I’ll never forget the first Thanksgiving I hosted as a newlywed. I spent countless hours on the phone with my mother and mother-in-law gathering recipes and advice and then it was time for me to prepare the big meal.
The outcome of my endeavors was fair at best. I overstuffed the dressing into the turkey, ending up with something that resembled a very compacted football. My gravy was solid. Honestly. I had to blend it with some additional liquid in order to make it passable. I didn’t have a springform pan, so I baked my pumpkin cheesecake in a pie plate and then tried to turn it out like you would a regular cake, ending up with half a molten hot cheesecake down the front of me and in between my toes.
Flash forward 26 Thanksgivings later and this once inexperienced hostess now spends two-thirds of her working hours developing recipes and guiding home cooks in all matters culinary. So, for those of you who want to avoid some of the disappointments of my first Thanksgiving, I’m offering some tips and a timeline to help you serve your Thanksgiving dinner with ease.
The First Week in November
• Invite your guests and say yes if they ask if they can bring something.
• Plan your menu, keeping oven and stove-top space in mind. The turkey takes up a lot of oven real estate, so be sure to include side dishes that can be cooked on the stove or in slow cookers, along with a few items that can be quickly baked while the turkey rests and is carved. Consider including some menu items that can be reheated or cooked in the microwave. (Items that can be heated or cooked in the slow cooker include mashed potatoes, gravy and dressing.)
• Divide your menu into the following categories: 1) Items that can be prepared ahead and frozen. 2) Items that can be prepared a day or two ahead and can be baked or reheated on the big day. 3) Items that must be prepared Thanksgiving day. (See sidebar for ideas of items you can go ahead and freeze.)
• Prepare grocery lists for each of the three categories. Now you’re ready to go ahead and set aside time to shop and prepare the items that can be made ahead and frozen this week.
• Decide which dishes, glasses and linens you’ll use. If your linens need to be laundered, go ahead and do that this week (or take them to the dry cleaner this week).
• If you plan to include fall or Thanksgiving decorations throughout your entertaining area, go ahead and decorate this week if you haven’t already done so.
• If you plan to serve a fresh, local or organic turkey, go ahead and order it now.
The Second Week in November
• Polish your sterling silver, if using.
• Clean out the refrigerator to make room for Thanksgiving groceries.
• Enlist the children to help make table decorations and place cards. Great ideas can be found at www.familyfun.com.
• Order your centerpiece, if you plan to have one.
• Shop for non-perishable items from your remaining two shopping lists. Store them in a place where family members won’t assume they’re for their consumption or label them with a sticky note.
• Make and freeze any items that you didn’t complete last week.
The Third Week in November
• If you have out-of-town guests who will be staying in your home, go ahead and put fresh linens on the beds and prepare the guest bathroom for their stay. You can touch everything up before their arrival, but it will be good to have this mostly out of the way.
• Check your serving pieces to make sure everything is ready for the big day. Clean the serving pieces and label them with a sticky note indicating which menu item they’ll hold.
The Week and Weekend Before Thanksgiving
• Clean the house so that all you have to do is tidy up on Thanksgiving day.
• If you plan to serve a frozen turkey, go ahead and purchase it and store it in the refrigerator to defrost. Although most turkeys say they defrost in a few days, large turkeys can take a lot longer to thaw completely in the refrigerator.
• Get aggressive and clean out your refrigerator again, making space for casseroles, beverages and other items.
• Complete as much of your grocery shopping as possible.
• Roll your silver and set your table to free you up for cooking on the big day.
• Refrigerate the beverages you plan to serve and stock up on ice.
• Late in the week, do any prep-work that you can do ahead, such as chopping onions and celery, peeling carrots, etc.
The Day Before Thanksgiving
• Hit the grocery store for one last time to purchase any remaining items to complete your meal.
• Make all dishes that can be prepared ahead. Bake pies, make mashed potatoes, casseroles and cornbread for dressing, tip and tail fresh green beans, etc.
• Clean the bathrooms and tidy up the house. Clean the kitchen after you’ve finished your prep-work for the day.
• Go out to dinner or pick up something prepared. You’ve done your share of cooking for the day and will do more tomorrow.
• Set up your coffee maker so that all you need to do is press “on” before you sit down to eat so that it will be ready for dessert.
• Spray slow cooker liners with nonstick cooking spray and fill them with the items you plan to cook or heat in them and turn them on low or warm. Check the cookers occasionally, stirring and reducing the heat if they appear to be sticking.
• Place cranberry sauce and other condiments in serving dishes, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve. Place on the table or buffet after the turkey is done roasting and your casseroles are baking.
• Prepare the oven for roasting the turkey. You’ll probably need to lower a rack and remove a rack or two before preheating the oven.
• Preheat the oven. Remove the turkey from the refrigerator one hour before you plan to begin roasting it. Roast according to package directions and let rest for 30 minutes before carving.
• Once the turkey is out of the oven, bake your casseroles. Get anything that needs to be cooked on top of the stove going. Reheat rolls the last 10 minutes of baking time for the casseroles.
• While the casseroles bake, fill glasses with ice and remove the drinks from the refrigerator. Fill a pitcher or two with cold water.
• Now it’s time to enjoy your guests. (And, if someone offers to clean up SAY YES!)
Fit for Freezing
Use your freezer to help spread the workload when preparing your Thanksgiving meal. The following can be prepared and frozen without affecting the quality of the dish. Allow casseroles to defrost in the refrigerator for 24-48 hours before baking.
• Homemade turkey stock for gravy
• Homemade pie crust
• Homemade yeast rolls
• Most vegetable casseroles
• Chopped onions and celery for dressing
• If you make sausage dressing, you can brown, cool and freeze your sausage ahead of time
• Homemade cranberry sauce
• Cornbread for cornbread dressing
Skip “From Scratch”
One mistake new hosts make is thinking they have to make everything from scratch. Rely on these tricks to cut down your cooking time and reduce preparation stress and exhaustion.
• Buy prepared frozen yeast rolls.
• Let someone do the cooking for you. Order a fried or roasted turkey along with side dishes from the supermarket or Wife Saver.
• Use prepared pie crusts.
• Purchase a jar or two of turkey gravy as backup in case you don’t end up with as much gravy as you need to serve your guests.
• Look for prepared cornbread in the supermarket bakery section and use it to prepare your dressing.
• Use canned broth instead of making your own.
Karin Calloway is an Evans wife and mother of two who writes the weekly cooking column for The Augusta Chronicle and prepares her recipes for cooking segments aired on WJBF NewsChannel 6. She is the author of two cookbooks and the on-line chef for Viking Range Corporation.