I didn’t always love Thanksgiving, though. I actually kind of dreaded it.
Sometime in the early ’90s, my parents were fed up with rotating between families and locations. They told everyone that they were having Thanksgiving at home – anyone would come, but they didn’t want to go anywhere. Expecting a quiet Thanksgiving at home, we were all quite surprised when almost everyone both sides of the family joined them – probably around 30 people. My parents hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for the next 15 years.
My mother was many amazing things, but she was not a natural hostess. While she loved being around people and had a large community of friends, having people over for dinners and parties made her stressed and anxious, which in turn made the rest of us stressed and anxious. I think Thanksgiving freaked her out the most, resulting in a little fighting and a fair bit of tension, which made me ambivalent about the holiday as a kid. It seemed like so much work.
The year after my mother passed away, my father, sister and I decided to keep the tradition of hosting Thanksgiving. I was really nervous because almost two decades of watching my mother freak out about Thanksgiving had hardwired me to think the holiday was a herculean challenge.
So to calm my fears, I planned (some might say over-planned, but that’s relative).
I pulled together all my mom’s recipes, which were free-floating in a file in her filing cabinet. Sometimes I found more than one version for the same dish. For example, I found three recipes for sweet potatoes: one in my grandmother’s handwriting, one in my mother’s, and one typed (the one she finally started making in the mid ’90s that does not include marshmallows and corn syrup, and is still requested yearly by the entire family).
I scoured magazines and websites for planning advice. and committed the planning checklists from and to memory. In one spot on the counter, I had a pile of paper that I thumbed through constantly the days leading up to Thanksgiving: several different checklists (two from Real Simple – one online and one in the magazine – and one from Martha Stewart, plus a few others I had found in other magazines) plus all the recipes. It was a bit of a mess, especially once I started cooking. But I took notes of what I actually did, which involved cooking a little every day starting the weekend before.
Thanksgiving morning, I woke up nervous, unsure how the day would unfold. At noon, my dad, sister, and I stood staring at each other with nothing to do until the guests arrived… in another two hours. It was an eerie feeling, because usually we were scrambling until the last-minute and squabbling with each other. It ended up being an enjoyable, (relatively) stress-free day. And from then on its been one of my favorite holidays, because (most of) the stress is gone and it’s just about food and family. It’s still bittersweet because I wish my mom was there, but we think about her a lot when we jokingly reminisce how stressful all those Thanksgivings were. She’s definitely there in spirit.
In the five years since I took over Thanksgiving, I have finessed my system. Central to keeping things organized is my Thanksgiving binder, which houses my timeline, checklist, and recipes.
My Thanksgiving Binder
The binder has two sections: My prep worksheets and the recipes.
I took several different planning guides and checklists and merged them into one (see link to pdf, below). I also create a dish overview to have a more general idea of everything that needs to be cooked and when.
I use the MacGourmet software to house all my recipes. It has a cookbook builder, which I use to print all of my Thanksgiving recipes. You can choose to print the recipes by course (e.g. appetizer, dinner, dessert, etc.) or by order of preparation – whichever works best for you. A great feature of this program is that you can create shopping lists by dragging recipes into it. What’s useful about this is that it combines amounts of ingredients across recipes, easier than calculating amounts by hand. They have a free trial, so worth checking out if you have a Mac. I’m sure there’s comparable software for PC’s, let me know in comments if you have a good suggestion.
I put the recipes in sheet protectors – a lesson I learned after that first year, because it keeps them from getting completely soaked or covered in food.
I also keep post-its and a pen handy in the binder to write notes – what worked, what didn’t – so that I can improve next year. I try to update the binder the week after Thanksgiving – otherwise I suffer from T-day amnesia and don’t remember what I did.
I’ll be honest, Thanksgiving is still not without its stresses, squabbles, and snafus (I’m sure my sister and dad would agree). However, having this system has made me a firm believer that with good planning Thanksgiving can be really enjoyable. That’s why it turned from one of my least-favorite holidays to one of my most.
Here’s an overview of how I approach Thanksgiving. My philosophy is to get all the cooking done by Wednesday, so that Thursday all that needs to be done is the turkey and reheating everything else.
I created a slightly more generic version of the timeline and checklist I use for you. Download the pdf here. I might be giving away all of my secrets, but the word giving is in the holiday, so I feel like sharing it all with you!
Note: My aunt makes the most amazing mashed potato casserole from a (top-secret) family recipe that has been passed down through the women in our family. So my checklist only includes re-heating the casserole when it arrives, and doesn’t have a placeholder for making mashed potatoes – so budget your time accordingly if you’re not as lucky as I am!
November 1st: The official launch of T-Day preparations!
- Send an email formally inviting people and to start getting a head count.
- Start looking for recipes if you’re planning on trying something new.
3 weeks to T-Day: Get the menu down
- Write out the menu. I usually plan on the following, in addition to the turkey: two to four appetizers (one per four people), veggie main (something substantial with protein, like the stuffed squash pictured above), mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, one to two veggie sides (Brussel sprouts or green beans), salad, cheese plate, two to three desserts.
- Make dish assignments if you are asking people to bring things. I usually ask a couple of guests to bring appetizers and assign someone to bring the salad and maybe a veggie side (plus my aunt’s mashed potatoes). Just make sure that the people bringing appetizers aren’t of the tardy tendency – you don’t want them showing up just before dinner. I always make one appetizer myself so that I’m guaranteed to have some snacks ready when guests arrive.
- Send an email with dish assignments (include a menu if there are newbies so they know the deliciousness that awaits them). Confirm oven space and time needed for their dishes so that you can include it in your plan.
- If you’re ordering a fresh turkey, do it now. If buying a frozen turkey, budget four to five days to thaw.
2 weeks to T-Day: Make your game plan
- Make your cookbook and cooking plan. I start with an overview of all the dishes that need to be made, and then decide the order of what to make. Oven real estate is precious on Wednesday and Thursday. It’s smart to plan to cook dishes with similar bake temperatures at the same time to save yourself some time. Here’s my dish overview from last year. From this, I created a timeline of when each dish was going to be made on each day. Yes, I like to plan a lot.
- Make a master shopping list of all ingredients (see note about MacGourmet, above), paying attention to the amounts and combining across ingredients. Then divide it in two: one advance trip for non-perishables, one the day before for last-minute supplies and perishables.
Weekend before T-Day: Prep
- Start cooking things that need time to get stale (like cornbread for the stuffing) or have a longer shelf life (like pie dough). Pie dough can be refrigerated for several days (and frozen for weeks). Tip: if making crust at same place pies will be baked, roll out pie dough into pie plates and freeze. If you’re using frozen dough you made weeks ago (because you really like to plan ahead), start defrosting it in the fridge.
- It’s a good idea to review your cooking plan and revise if necessary.
Monday before T-Day: Stock up
- Head to the market and stock up on all the non-perishables (and anything you need for cooking on Tuesday). Check your supply of food storage containers for people to take home leftovers and buy more if necessary.
- If using a frozen turkey, start defrosting it in the coldest part of the refrigerator (full day per 4-5 pounds of fowl).
Two Days til T-Day: Stove cookin’
- This is the major prep day. I make cranberry sauce (the extra time lets the flavor develop) and assemble all the casseroles for baking the next day. I’ll also make all the chilled dishes, and peel and cut up vegetables for roasting and side dishes that will be made on Wednesday (or you can buy pre-cut veggies if you really want to make things easier). If I’m ambitious, I’ll make the fillings for the pies and keep in the fridge, but honestly I usually make the filling right before I bake the pies on Wednesday.
- If you’ll be making a salad, make the vinaigrette; wash and dry greens, wrap loosely in paper towels, place in plastic bag, and put in crisper.
T-Day Eve: Oven cookin’ and get the table ready
- Today’s the day that everything gets cooked to the point that it just needs to be reheated or finished on Thanksgiving. This generally involves baking all the casseroles (e.g. sweet potatoes, stuffed squash) and assembling dishes so that they can be popped in the oven when it’s their turn.
- Line baking sheets with parchment paper to minimize clean-up.
- If using a fresh turkey, pick it from the market. Also do your second shopping trip for perishables and buy flowers.
- Bake pies as late in the day as possible. Pies are best fresh, but I find it too hectic to try to bake them the morning of Thanksgiving, so evening of Thanksgiving Eve is when I make them.
- Pull out all the serving plates and use slips of paper to assign dishes. This reduces day-of stress trying to find an extra platter or bowl, and makes it easier to give directions to people who want to help (“put the stuffing in the bowl marked stuffing”).
- Iron the tablecloths and put directly on the tables so they don’t re-wrinkle. Set the table if you can and make any centerpieces and decorations you plan on having.
- 8:30 am: Remove the turkey from the refrigerator, and allow it to sit for 1 hour at room temperature. Remove casseroles and side dishes from the refrigerator; this will cut down on reheating time later.
- 10:15 am: Preheat the oven, and stuff the turkey
- 10:30 am: Put the turkey in the oven, basting it every hour
- 11 am: Chill the white wine and other beverages and put the finishing touches on the table.
- 1 pm: Set up the bar and beverage area and get things ready for coffee later. Set up the cheese plate so the cheese can come to room temperature (we’re of French heritage, so have a cheese course before dessert – because Thanksgiving needed more decadence).
- 2 pm: Guests arrive!
- 3 pm: Start checking on the turkey.
- Once it’s done, the turkey will need to rest for 30 minutes. During this time, finish the stuffing in the oven and make the gravy, and reheat all the sides, rotating them in and out of the oven to keep everything as hot as possible.
- Just before the meal: Carve the turkey. Set out food-storage containers and resealable plastic bags for leftovers, and take out the trash and replace the bags for fast cleanup after dinner.
- After dinner: Make coffee and whipped cream, and set out the desserts.
- Put your feet up - you did it!
I’m always on the look-out for fresh ideas to plan and cook for Thanksgiving, so let me know if you’ve got some gems to share!