Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday to host. I mean let’s face it, I love hosting any event, but Thanksgiving in particular brings me all the warm and fuzzies. As with many of my childhood memories, my love for all things turkey and family goes back to my Grandparents. From the time I was born until I was 33 (with the exception of 1 year), I spent every Thanksgiving (and Christmas Eve) at my Grandparents house. It wasn’t until Nick and I moved in together and we sold my Grandparents house that I began hosting Thanksgiving in my home.
On Thanksgiving morning, I would wake up at my Dad’s house and we would watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. We would leave his house at around 11:15am, and walk into my Grandparents just before Santa Claus came down the parade route into Herald’s Square. The house was warm with the smell of the turkey in the oven. The dinner table was always set and waiting for all of the delicious food that would soon be atop it. Walking into the kitchen, there were appetizers and wine on the table. There was a calm in the house and everything was tidy. You’d never know that my Grandparents had just spent 3 days preparing a meal for 10-12 people. It was incredible and I loved it.
Many, many years later, when I was in my late 20’s, I started to help my Grandparents prepare/cook for Thanksgiving and finally learned the secret to their success. It’s all about the prep. My Grandmother would start on Monday by making the pie crusts for the Pumpkin and Apple pies and the cranberry sauce. On Tuesday she would make the pies. Wednesday was the busiest day – washing vegetables, preparing all of the other side dishes, cleaning out the turkey. Once Thursday came, all of the hard work was done and it was a matter of getting things into the oven at the right moment so that they would all get on the table at the same time. My Grandmother had been preparing a Thanksgiving dinner since she and my Grandfather were first married, and she had always run the show like this. Even when my Grandmother was still working, she would prep like this when she got home from her day job. And this was how they ran any holiday or family event. Anytime we were going to my Grandparents house, when we walked in that door, my Grandparents greeted us and were ready to host. It was how I learned how to host, and why I start the prep for Thanksgiving, or any family event, days before company is set to arrive. Once my company shows up, I want as much prepared as possible so that I too can enjoy the time together. La famiglia; that’s what it’s all about.
So, I’m sharing my tips/tricks to host a successful Thanksgiving dinner, but they are transferable ideas that you can use when hosting any holiday or family gathering. The steps are simple:
1 Create a menu
2 Create a shopping list
3 Prepare what you can in advance
4 Prepare your home
5 Sit back and enjoy your company
Without further ado, my Thanksgiving prep:
1 week before Thanksgiving:
Create your menu. I mostly make the same dishes every year, but typically like to add a new item or slightly alter one of my staple dishes. It all depends on who’s coming (i.e. are there any picky eaters?), and how many people I’m having. Then there are the dishes that are staples and I will likely always serve them just the way that my Grandmother did. In fact there was only one of those dishes on my table this Thanksgiving – my Gram’s Sweet Potato Bake. It’s fresh yams, with oats/brown sugar/butter/cranberries folded in, and then mini marshmallows melted on top. I had an Aunt who used to scrape all of the marshmallows off. She is no longer invited to Thanksgiving dinner.
Create your shopping list. I tend to write and re-write my list a few times so that all of the produce is together, all of the dairy is together, etc. If you’re not a Type A personality, then simply create your list however it works best for you.
Buy your Tupperware. Everybody likes leftovers! Make sure you have Tupperware that you can fill with leftovers for people to take home.
Take your turkey out of the freezer. Depending on the size of your bird(s), you may need to take it out of the freezer and put it into the refrigerator as early as Saturday. It typically takes around 24 hours for each 4-5lbs of frozen turkey you are thawing in the fridge.
Go food shopping. I can’t stress this point enough – go food shopping as early in the morning as you can. I tend to be there when they are opening the doors. Get in and get out. That’s how you survive the holiday supermarket crazies.
Make your cranberry sauce. I’ll never understand why people buy canned or jarred cranberry sauce when it’s so easy to make on your own. Take a bag of fresh cranberries (they’ll be all over the produce section of your supermarket the week of Thanksgiving), a cup of sugar, some orange zest, and a tablespoon or 2 of water and cook over low-medium heat until the cranberries burst. That’s it. No need to get fancy here because nobody eats it anyway! Also, leftovers are great on some Brie and phyllo dough. Or wrapped in a crescent roll. I digress.
Make your pie crusts. Another thing that’s so easy to make, but people buy them. It’s flour, shortening and ice cold water. That’s it! Once they’re made, wrap the dough in plastic wrap an leave in the fridge overnight.
Make your pies. Pumpkin, apple, whatever. Make it, bake it, let it cool and put it in the fridge until Thursday.
Wash and prep your vegetables. You can prep all of your vegetables (except potatoes) and put them in a ziplock with a few damp papertowels and they’ll be fine by the time you’re ready to make them on Thursday.
Dry out your bread for stuffing. Tear/cut your bread into cubes and put it in a 300 degree oven for 35-45 minutes until it’s completely dried out. Store it in a ziplock bag until Wednesday.
Clean your turkeys. Take the turkeys out of the fridge and get them cleaned up and pre-seasoned. Stuff them with paper towels, cover them with plastic wrap and put ‘em into the fridge until tomorrow.
Make your stuffing. No explanation needed here. You’ll be happy you already pre-washed and pre-chopped all of that celery and onion though.
Make any other sides. For 2017, I made my sweet potato bake, green been casserole (no cream of mushroom soup here!) and goat cheese mashed potatoes the day before Thanksgiving. Take a look at your recipes – you’ll be surprised how much you can do the day before. If you’re making brussel sprouts with bacon, cut up the bacon today. If you’re using breadcrumbs in/on top of any dishes, make those. If you’re making a signature cocktail, make that. There’s a lot you can do in advance and come Thursday morning, you’ll be happy you did.
Set your table. No explanation needed, but don’t forget the wine glasses and water glasses.
Gather your serving dishes, bowls, utensils. Most of what you’ve already prepared will likely be in the dish that you’re going to serve it in on Thanksgiving. That being said, you’ll need something for your turkey to go on, dishes or bowls for the vegetable sides you’re making, or for the appetizers you might be serving. And ofcourse, you need something to serve all of this food with! So grab the serving forks, spoons, etc that you’ll need for the day as well and put them on the table.
Review your recipes, create a schedule for the oven. Take a few quick minutes to do a once over on your recipes for the sides you need to make on Thanksgiving. Also, take a few more moments to make a quick note (mental or on paper) about what has to go in the oven at what time so that all of the food gets on the table at the same time. I am supremely lucky in that I have two ovens, and this year Nick smoked one turkey and fried one, so I had both ovens to utilize all day. If you only have one oven and have to roast your turkey, then you are definitely going to want to take the time to go through this step.
Put coffee into the coffee pot. No really, do it. When you’re in the middle of cleaning up the epic amount of dishes from dinner, you’ll be glad you did.
Put all of your dessert dishes, coffee cups into a convenient place. Again, so that you don’t have to go running around for this stuff after dinner.
Set up your bar. If you’re family is a bunch of boozehounds like mine, get your bar set up with mixers, bar ware, cups/glasses, etc. Pull the wine that you plan on drinking throughout the day, or for dinner, and put it out on the table.
And here we are on Thursday. All of the hard work is over! Take the morning to enjoy the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade with a cup of coffee and relax a bit. About 30 minutes before your guests arrive, start the music, light your candles (if using), open the wine, and put your appetizers out, if serving, 15 minutes or so before you expect guests. Things will get a little crazy as you start putting things into the oven and pulling them out, but at this point you’ll have people around to help you. While you’re pre-made side dishes are in the oven, cook your vegetables and make your gravy. Another moment when you’ll be glad you prepped them in advance!
More than anything else, enjoy the day with your family! That’s why you did all of the work ahead of time, so sit back, have a glass of wine and enjoy. Cheers.