Thanksgiving is just around the bend, and if you are hosting you might already be thinking about how you might plan things better this year, how to make it all a bit less stressful.
While the truly prepared are already polishing their napkin rings, the rest of us are just starting to wonder, “How can I not want to throw a gravy boat out the window?”
Let me start by saying, striving for perfection is overrated. The messiness and imperfectness of the holidays is part of what makes each one memorable and particular to your family or the band of friends you share the occasion with.
Still, there are strategies and tricks to making sure Thanksgiving runs smoothly. Here’s a game plan for getting things done ahead of time so you can truly enjoy the turkey and pie along with your gang.
ONE WEEK BEFORE
1. Lists, lists, lists: Plan your menu, and make shopping lists, guest lists, lists of who is bringing what, lists of who needs to be picked up when.
2. Create a timeline leading all the way up to the “Dinner is Served” moment. Determine when you are going to get things done (for example, two days before, make Brussels sprouts; one day before, arrange the flowers, etc.). Write down all of the little things, like putting the mashed potatoes into the oven to reheat, filling the ice bucket, setting out the appetizers.
3. Do the Turkey Math: Calculate how long the turkey needs to be in the oven, and remember that it might take up the whole oven for that length of time. Plan accordingly.
4. Write down who is responsible for what: Giving people a written list of tasks with a time frame makes things clear for them, and lets you hand off things neatly.
5. Buy all non-perishables, including drinks (alcoholic and non), canned and boxed items (broth, cranberries), baking staples (flour, butter, refrigerated pie crusts — what? They are terrific!), and also sturdier produce like potatoes, apples, squash and carrots. Make sure someone is home to help you unload.
6. Give any silver a quick polish (though I firmly believe the slightly tarnished look is in), iron any tablecloths and cloth napkins (though I firmly believe the slightly wrinkled look is in), find those candlesticks and candles.
7. Locate roasting pans, food processor blades, potato ricers, whatever equipment you’ll need. Wash whatever hasn’t been touched since last year.
ONE TO TWO DAYS BEFORE
1. Back to the market for the turkey, the greens, herbs, flowers and so on. And also all the other stuff you forgot the first time (bay leaves, extra onions, chicken broth).
2. Make as many sides and desserts as possible ahead of time. Brussels sprouts, string bean casseroles, mashed potatoes, roasted or pureed squash dishes, salad dressing, cranberry sauce, pies — all of these can be made a day or more ahead of time. Thanksgiving menus are usually full of sturdy dishes that can be reheated on the stovetop, in the microwave or in the oven. Plot out which dish you will reheat in which way.
3. Set the table, and/or lay out the buffet. Put out all serving platters and serving utensils, and put Post-Its on them so you know what will go in each plate and bowl.
4. Clean, prep and chop any ingredients for the day of.
5. Set up the bar.
THE DAY OF
1. Above all, pay attention to when that turkey needs to go into the oven. We start every Thanksgiving with my mother yelling, “Oh my god, I forgot to put the turkey in! We’re going to eat at midnight!”
2. Let people bring things. When Aunt Bunny asks what she can bring, don’t say “just bring yourself” — say “cheese.” And you can even tell her to bring three different kinds, about ½ pound of each, so that you get what you need. And remind her to bring crackers.
3. Think of tasks to delegate and let people help (otherwise known as, don’t be a martyr). So when Uncle Ivan comes into the kitchen looking for a job, you will be able to point him toward the salad for dressing and tossing.
4. Don’t be afraid of room temperature food. Hey, by the time everyone serves themselves and finds a seat, the food isn’t going to be super-hot anyway! Give yourself permission to not stress about getting all the food to the table piping hot at the same time. When you go back for seconds, it’s always room temperature anyway, right? And has that ever slowed anyone down? Certainly not Cousin Kevin.
THE DAY AFTER
The next day, when you sit down with a bowl of turkey noodle soup and some leftover pinot noir, you can tuck those notes from your super-organized, stress-free Thanksgiving away in a folder marked “I Kicked Thanksgiving’s Butt,” and be that far ahead of the game this time next year.
Katie Workman has written two cookbooks focused on easy, family-friendly cooking, “Dinner Solved!” and “The Mom 100 Cookbook.” She blogs at http://www.themom100.com/about-katie-workman. She can be reached at Katie@themom100.com.