Thanksgiving is probably the most denial-inducing dinner party that you’ll pull off all year. The way your dad’s new girlfriend keeps asking your mom if she’s sure she didn’t play against Mary Pickford in a movie. The way you’re reminded that you didn’t go to the college your parents wanted. The way your aunt tips the scotch bottle right to her lips.
And beyond those personalities at the table, you have one oven, four burners, and what seems like 124 things to cook at once.
To head off any problems—at least the predictable ones safely situated in the kitchen—you’ve got to confront things straight-on. Trust us. Think strategically long before the big day and get OCD for this one meal and you’ll understand the boon in being a realist. Once you’ve got the details down pat, you can begin to actually appreciate those personalities at the table. And maybe even knock back a little scotch with your aunt. Though not necessarily in that order.
Bottom line? The time to be realistic isn’t Thanksgiving morning. It’s long, long before.
Avoid Oven Overload.
Will you be able to pull off the turkey, a gratin, a sweet potato casserole, and that mac-and-cheese for your niece in your one oven that doubles as a sweater drawer the rest of the year? Probably not, both because of oven space and the sheer insanity of the day, not to mention each recipe seems to require a slightly different temperature. Better to consider these sorts of things a week ahead of the meal as you’re planning your menu rather than that fateful morning. And remember when you’re scribbling out your flow chart of what happens when, that the bird needs to rest for 20, maybe even 30 minutes. That means you’ve got time to crank up the oven and finish off the sides before you sit down.
So fill in your menu with make-aheads, things that can be cooked several days in advance, like some vinegared veggie hors d’oeuvres. You can assemble a gratin or casserole the night before, then bake it off first thing Thanksgiving morning, before the turkey hits the heat, then reheat all sides in that precious time while the turkey is resting before carving.
Consider serving a few cold items, such as relishes, slaws, and salads. Maybe a grated carrot salad rather than roasted carrots? We’ve got a terrific cold cranberry relish that can add depth of flavor to the meal—and can be made several days in advance. The only trick? Just don’t forget to serve it.
And there are always room-temperature dishes. Like a cheese plate for starters. And if you do decide to roast those vegetables, bear in mind, they suffer little from being served barely warm.
Last, always consider dessert a make-ahead dish. Period. Pies and cakes can be made the day before and stored on the counter. Don’t be caught rolling out a crust as everyone’s enjoying the first course. Or go really simple and round out the meal with fruit of some sort. Or even cookies.
Look, too, for alternative ovens: the microwave, that toaster oven, your outdoor grill. Did your neighbors go out of town for the long weekend? Consider offering to plant-sit so you can snag their oven. (Just remember to turn it off and clean it up. Explaining why their house burned down is so awkward.)
Make Space for Dinner—And We Don’t Mean Skipping Breakfast on Thanksgiving
Eat down the fridge the week before. Or, if nothing else, clean it out, ruthlessly tossing anything that’s nonessential. Those Thanksgiving make-aheads and leftovers have to go somewhere.
Requisition other venues as pantries. Your bedroom? Not any more. Now it’s an annex to the pantry, containing the overflow of cans and packages that don’t need refrigerating. Ditto any spare shelf space in closets. Even your car can hold paper towels and napkins.
Default to your patio or deck for cold storage if you live in a chilly climate. Stash things out there the morning of, if not the day before, keeping an eye on the temperature to make sure it stays below 40°F (4°C). Unfortunately, our house in the woods is prone to furry well-wishers, so outdoors isn’t an option. But a big cooler filled with ice in the laundry room works just as well as a makeshift second fridge.
Before the queue for the dishwasher gets as long as the checkout line this time of year, use the appliance to hold bread, cans, and other provisions. Some intrepid entertainers even warm the bread in there by wrapping the loaf in foil and setting the machine on the dry cycle only. (This seems to invite an “I Love Lucy” moment, but the fearless apparently walk among us.)
Your tub makes a great giant ice bucket to chill wine and beer. Just remember to warn anyone who goes in there first. A big bathtub of ice? They might think they’ve dropped into the noir version of your life, the one you keep so carefully hidden.
Plan on Getting Done at a Reasonable Hour.
The day’s not over until you’re in bed. Consider these options:
If you’ve used a cooler beforehand, dump it out and fill it halfway with warm, soapy water. It’s now a place to stash dirty dishes while they wait their turn in the washer.
Those leftovers have to go somewhere. Invest in resealable glass or plastic containers for leftovers. And in big rolls of plastic wrap and aluminum foil so you can plan on sending some food home with your guests. It’s fun to squirrel away meals for the days ahead. But will you really eat four pounds of sliced turkey? We didn’t think so. Better to wrap it up and send it away than to find the beginnings of a meth lab in your fridge a week later. Originally published November 19, 2011.
Click here for Thanksgiving Disaster 6: Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen!