, not just in the oven
One of the hardest thing for home cooks putting on a big meal is getting everything hot to the table at once. Most people hold things to keep them hot in the oven, but then that space becomes a premium if it’s still being employed, and can overcook food. So, instead, think about those long steam tables at buffets and fill a few pans with water, heat it up, then place your serving bowl or pan in the hot water, cover it with a lid, foil or heat-resistant plastic wrap. Have more food than burners? I keep a couple of trivets near the stove and rotate the foods around as more food finishes as mealtime approaches.
23. Put hot food on warm plates
“Hot delicious food deserves warm plates,” says Morgan. “You can warm your plates in a clean dishwasher set on the ‘dry’ cycle. Some dishwashers even have a plate warming feature or run the plates under very hot water, dry them and then wrap them in a terry towel until needed.”
24. Be safe
Ask everyone in your kitchen to wear shoes with closed toes while cooking. Unusual activity can cause chaos to occur in a kitchen, from hot gravy scalds to a knife falling unexpectedly and cause injury. Be sure you’ve got good oven mitts and keep them handy and dry as anything even moist can transmit heat and cause burns. Keep hand washing liquid and paper towels near the sink and be sure everyone washes hands frequently, not just after touching the turkey. Keep counters clear of debris and avoid stacking anything perilously on counters.
25. Have a plan for the dirty dishes
If you’re using separate dishes for dessert, stack them near the table. Count silverware to assure you’ve got enough for each course, or set up a bowl with hot soapy water for a quick cleaning between courses. For years, I’ve employed a laundry basket or recycling bin as a bus tub. As dishes are gathered, they’re stacked in the tub along with non-fragile glassware, and set aside until ready for cleaning; the tub can even be set in another room or on the floor. They’re safe, out of the way and it eliminates the “immediacy” of having to race to clean up.
26. Take notes
After every Thanksgiving, Cheryl Sternman Rule heads straight to her computer while her husband does all the dishes. “So the first tip is to make your spouse/partner do all the dishes. That’s key.” But she’s doing something critical — making detailed notes about what dishes she made that year (with links to the recipes employed, what worked, and what didn’t immediately after her guests leave. If she modified a recipe, say added bourbon to the whipped cream for the pumpkin pie or used a special brine, she jots it all down.
“The idea is to realize that our memories aren’t always reliable when it comes to big annual occasions, and having these notes can save an enormous amount of time when planning for next year’s holiday. This is also a great place to jot down any food allergies or aversions that guests at your Thanksgiving table had so you’ll be prepared to make accommodations for those same folks next year.”
27. We can’t all be Martha. Cut yourself some slack
Remember, Julia Child suggested that you avoid apologizing for anything you felt went wrong in the kitchen. So you cooked the green beans too long, or your pie doesn’t look like the picture. So what? No one is going to tell you to pack your knives go home. Even food pros have had their share of kitchen disasters.
Food writer Cynthia Lair recounts a holiday 20-plus years ago in which she tried to mash stone-cold boiled potatoes. “Did you know that when boiled potatoes are cold, the mixer will suck the potatoes up into all the gears of the mixer until it shorts out? Well, neither did I.” The potatoes were beyond saving, as was the mixer. “But the salve here is that I have this embarassing story to tell and laugh about! We don’t tend to remember the successes as clearly, do we?”
Wetherall of Foodista.com had to figure out a way to cook a turkey without an oven. “Three years ago our oven broke a couple of days before Thanksgiving and we couldn’t get a new one in time, so we had this retro-looking countertop roaster overnighted to us. I don’t think the company has changed the design since the 50s. I was very skeptical, but it cooked our turkey perfectly! The most delicious turkey we’ve ever made!” To this day, the Foodista founders’ oven remains broken. “Indeed, it’s like the cobbler’s children have no shoes.”
It’s Thanksgiving, and all you should do is give thanks for the good stuff in your life, and pack up the rest with the leftovers.
[Updated November 2015]