Thanksgiving Disaster 6: Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen!

An illustration of a woman with many small people climbing over her and the turkey and side dishes.

Friends pestering us in the kitchen with offers of help was never an issue when we lived in Manhattan. No one ever asked. Not because New Yorkers are inherently rude. Because our kitchen was only four feet wide—that included cabinets and appliances. You couldn’t stand in front of the oven and open it at the same time. If Sylvia Plath had lived in our apartment, she’d be alive today.

But after we moved to the country, we were barraged with culinary well-wishers. Apparently an open kitchen stands as an open invitation.

Look, we’re not unfriendly. We’re just focused. To us, entertaining begins once we get away from the stove and can sit down and settle in for some good food and conversation. Before that, there’s stuff that needs to get done.

Even if you’re more amiable than we are, certainly you can understand why offers of help aren’t always welcome. Here, a few tricks we tuck up our sleeves for keeping people out of the way:

  • Hand out discreet tasks. Tasks that take the helper OUT of the kitchen. Such as, “Would you take care of any flowers or gifts that show up?” or “Would you open the wine bottles?” or “Would you man (or woman) the music?” Even “Would you pass the hors d’oeuvres?”
  • When you set the table early in the day, leave small things for later so that someone else can feel useful. Don’t put out the wine glasses. Or the napkins. Do, however, stack everything that’s needed neatly on the counter or sideboard, far out of your way, and be ready with specific instructions.
  • Give insistent helpers noxious tasks to shoo them off. “Can you take out this bulging bag of dripping, greasy trash?” and “Would you mind walking the dog? Here, you’ll probably need a few, um, bags.” or even “Can you help me find the toilet plunger?”

That said, you might be the type who likes a group event in the kitchen. If so, consider a few ways to wrangle the herd of well-intentioned—or know-it-all—do-gooders:

  • Break the recipes into small, doable tasks for your sous chefs. Chop the onion (demonstrate what size chunks you need, if you’re finicky, otherwise this is only going to create more work and frustration for you). Mince the garlic (ditto). Stem the thyme. By the way, you’ll need to clear some counter space and reserve several cutting boards.
  • Copy or print off the recipes. You can’t all share one book, dog-eared magazine, fingerprinted laptop, or greasy iPad.
  • Label your cabinets. Sounds waaaaaay OCD, but it’ll save lots of frustration. Just think, a few discreet Post-its will keep you from repeatedly answering “Where are the glasses?” or “Where are the knives?” Plus these’ll help when it comes time to clean up, as there’ll be no guessing where the casserole dishes go—or where they went.

And because we like to say to ourselves after a dinner party that we’re done and in bed before our guests are even home, we’ve developed an efficient process of clean-up that starts soon after we clear the first course:

  • Make sure you stock up on dish-washing soap, sponges, and the like before the holiday.
  • Run the dishwasher between courses, for what we think are obvious reasons.
  • Wash in sequence. Don’t do a fork, a glass, a plate, a fork, a spoon. Wash the silverware at one go, then the glasses. You can establish a flow—and fill or drain the sink as needed.
  • Finally, offer distinct clues that the party’s over. (And no, you’re not nixing offers of help by shooing people out the door, because most people—aside from your mother—tend to skedaddle anyway as soon as dish towels appear.) Turn up the lights. Turn off the music. Turn up the heat. If all else fails, go upstairs and put on your PJs. Ask your uncle if he still wants the government out of his Medicare. That never fails to clear the room. Originally published November 19, 2011.


  1. Labeling the cabinets is ingenious! I get (somewhat irrationally) annoyed at telling 5 different people where the wine glasses are, so this will be the first thing I do tonight before my friends come over to help me prep for tomorrow!

  2. Since I usually attend/host Thansgiving with friends, I have developed a lack of fear of standing up from the table and saying casually “Oh boy, look at this mess. Can someone give me a quick hand?”

    This usually guilts everyone else into pitching in and we’re done quickly. We use the assembly-line method, too. Leftovers get bagged and distributed and then we jump into the dishes themselves.

    1. Kitchenbeard, I appreciate and respect your clarity in communication. Saves you from a heart attack in twenty years from repressed anger. We should all take a cue from you…

  3. “Label your cabinets. Sounds waaaaaay OCD, but it’ll save lots of frustration. Just think, a few discreet Post-its will keep you from repeatedly answering “Where are the glasses?” or “Where are the knives?” Plus these’ll help when it comes time to clean up, as there’ll be no guessing where the casserole dishes go—or where they went.”

    I did this the weekend we invited 17 people to the lake. It went amazingly smooth, I even labelled where to find refill rolls of T. P. No-one ever asked where to find anything, and there were never more than 3 dirty dishes in the sink before someone started washing up. The only way I got to wash a dish is that I finished eating my dessert standing over the sink, and even that did not last long. I went to get a pot off the stove and “when I got back, someone had taken my place”. lol


    1. Inez, I need some of your friends! Washing up? Insane. But you’ll note in all that advice we never said anything about cleaning up as a team, just about preparing the meal. That’s because we have a rule that we follow rather zealously in our house: we won’t clean up at your house and you won’t clean up at ours. Seems to work like a charm with our friends!

    2. Inez, you’re a model reader! When I first read this I tweaked my hand against my forehead and thought, “Brilliant.” The only thing is The One doesn’t let anyone in the kitchen. Performance anxiety. I, on the other had, can’t get enough people in there!

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