A chef’s 10-step guide to a truly enjoyable thanksgiving dinner
Published: October 30, 2019
By: Perry Perkins
The holidays are hands-down my favorite time of year, but it’s no secret that (especially for us foodies) they can come with a lot of kitchen chaos and performance anxiety.
With so many dishes, so many people and so many “cherished family traditions” to uphold, it’s well-nigh impossible to make it through the season without at least some drama.
If you come from an Italian family like mine, well… fugget about it!
So, if we can’t avoid the chaos, let’s at least try to get a rope on it, right?
Here are 10 tips to help you avoid enough of the crises of holiday entertaining to actually enjoy the food and family time — which, let’s face it, is really the whole point!
- Don’t sweat the small stuff. Does anyone really care if the tablecloth is ironed? Does anyone really care if their napkins are shaped like swans? Or if great-grandma’s silver is freshly polished?
No, they don’t. They want to eat and laugh, and then eat some more! If you’re low on time (uh, who’s not?), and that cloth is really bugging you, just iron the corners and sides. Once all the dishes are in place, no one will see the wrinkles anyway.
Also, have the kids help you set the table the night before. It’s one less thing to do.
- Have a plan.
- Sit down and make a guest list.
- Plan your menu and decide if you’re doing all the cooking or if others will be bringing dishes, and make a checklist of all ingredients.
- Create a complete shopping list, organized by aisle.
- Take inventory of your dinnerware, kitchen tools and gadgets, spices and other staples in your pantry. (And don’t forget to count chairs!)
We call it “mise en place,” and it means having everything prepared and in place before you start cooking … and, trust me, it will save you an all-inclusive stay at the funny farm!
- Lighten up on the menu! With the size of the feast on most of our tables, it really isn’t necessary to load your guests up on dips, snacks or appetizers. A platter of cut fresh veggies should do the trick, or maybe make the snacks and appetizers a potluck item. Also, don’t be afraid to look up simpler versions of classic holiday recipes.
- Hold a dress rehearsal. If you’re making a side dish for the first time or using ingredients you aren’t familiar with, try them out beforehand so you’ll be prepared for success on Thanksgiving Day. This is especially important if you’re pressing the young’ uns into service! (And you SHOULD be pressing the young’ uns into service!) No free rides, little Timmy!
Ditto if you’re serving a new wine or using new equipment, like a brand-new oven or slow-cooker. There’s a time and place for culinary surprises… this ain’t it.
- Clear out your fridge a week in advance. You’re going to be filling it up again pretty soon, so now is a good time to eat the leftovers, combine those four not-quite-empty pickle jars, and toss anything that tries to fight back.
And clean off the counters! Martha Stewart isn’t going to be dropping by (Dear God, please) so clear away all those knickknacks, cookie jars and kitchen gadgets you’re not going to use. Think “industrial kitchen” and you’ll be headed in the right direction.
Rule of thumb: If you’re not going to use it from Nov. 1 to Jan. 1, stick it in a closet. Better yet, get rid of some of it. Do you really need 11 whisks (hint: no, no you don’t)? Find a local shelter kitchen and make a donation!
- Give yourself a head start. Do as much prep work as you can: Make salad dressings; chop onions and celery and store in resealable plastic bags in the fridge; top and tail green beans; make stock for gravy with roasted turkey wings or thighs. Potatoes can be peeled, halved and stored in cold water for 48 hours (in fact, it makes them better!).
Make a list of everything you need to do, right up to digging in, and note how far in advance you can practically (and safely) check it off the list.
- Don’t be afraid of a potluck. Most folks have a special holiday dish they’re proud of, so share the spotlight by letting them bring it. And if it’s good, make a big deal about it. You’ll never have to make it again!
Keep a list of who’s bringing what so you don’t end up with six bowls of candied yams, and another list of suggested dishes with recipes for folks who vapor-lock when faced with a menu decision. If they’re really not up to it, a bottle of wine, a store-bought veggie plate or a couple of bags of ice are pretty hard to screw up. This isn’t Downton Abbey, folks, our guests can bring a couple of cans of olives.
- Shop early (and late!). When you’re just a couple of days out, you can safely buy most of your fresh ingredients. Onions, carrots, potatoes, celery, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, green beans, potatoes and even fresh-looking salad greens will last until the big day provided you store them properly. DO NOT plan on doing any shopping on Thanksgiving Day. You don’t want any part of that nut-fest!
Pick up cheeses and cured meats for an easy, no-prep appetizer to serve while you’re in the kitchen.
Full-contact grocery shopping not your thing? Mine neither — those little old ladies can get vicious — so here’s what I do:
Find a good 24-hour grocery and hit it about 4 or 5am, do your shopping, then stop by your favorite coffee shop on the way home for a cuppa and a bagel. Make a plan with a friend to shop together. Taking an afternoon nap is a lot easier than running with the grocery-cart bulls on a holiday afternoon.
- Assign the final steps. If you have older children, nieces and nephews or in-laws that you CANNOT keep out of the kitchen (I commiserate, believe me), put ’em to work! Mother-in-law is in charge of the stuffing and getting it in the serving dish and to the table with a serving spoon. Cousin Fred is in charge of making sure everyone’s glass is full. Little Susie puts the rolls in the basket, gets the basket to the table, and makes butter dishes and knives available. Make it clear that once they have performed their job, they should take their seat at the table … because, you know, they’re guests.
Which brings us to my most important step of all…
- BE THANKFUL! This is what it’s about, peeps — not the turkey, not the pies and not about being the perfect host. Before you start cooking Thursday morning, find a quiet spot to sit for 20-30 minutes and reflect on what you have to be thankful for. Write these things down and note why you’re thankful for them. Keep that thought firmly in place as you ride into battle. Heck, tape the list to the fridge in case you need a reminder later.
The secret to being a great host or hostess (and not sticking a meat-fork into your mother-in-law) is to do as much as you can in advance, and then not sweat the small stuff.
If the yams burn, toss ’em out, turn on a fan and enjoy all the rest of the great food. If the turkey burns, have a number handy to order takeout. Talk! Laugh! Drink! Make memories! And, most of all be thankful.
Remember: It isn’t about the turkey in the oven. It’s about all the turkeys around the table.