Talking Turkey: How to Host A Great Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving Dinner dining roomIn a moment of lunacy, you heard yourself saying “Why don’t I host Thanksgiving this year?”

Gasp! Uh-oh. Committed. Terror followed. Thanksgiving, the Big Daddy of Holiday Meals, Turkey-a-palooza: At your house. Soon. What were you thinking?

Chill, Winston. Thanksgiving victory requires planning. Know when you want to eat and work backwards from there. Here are some planning tips to help you Martha Stewart your way to the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey Dinner.

When do we eat?

Ideally, guests should arrive 1-2 hours before you eat. Have small talk, serve some drinks, and soon a nice vibe will get underway.

Keep the dinner lead-time relatively short, so Uncle Henry and Aunt Betty have one or two drinks before dinner, not four or five, and you might avert drunken chaos till closer to dessert.

Let’s say you want the turkey at 4. What’s that mean for meal-planning, time-wise? Guests should arrive at 2 (meaning by 3). A cheese plate from 2-3 will keep them happy, followed by a hot appetizer at 3:15, eating shortly after 4, with dessert around 5:30 or 6. People will likely start heading after 8, you’ll hopefully be done a little after 10.

Who’s coming to dinner?

How many are coming? 12? Then plan for 16. And you want leftovers, right? If you have a leftovers plan, go as big as your pots, pans, and kitchen allow.

See who can bring a side dish or dessert. Know what their contribution is in advance, because there’s a world of difference between Ambrosia Salad and Maple-Glazed Brussels Sprouts, and you have to plan ahead to fill in food gaps.

Does anyone have dietary restrictions? Have things available to them, but invite them to contribute to the meal, or even just bring something for themselves. Most will appreciate you giving them the option to do this.

Establish a cooking plan and schedule

With an idea of your menu, you’ll need a master list of ingredients, and a timeline for buying them. Go through all recipes so nothing’s forgotten, and shop a couple days early. God forbid you visit a grocery store on Thanksgiving morning.

For the big day, schedule everything. How long will stuffing take to make? What time should the turkey go in the oven? Remember, include preheating the oven and resting the turkey a minimum of 20 minutes post-cooking, because those alone add up to another 45 minutes, right? When should the potatoes turn on, including the 5-15 minutes of mashing them?

Envision your cooking options. Stove, a microwave, four burners — sound about right? Maybe there’s more — BBQ, a second oven, whatever. Know what will cook where, and how long will it take. Keep in mind pots and pans — do you have enough, and of the right size? This too is “planning”. Without enough space or equipment, your “plan” won’t matter.

Decide a cooking order — what needs to happen just before eating, and what can be done early? If you make a written itinerary, it’ll be a lot easier for you to stay on top of it, and for others to help you, while keeping your nerves at bay.

What to do ahead

thanksgiving turkey carvingFor all the things you can’t do in advance, there are things you can, like getting organized. While vegging out with Netflix one night, make sure your fancy dishes are free of spots and dust. Organize an area for dishes, glasses, servingware, wine to serve, corkscrew, and more, so even if things go awry on the day, a guest can set things out for you.

If you need the dining table for additional prep on the morning of, you obviously can’t set it in advance, but if not, go ahead and set the table.

One do-ahead task gaining in popularity is turkey brining. It’s soaking your whole bird in a mix of sugar, salt, water, and aromatics for a day. Those of us who brine swear it’s the best turkey ever. Easily done, brining also needs planning.

Decorate in advance. Not only will it get off your to-do list, but it’ll put you in the holiday mood. Get your music playlist ready, know when/where the big game’s showing, plan for extra chairs if needed. All these can be figured out and done days ahead.

Also, have your phone-a-friend “Holiday Hero” ready. This is someone who’ll keep 60 minutes available that day for last-minute errands, in case you an emergency store run, while still planning to arrive at your place at least 15 to 30 minutes early. That way, you know there’s a back-up plan in case you forget anything.

Simplify where you can

You don’t want stupid tasks taking your time once people start to arrive. For instance, having a bedroom clean so hats, coats, and bags can be put on the bed and stay out of the way means you don’t have to wrestle with hangers, you can just say “Put it on the bed!” and away they go.

Simpler appetizers and make-ahead desserts are a life-saver in the before-and-after dinner crush. A cheese plate is always popular, but don’t put crackers or bread out early, as they grow stale fast. Instead, have crackers and bread by the fridge, ready to go when guests arrive. Pull your cheese-and-fruit plate out preferably a half-hour early, since cold cheese has less flavor, and it’ll ideally be consumed within 2 hours, with dinner coming up.

Know where cold dishes or drink contributions brought by guests can be stored, and where the hot items can stay warm until mealtime. Have trivets and pot-holders nearby, and towels too, as these can be wrapped around to insulate warm items until serving.

On the day of

Most vegetables can be cut and prepped in advance if you keep them in cold water. Early in the morning, peel and prep potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and just about everything else. Get them ready and stored separately in water so all you have to do is get ’em on the stove.

Do your turkey early, especially if you’re nervous about it. They can take longer to dress and prep if you’re not confident. It’ll be  fine at room temperature for up to an hour before popping it in to roast.

Before you get cracking, double-check ingredients on-hand vs. your master plan. Got everything? If you don’t and you can do without it until one hour before cooking, have your Holiday Hero bring it. If you need it now, hustle!

Steps like these make the difference between you getting to enjoy your guests rather than just entertain them.

Breathe. It’ll be fine, Grasshopper

Holiday meals always get a little insane. There’s a lot to remember. It’s a nervous couple days preceding the actual meal hitting the table, even for those who do it well.

If you forget anything, don’t mention it, because most won’t notice, won’t care, or they’ll think that’s how you wanted it. So don’t freak out and go “Oh, no, I forgot the cranberry sauce!” Just relax, have a drink, and act like you’re doing a cranberry boycott or something. It’s fine.

Funny enough, the thing you’ve been panicking about, the turkey, is your savior. If you haven’t carved it, nothing is “late” yet. Turkey’s forgiving until you start to carve. Let it rest longer if needed, it’s fine, it’ll probably even be more moist. You have a half-hour-ish of grace time with a resting turkey, so relax and get things done right, rather than panicking because the turkey came out 17 minutes ago. After 30 minutes, wrap it with a couple bath towels if the meal’s not ready yet, and the bird’ll stay warm. Carve it ONLY when everything is ready.

Eating Thanksgiving Dinner

It’s just dinner… sort of

In the end, it’s not really about turkey or side dishes, pilgrim wall decorations or who wins the football game. It’s being with people you care about, eating a shared meal, and having gratitude that you’re together for another holiday.

With planning, helpful people around, and a semi-level head, you’ll do Thanksgiving dinner better than you expect. Maybe it’ll be a positive enough experience that you’ll understand why some of us love to make a meal of great food for people we can’t imagine not having in our lives.

Enjoy hosting Thanksgiving this year. There’s a great deal of satisfaction and joy in doing it well, which I hope you’ll soon understand first-hand.

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