Surviving Thanksgiving, a Don't Panic! list for new cooks

I've been living off and on in Switzerland since 1995, but I think this is the first year that I've actually not been in the U.S. for Thanksgiving. I usually made an effort to go there around that time, even if I didn't always spend it with my family. Of course there is no Thanksgiving celebration in Switzerland. We've already moved directly to Christmas season (which also encompasses St. Nicolas Day on December 6th). There are several Christmas markets on already in the area. Even though the weather's been so balmy and warm it feels like September, I'm slowly getting into the Christmas spirit.

When I did live in the U.S., I was in charge of making Thanksgiving dinner most years (sometimes with my sister Meg, who as I've mentioned before is a trained chef). If this is your first time being in charge of making the big feast, here are a couple of ideas on how to get through it without panicking.

  • You have written out your menu, yes? No? If not, do it TODAY (Monday). (Tip: if your family is not totally Traditional American, including one or more items from your cultural/ethnic heritage is a good idea. For instance, we always had sashimi as the appetizer course being Japanese and all that.)
  • You have done all your shopping? No? Do it TODAY (Monday), except for the turkey if you're getting a fresh one (which you have, hopefully, pre-ordered already ready for pickup on Wednesday).
  • Clear as much shelf space in your fridge as possible to make room for all the things you will be stashing in there.
  • Don't be too ambitious. You don't have to make everything from scratch, especially if you're not used to it. Buying good pies or other desserts, bread, and bagged stuffing mix, is not going to send you to Culinary Hell. You also don't need ten different side dishes. You'll just have more leftovers. And you know, some people actually prefer that jellied can o' cranberry sauce.
  • Write out your time plan for Wednesday night / Thursday morning. A Gantt chart is really useful. The turkey itself is going to take more time to defrost (if you're using a frozen bird) and cook than you ever thought possible. So map his timeline out first, at the top. Then, figure out how you are going to fit the other tasks in below that.
  • Try to do as much as possible in advance. You do not have to make everything on Thursday morning. If you're making pies, bake them today/tomorrow and stash them in the fridge or freezer, and warm up a bit before serving. Cut up vegetables on Tuesday if you can and stash them in ziplock bags. You'll be using mass quantities of chopped up onion/garlic/celery/carrot etc. for stuffings, dressings, gravy and what have you, so if you can chop that all up, sauté it and store it in the fridge ready to go you'll save yourself a lot of last-minute trouble. You can peel potatoes, season them and coat them well in melted butter in a ziplock bag the night before too, ready to roast.
  • Use your assistants. Make them go and pick up the turkey, missing ingredients, etc. with clear lists/instructions. Don't try to do everything on your own if you can help it.
  • If you've never stuffed a turkey before, consider making the stuffing separately (which would be called 'dressing' in some parts of the country). It tastes just as good if not better than stuffing.
  • If you don't have a food processor, try to borrow one if at all possible.
  • Remember to get plenty of rest on Wednesday, because you'll need the energy. And while you're working, drink lots of water.

Good luck! It's going to be a pretty tough task anyway, and I can't say I miss doing it. I'll be spending Thanksgiving (plus a couple more weeks) this year on vacation...

P.S. And, whatever you do, don't make Turducken. :)

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We're hosting our third Thanksgiving and I finally have seen the light and declared it a potluck--guests want to help and they want to bring stuff, so why should I knock myself out only to achieve the dubious distinction of being a notorious culinary showoff?

One more suggestion for your checklist: take your vitamins and consider immunity-enhancing supplements like garlic and echinachea. The only thing more miserable than being a holiday kitchen slave is being a holiday kitchen slave in the throes of a very bad cold!

Ellen that is a very good point indeed. I'd also add, try to eat regularly (esp. fruits and vegetables and good carbs) to keep your energy level up throughout the ordeal. Potluck sounds like a great idea!

Wow, great tips! My BF and I are going to host our first Thanksgiving dinner this year and I'm rather nervous. The gantt chart idea is great! thanks Maki1!

I stumbled across this site because I wanted to know what "turducken" was, and your site came up.

I live in the Philippines, and hence we have no concept of Thanksgiving, but I like your plan for tackling a huge dinner party with lots of food. It can get like this during Christmas Eve. My grandmother knows how to cook for a family consisting one husband, five children, those children's spouses, and fourteen grandchildren, but it can get really crazy. I'll try to help her make a gameplan for when the time comes. Can't start too early, after all.

Oh, and as for turducken... I think it's one of the most wonderfully morbid things on the planet. I'm a carnivore, and while the idea of a three-in-one stuffed bird sounds appealing to the ravening beast in me, I also think, at the same time, that it's completely appalling. Just thinking about how big it probably is makes me a little queasy thanks to my tiny Asian appetite.

Those are good pointers, Maki. Especially that Gantt chart. :) I use it at work but never thought of applying it to cooking! Probably bec. I usually underestimate the amount of time and effort to put in a big food production then spend the later part of it in blind panic. Hahaha!