Thanksgiving has always been really special to me.
I have a tendency to let myself get really overwhelmed by the very idea of Christmas. To me all the planning and running around in the name of gift giving has always felt like a duty to spend money and buy buy buy. I know that’s not what it’s supposed to be about, but that hasn’t stopped me from having mixed feelings about the holiday anyway. Thanksgiving however, is all about food and friends and family, the best parts of Christmas without all the conspicuous consumption.
That’s not to say that Thanksgiving is a day without stress though. I certainly understand that it’s the biggest food holiday of the year (duh, that’s why I love it) and sometimes it can be a daunting process to try prepare a meal of that magnitude. There’s a few things you can do to make things less stressful, like avoiding recipes you haven’t made before, and making (or at least prepping) as much of the menu ahead as possible.
My favorite way to ease the workload is to share some of the duties with friends or family. Every Thanksgiving I’ve hosted since living on my own has been potluck style. Spreading some of the work out to the other dinner guests means that your meal will have all the variety you’d like without having to spend a week planning and shopping and prepping and cooking. It also means that your guests get to take part of the credit for the fabulous spread on the table.
Even a potluck Thanksgiving requires some advanced planning though, so if you’re hosting your first Thanksgiving meal, or just hoping to work on your Thanksgiving game plan, I thought it might be helpful to share what I do to stay organized.
First, there’s the turkey.
In my opinion, if you’re hosting Thanksgiving dinner, the turkey and gravy will probably have to be your responsibility. Asking someone to bring a pie or a plate of biscuits is one thing, but a fully cooked 20 pound turkey is quite another. If you’re uncomfortable making a turkey, ask someone who isn’t to come over early and help. Grab an extra bottle of wine and get the festivities started early. Who’s gonna stop you?
While we’re on the subject, there’s a lot you can do with your bird, and I’ve tried several methods. You can brine it, give it a spice rub, coat it in butter, blanket it in bacon, or even deep fry the beast. I used to brine my turkeys but soon realized that it’s a lot of work for a little pay off. The whole point is to ensure moist breast meat, but I’ve found an easier way. Last year I rubbed the whole bird in citrus herb butter and roasted it (and heres the important part) BREAST SIDE DOWN! If you roast your bird breast side down for the first several hours, all the juices and fat and flavor from the dark meats runs down through the breast instead of the other way around. About an hour or two before its done you flip it breast side up for even browning, and you’ll have a beautiful, moist, and truly tasty turkey.
When it comes to choosing the size of your turkey, I generally try to give myself at least 1 1/2 pounds per person. Smaller birds, say twelve pounds or less, have a higher bone to meat ratio so you may need to go with something more like 2 pounds per person. Of course, if you get more than you need you’ll be more likely to have leftovers for sandwiches and soup the next day.
With your turkey plans out of the way, it’s time to figure out who’s going to make what.
Rather than dictate, I think it’s best to let people choose what they’d like to make. Some people have real attachments to certain dishes or have specialties they love to make, and letting them decide makes it more fun for everyone involved. If you want, go ahead and reach out to the best cooks first so they get first dibs on whatever they like. Feel free to encourage people to make a few dishes if they feel up to it. Just make sure you ask if anyone will need to use your kitchen to finish or reheat their food!
This requires a bit of organization and communication, but it’s important that you let everyone know what dishes are already chosen so you don’t end up with four green bean casseroles and fifteen pies. Rather than choosing what specific dishes you want people to make, I think it’s better to give general suggestions. Instead of saying, “we need candied yams”, say “we need a vegetable dish”, or even “we need a yam dish”. If you want to, you can try to steer people in a certain direction, but it’s best not to dictate to them if you want them to enjoy the process.
This can be a bit tricky, but I also think it’s important to try to encourage your guests to consider other guests’ dietary restrictions. That doesn’t mean that no one gets to eat meat just because one guest is a vegetarian, but if a dish is easy to make meat-free then it shouldn’t be too much to ask to avoid bacon and chicken stock. If someone says they want to make sausage dressing, then fine, your vegetarian guests don’t eat that. If they say they want to make mushroom dressing though, urge them to try it with vegetable stock instead of chicken or turkey.
When it comes to choosing what dishes you need for the full experience, I think it’s best to break it down into categories.
In addition to turkey and gravy, you’ll probably want:
- Dressing (or stuffing, if that’s what you’re in to)
- Cranberry sauce (canned is fine, but homemade is better and actually pretty easy)
- Some starchy sides like mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, or corn pudding
- A few vegetable dishes. This category has the greatest room for creativity and diversity, and could even be broken down into subcategories by color. A few popular dishes on thanksgiving are green bean casserole, brussels sprouts, braised greens, glazed carrots, roasted winter squash, roasted root vegetables, or maybe even a nice salad with fall flavors like pears and candied pecans.
- Some type of bread like biscuits, rolls, or cornbread
- Don’t forget that you’ll need something to drink. You’ll want juice or milk for the kiddies, but when it comes to the grown up juice you can go traditional with wine and beer, or get creative with punches or cocktails. I think a spiked hot apple cider or a punch with ginger beer, cranberry juice and bourbon would be great!
- Of course, you can’t forget dessert! I always have apple pie and either sweet potato or pumpkin pie. You could also do pecan pie, pecan praline bundt cake, harvest bundt cake, apple kuchen bars, or even pumpkin cheesecake!
The only thing left to consider is the supplies you’ll need to cook and serve all this food! Make sure you have enough plates, silverware, glassware, & napkins. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to use (sturdy) disposables to save on dishes. You’ll also need serving platters & bowls, serving spoons and ladles. Get your carving & chef knives sharpened ahead of time and make sure you have a roasting pan large enough for your turkey.
Of course, this is just how I like to do things, but I really do hope these tips are helpful!
Have a Happy Thanksgiving y’all!