Thanksgiving is a meal that can strike fear in the heart of even the most organized homemaker. These 15 ideas should help you plan not only for Thanksgiving, but for any holiday meal you may be hosting.
Watch Now: Mistakes That Can Ruin Your Thanksgiving
Create a Game Plan
Get out a legal pad*, your calendar, and a sharpie pen (and maybe a stiff drink) and brainstorm Thanksgiving. Taking 20-30 minutes now will save you a lot of stress later. Trust me.
*Of course, you could do this online in Google Docs or Microsoft Word, but most people find it easier to handwrite a game plan like this.
Eliminate Dishes You Do Not Need to Make
Eliminating dishes is always the first step in meal planning. Who is going to bring what? Will your mother-in-law be bringing the stuffing? I like to use the "whoever said it, makes it" rule. If a guest says they love sweet potato pie, that's the dish they'll bring.
Another option is to delegate an entire course to a guest, like: appetizers, drinks, dessert or first course.
Decide Which Dishes You Need to Make Yourself
Now that you know what's leftover, you can begin planning your own shopping, prep and cooking. Once you've decided on what you need to make, print out the recipes and clip them together on a clipboard or in a folder for easy retrieval.
Resolve to Stick to the Basics
If you're hosting Thanksgiving, you know full well the dishes that people expect to see: turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce and pie. Make sure you cover these basics and then, if you like to be a little more creative, you can concentrate on spicing up the sides. Here are a few ideas:
The other great thing about grilling your vegetables? That's done outside, so you can delegate it to someone else who won't be crowding up the kitchen stove.
Make a Grocery List
Once you have your recipes set, use them to create a grocery list. It's easiest to organize your shopping list the way the store is laid out: produce, meat, dairy, canned goods, grains, sweets and snacks. The best option here to keep a list that can become a running-flexible list as you have those light bulb moments "oh, I forgot the cranberries!" Keep in mind this may be more than one trip, as you will most likely have to make runs to the liquor store, and possibly to a farm if you have ordered a turkey.
Get Your Appliances and Serving Dishes Ready
What appliances do you need on hand? Are they in storage? Do they need to be washed? Where will they "live" until the big day? I often write about project bins and I think Thanksgiving prep is a great use for them.
Decide What You Can Do Ahead of Time
What prep work can you do ahead of time? Chopping vegetables, baking pies, etc. The turkey needs to go into the oven that morning, but most desserts can be done ahead of time. Similarly, vegetables should be cooked the day of, but you can chop and wash them a few days ahead and store them in your fridge.
Schedule Your Shopping and Prep Work
When will you do that prep work? How far ahead can you begin preparations? Make sure to block ample time off on your calendar, like the Sunday afternoon and Tuesday night ahead of the the big day. Try to leave Wednesday open for anything you might have forgotten, and then get to work that evening.
Do You Have Enough Stuff?
Inventory place settings, linens, room around the table, and chairs. Do you have enough for the amount of guests you're expecting?
Are you going to set up a separate area for soda, water and wine? I think it makes sense to let your guests help themselves. Think about placing bottles on a tray with an ice bucket. If you're having a large crowd, fill some coolers with ice and let people grab bottles outdoors. Maybe then they will leave you alone in the kitchen for a few minutes!
Minimum decor: table cloth with extra credit for flowers in a ball jar. My mom decorates the table with edible fare like fruit, nuts, small pumpkins and gourds in a glass bowl. It looks great, and is edible.
Decide on a Thanksgiving Day Timeline
Include, at a minimum, the following elements: breakfast, appetizers, sit-down dinner, and dessert. I like the following timeline:
- 9:00a.m. Breakfast. If you have overnight guests, make an egg-based one-dish meal ahead of time. See Omlets, Frittatas, Quiches and Stratas for some wonderful recipe ideas.
- 1:00p.m. Appetizers and drinks. Starting the day at 1p.m. means you won't have to prepare lunch for anyone because they can help themselves to some appetizers. If you're worried this isn't enough, I have yet to meet a person who doesn't enjoy a good appetizer. People will be thrilled to call spinach-artichoke dip their lunch in lieu of their usual sandwich. If you have a crudite plate out, all the better.
- 2:30p.m. Dinner. The main event begins.
- 5:00p.m. Dessert and coffee. This will give guests some breathing room between the main meal and the dessert course. This also guarantees you won't need to make an additional meal for dinner. Anyone who gets hungry later on can make his or her own sandwich.
Of course, you don't have to stick to this, but I find it helps to have a general idea of what will happen when, pre-planned and possibly even written down.
Label Serving Dishes.
This is one of my favorite time savers. Match up each recipe to a serving dish and label it with a post-it note. This way if someone asks how they can help (and unless your guests are a bunch of jerks, they *will* ask) the labels will make it easier to delegate some tasks.
Keep Recipes Within Easy Reach
While cooking, I like to print out the recipes and then tape them to a cabinet. This way they're always in the same spot and I know where to look when I need an assist. If you're working from older, more delicate hard copy recipes, put them in a clear plastic sleeve and tape that to a cabinet. My mom likes to use her iPad to work from while cooking. Whatever works for you, do it. Don't over think it.
Plan for Leftovers
Rather than hand out your precious Tupperware, invest in some one-use foil containers for guests to take home leftovers. This way you don't have to worry about getting your Tupperware back.
Also, have a plan to put that turkey into another dish the next day. You don't want to waste it. My mom makes up a large pot of turkey soup, the rest goes into sandwiches; stuffing is scooped into muffins tins and baked with an egg for breakfast the next day. The day after Thanksgiving just may be my most favorite eating day of the year.