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Thanksgiving Made Easy

Preparation for Thanksgiving can be overwhelming. Beyond turkey, stuffing, gravy, and cranberry sauce, the primary ingredient required is organization. Once you figure it out, the hard part is over.

Gina Conroy
October 28, 2019

Thanksgiving is one of America’s favorite holidays. History documents that after a devastating and deadly first year in the new world, the Pilgrims collected an abundant crop in the fall of 1621 and celebrated with a feast of thanks to God for his provision. Little did they know that the men’s gunfire from their “fowling” would attract the attention of the Wampanoag Native Americans, who heard the excessive gunshots and thought the Pilgrims were under attack.

Imagine the Pilgrims’ surprise when Chief Massasoit arrived with 90 of his men ready to aid the settlers in battle. Imagine Massasoit’s surprise when he realized he had shown up uninvited to the Pilgrims’ feast. Imagine the stress the Pilgrims felt when realizing there wasn’t enough food to feed their unexpected guests.

Massasoit, probably not wanting to be that guest, sent his men hunting for game. They returned with deer and presented their gift to their hosts. You could say it was the first potluck in the new world.

Though the scenery and table settings have changed over the centuries, and turkey has replaced deer as the main course, family and friends still gather together, giving thanks like the very first Thanksgiving. While it’s highly unlikely 90 unexpected guests would ever show up to your Thanksgiving dinner, here’s a stress-free guide to help you host and have a thankful Thanksgiving without a cooking breakdown.

Plan the menu
Nothing cuts through the stress of the holiday like planning. With today’s technology, online recipes, and cooking shows, it’s never too early to start. You can meal plan solo or invite family and friends to help. You may want to try a few new recipes before Thanksgiving to make sure you “nail it” before the big day. Don’t forget to plan for people with food restrictions, and schedule the mealtime around work and football schedules so that no one feels left out of the celebration.

Be thankful for takeout
Though many of us grew up watching our grandmothers and mothers slave away in the kitchen before and after the meal, more of us are choosing to keep it simple to avoid the stress and enjoy the day.

While hiring a caterer might be overkill unless you have the money to spend or want to impress your family and friends, consider ordering holiday takeout. Restaurants and groups like Justin Thompson Catering (tulsacatering.com/holiday-dinners) provide the entire dinner from turkey and ham to green beans and mashed potatoes, and the food tastes like grandma made. Don’t forget to order the mouth-watering rolls and rhubarb jelly. There’s even a wide selection of pies.

Ordering meals from grocery stores like Whole Foods has become more popular and can cost as low as $10 a person. Just remember you might want to order extra servings. What is Black Friday without leftovers?

You can serve the food straight out of the metal tins or take out platters for quick clean up or transfer the items to your serving dishes, and no one will know it didn’t come from your oven.

Hosting a potluck is not without precedent. Remember the Wampanoag? It not only eases the pressure on the host, but it allows guests to share their favorite dishes. With today’s online meal planning websites, hosting a potluck is easy and efficient.

First, choose a meal-planning site. Create a sign-up sheet and add the most popular Thanksgiving items, then sign up for the dishes you plan to cook. Allow space for guests to bring a new recipe or a twist on an old favorite. List vegan, gluten-free, and other allergy-free items so you can be mindful of guests with dietary restrictions. Add spaces for a cleanup crew for guests who might not have time or money to contribute. Once completed, invite your guests to sign up.

If you’re not internet savvy, call guests asking them what items they plan on bringing. Just remember, as the host you will need to keep track of all this information and send gentle reminders. The online signups may have an automated reminder system, so if that’s important to you, consider that when choosing which one to use.

While you can always plan for the best, as the saying goes, you should also prepare for the worst. Have extra ingredients on hand to throw together missing dishes like that green bean casserole or cranberry sauce someone forgot to bring. No matter what shows up on your table, decide to be thankful. Don’t forget to have a backup plan for those unexpected events when Rover eats the turkey while everyone is watching the game. Having a stash of frozen precooked boneless turkey, ham, or even turkey pot pies can ease the disappointment of a ruined meal.

Once you’ve planned your menu, it’s time to start your shopping list. With today’s “to do” apps and Alexa, that’s not a problem. You can create lists hands-free and set reminders to shop for the items or use pen and paper. Just remember to bring your list when you go shopping.  

Serving size matters
Remember it’s a tradition to leave Thanksgiving dinner bloated and gorged, so it’s better to have too much food than not enough. But how much is more than enough? Today’s online Thanksgiving food planning calculators take away most of the guesswork. While some are basic, others factor whether guests are children or adult, and light or heavy eaters. There’s even a setting to calculate if you want leftovers. You can calculate for light, medium, or heavy drinkers, for those who wish to indulge in the fruit of the vine.

If you’re not into technology, consider 1.5 to 2 pounds per person is more than enough. Foodnetwork.com also has a list of amounts of each item based on the number of guests.

Shop, so you don’t drop
Buy the bird or ham as soon as they’re available. Don’t wait until the last minute because they may be hard to find. You may want to pick up an extra turkey or ham just in case. If you don’t need it, then you’ll have a head start on your Christmas dinner shopping.

Stock up on non-perishable items like stuffing, potatoes, cranberries (whole or can), and other items that have a shelf life. The only caveat is to remember what you bought and where you stashed the supplies. Though fresh is always best, having Thanksgiving staples in your pantry can help cut down on the stress as the holiday draws nearer.

Set it and forget it
Whether you’re serving dinner on fine china or decorated paper plates, you can set the table days before the meal. While some may want to use their best china, consider the cleanup time and if you wish to spend another hour in the kitchen. To cut down on the cleanup, use disposable decorative plates with chargers and napkins with napkin rings to add that holiday flair.

Plan which serving dishes you’ll use, iron the tablecloth, and set the table ahead of time. If you’re worried about your setting collecting dust, throw a clean sheet over it to ensure everything stays clean for Thanksgiving.

Take inventory
Remember that menu list you planned and those groceries you bought? Double-check to see what you still need to buy. In the past, Walmart was the only one doing online ordering and instant pickup. Now stores like Sam’s and Target offer similar services. Just know that some of these stores require a two-day advance order, and advance ordering times may be different during the holidays. If you’re picky about your produce, you can shop a week in advance or order online for pickup. Although some shoppers claim you pay a little extra, it may be worth it.

Time it out
Running through the cooking schedule can save a lot of time and stress. Write a timetable of what goes in the oven when. This will not only help you keep the food preparation flowing, but it will help you remember to warm up the rolls and pull the cranberry sauce from the refrigerator. Delegate tasks to different people to cut down on the workload for the host. Clean out your refrigerator so you have space to store all the food you’ll be cooking in the next few days. This also cuts down on the stress of how to prepare and keep everything fresh. And lastly, don’t forget to confirm the potluck dishes and cleanup crew.

Thaw the bird
Nothing evokes a state of panic like realizing the night before Thanksgiving that you forgot to thaw the turkey. Most packaging will give you the proper thawing time, but the general rule is to allow for 24 hours of defrosting time for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey. When you pull the bird or ham out of the freezer, don’t forget to shop for any forgotten items. Nothing evokes your inner Grinch more than standing in the long checkout line with the other shoppers scrounging for last-minute items.

Chop so you don’t drop
Chopping and prepping vegetables, cheeses, and hors d’oeuvres a few days ahead not only saves you time but also counter space. Also, you can oversee little helpers without worrying about something boiling over on the stove. Plus, it gives children a sense of responsibility and accomplishment to be part of the preparations.

24 hours out
Cook and prepare vegetables and stuffing, then put them in oven-safe dishes for warming in the microwave or oven. Lumpy mashed potatoes can be taken care of the night before and warmed in a crockpot Thanksgiving morning. Boil eggs and put together hors d’oeuvres trays if you have enough space in your refrigerator. Bake pies, cornbread, and other items that would take up space in the oven.

Prep the house
Start your holiday with a clean kitchen and empty dishwashers and trashcans. Line your bins with more than one bag so that you have a new bag ready to go when one becomes full. Remove precious objects from the living room to save them from hyper little ones. If coats and bags are going on your bed, cover your duvet and pillows with a sheet to protect them from the elements. Finally, light a candle in the bathroom — it’s just a nice touch.

It’s kickoff time
With all the planning done, Thanksgiving Day should be a piece of cake… or pie. Whether you go traditional with your turkey, deep-fry it, or try the turkey in a bag, it should be the first thing you start on after you wake up. For the best flavor possible, the turkey needs to be out of the oven (or smoker or fryer) at least 30 minutes before you plan to carve it, so it has time to rest before serving.

Assemble and serve hors d’oeuvres an hour or two before you plan to sit down and eat. Set timers to remind you of your cooking schedule. Right before you sit down to eat, have Alexa remind you to pull the cranberry sauce from the refrigerator.

Remember what truly matters
Thanksgiving is the perfect time to set aside differences, family feuds, and long-held grudges. It’s a time to reflect on what is truly important and what we have to be thankful for in life. The best holidays are the ones where everyone enjoys the day, including the host. And nothing makes the holiday sweeter than a day filled with love and laughter. And of course, pumpkin pie.