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Other holidays have distractions like gift giving and egg hunts, but Thanksgiving, the biggest food consumption day of the year, is literally all about sitting down at a large table and eating. With food as its centerpiece, it’s difficult not to become completely consumed — aka totally stressed out — with getting every aspect of the meal just right. In fact, for perfectionists like me, the holiday provides a veritable cornucopia of opportunities to optimize everything from the tablescape to the turkey.
There are other reasons why Thanksgiving creates anxiety in otherwise reasonable people. It’s the one food occasion that demands a sit down meal at a table that is large enough for both guests and seven or more dishes. It also requires one to cook a very large bird for several hours, which can be a logistic and culinary nightmare. And the meal often includes multiple courses, starting with appetizers and moving through soup, salad, sides, turkey and then dessert. Without practice, the kitchen choreography that’s required to pull off the Thanksgiving meal can leave people in a state of panic. Why else would there be hotlines set up to help people get through their turkey tantrums?
Do yourself a favor and do less. I figured it out the hard way years ago when I attempted to make everything from scratch. I spent countless hours and obscene amounts of money sourcing just the right ingredients, only to have the golden bird that I’d worked so hard on snatched off the table by my dog. Since then I have tried to take a more reasonable approach to the big day. Being a food editor for eight years, and having to plan out the big meal for readers definitely helped me figure things out. Hopefully these hacks will help you get everything cooked and on the table, while also being able to kick back, give thanks and actually enjoy the day.
1. Carve out some "me time" before you carve the turkey
I’m not saying you should schedule a massage, but it really is wise to get at least 45 minutes to an hour to yourself. My way of doing it is to sign up for the Turkey Trot at our local park. I’m done by 10 a.m. and I return home with a sense of calm and the ability to be level-headed for the rest of the day. If you have your feast early in the day, make time for a power walk in the afternoon or to "run an errand." No one questions the host.
2. Don’t cook a whole turkey
If you’re feeding less than eight people, a turkey breast instead of a whole turkey is the way to go. Each person will eat about a half pound of turkey, so a 4- to 6-pound breast is plenty. This way you won’t spend the whole day cooking the turkey. Instead you'll only need about 40 minutes to an hour if it's a fresh turkey (see below for turkey cooking calculations). And if you do want to cook a whole bird (leftovers are yummy), go with a smaller one. Smaller birds are easier to keep moist than big ones.
Here's your cheat sheet for figuring out how long it will take to cook your bird: If it came frozen and you defrosted it, it will take 20 minutes per pound to cook. That is approximately 3 hours and 33 minutes for a 10-pound turkey. For fresh birds it only takes 10 to 15 minutes per pound. Either way, you’ll need a meat thermometer, inserted into the thickest part of the bird or breast, to reach 165°F. Then your turkey should get a well-deserved rest for 20-30 minutes to allow the juices to redistribute before you carve into the bird.
3. Make frozen rolls instead of scratch
A lot of folks save up their carb points for Thanksgiving and fresh rolls are definitely one of the things they look forward to. That’s great, but you don’t need to make the dough yourself. Besides taking extra time, it takes up precious counter space while it rises. Plenty of companies, from Williams-Sonoma to Pillsbury make delicious rolls that come frozen or refrigerated and just need a little time in the oven to reach golden perfection. I’m personally going with Orwashers’ frozen Artisan Ale Rolls this year and will bake them up just before the meal in the toaster oven.
4. If you’re going to make a pie, do it now
Most pies freeze really well, so spend time this weekend getting your baking fix. Fruit pies, like apple, can be assembled ahead of time (unbaked), then wrapped once in plastic and twice in foil, and then popped into the freezer. On Thanksgiving, you can put them right into the oven without thawing them. The pie may take just a bit longer to fully cook, so keep an eye on it. You can also bake the crust for a pumpkin or sweet potato pie, make and store the filling separately, then put them together and bake on Thanksgiving or the day before. If you’re making my family’s favorite — pecan — it works best to make and bake the whole pie in advance, then freeze it and defrost Wednesday night in the fridge. If you can pop it in the oven or toaster oven to warm at 225°F for about 20 minutes, that will give it a from-the-oven taste.
5. Make as much as possible in advance
Write down your entire menu (or make a spreadsheet) including the stuff that other people are bringing (see #7) and then take a close look at all the components and figure out what you can do 2 to 3 days ahead.
For example, if you’re making a cornbread stuffing, like my Quinoa, Cornbread and Cranberry Stuffing, you can prep lots of the ingredients ahead of time: bake the cornbread, toast the nuts, cook the quinoa, and chop the onion and celery.
Many recipes can be broken down like this. Getting up a little earlier in the morning to prep on the days leading up to Thanksgiving can help you avoid a night of no sleep on November 23rd. Also — and this is a big one for me — locate and clean all of the platters and serving dishes you’ll need for the meal. Nothing like pulling out your turkey platter minutes before you need it to find that it’s covered in dust!
Pre-Thanksgiving snacks have a tough role to play. They are generally necessary as a buffer for the host, who is likely still doing final prep when guests arrive. But you don’t want them to create more work or be too filling. Here’s a good assortment that should keep folks happy: a bowl of washed grapes, a cheese board with one hard and one soft cheese, crackers, fig jam, mixed nuts, pitted olives, and a platter of fresh vegetables (cherry tomatoes, carrots, celery, radishes and cucumber). Oh, and wine and beer for the grownups.
It can be tough to ask guests for help, especially when they’re not forthcoming with offering it. But trust me — they’ll appreciate that they’re contributing and actually bringing something you need or want. Assign someone to the wine, salad, bread and other simple things. And it’s always great to have an extra pie, plus ice cream to go with it. Ask a close friend or relative to help with dishes in advance, that way they won’t feel roped in at the last minute.
8. Serve dishes that taste great at room temperature instead of piping hot
It’s next to impossible to have everything come out of the oven at the exact same time. Roasted vegetables and grain dishes are more forgiving than mashed potatoes and candied yams. This Lemon-Maple Cauliflower is a good example of a dish that tastes just as good at room temperature as it does out of the oven.
I have three kids under eight and I’ve learned that not everyone loves being seated next to little ones. Creating a separate space kids is totally fun, makes them feel special and is super easy. Cover the table with butcher's paper, put out crayons and some easy crafts that they can work on while the grownups are chit chatting over the first glass of wine. If you make the kids table cool, they won’t mind not being with the grownups. Definitely use plastic or melamine plates and glasses. If spills, which are inevitable, can wait until after the turkey is served, let them.
I remember ordering a gorgeous and expensive centerpiece one Thanksgiving, only to realize that my guests would not be able to see each other once it was placed in the middle of the table. Keep it cheap and cheerful and use small pumpkins or gourds on each person’s plate (add a name tag if there’s time), or scatter felt or paper leaves over the table. Candles are nice if they’re low, unscented and drip-free.
Happy prepping and here’s to a wonderful, delicious Thanksgiving! Just remember to breathe and keep the dog away from the turkey.
Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, is a nutrition expert, writer and best-selling author. Her books include Feed the Belly, The CarbLovers Diet and Eating in Color. Follow her @FrancesLRothRD