The season of food-centered parties and gift-giving starts with a bang with Thanksgiving dinner. The annual meal comes with high expectations, as relatives and friends anticipate a multi-course feast.
Mess up a margarita and burn a few hot dogs on the Fourth of July? No problem. But if you wreck Thanksgiving dinner because of an oversight or lack of planning, you'll never hear the end of it. To escape that fate, it's best to get organized and have a plan for every stage of the cooking process, from prep work to running last-minute errands. Here are some quick tips and advice on how to avoid common Thanksgiving Day meltdowns.
Step 1: Get a head count. Estimate the number of mouths to feed in advance. Anticipate a few no shows and expect a few stragglers. Doing so enables you to calculate how much food to purchase and to cook, thereby reducing the amount of food that might go to waste and a mountain of leftovers.
Step 2: Ask about food preferences when offering an invitation to newcomers. In many households it's not dinner without a turkey, but not everyone feels the same way (or eats meat). When feeding large groups of people, go for a buffet–style spread and clearly label each dish according to dietary preferences. Stack the plates and cups to one side and let the guests self-serve to avoid mishaps.
Step 3: Get the kitchen organized. Purge the fridge and pantry of unused food items to free up space for the onslaught of cooking. Check the top burners and the oven to make sure the stove is in working order. Ditto for kitchen gadgets. Have a Plan B in the event an appliance fails on T-Day.
Step 4: Get equipment in order. Dull knives cause accidents, so sharpen them. Locate roasting pans; find the turkey baster, soup ladles, gravy boat, serving spoons and sundry items. Purchase aluminum foil, twine and parchment paper, if needed. Then conduct an inventory of the knives, plates and utensils required to serve each guest.
Step 5: Practice. There's nothing like honing kitchen skills to quell the jitters. Prior to the Thanksgiving meal, prepare sides and appetizers at least once to get into a cooking groove. On T-Day, the ability to sequence dishes eliminates the element of surprise.
Step 6: Divide and conquer. One person feeding a crowd needs to make at least two trips to the market. Split the shopping list into perishable and nonperishable food times. Purchase canned goods and dry goods in advance, and then return for the fresh items as Thanksgiving draws near. Don't wander down the food aisles in a fog of distraction — use lists to keep food costs down and to save time.
Step 7: Don't be afraid to delegate and ask for help. A bartender/host and pastry guru are invaluable guests to have come T-Day. Enlist one or two kitchen slaves to execute the basic grunt work, such as chopping vegetables. Doing so provides the mental space required to think about the next task, thereby reducing fatigue over the course of the T-day cooking marathon.
Step 8: Itemize a list of what you're cooking and then create a timeline for each dish. Pasta, soups and sauces can be cooked in advance and refrigerated overnight. Pies can be frozen and thawed with no harm done.
Step 9: Go analogue. Dropping a digital device into a cooking pot is an expensive mistake. Instead, keep the recipe and ingredient list for each dish handy. Gather recipes in the order they need to be cooked. Then tape at eye level above the oven and away from the scrum of pots and pans. When in doubt, refer to the list. Thanksgiving is not the day to start improvising.
Step 10: Keep seasonings, herbs and spices close to the cutting board and in order to avoid confusion. Tossing commonly confused ingredients like sugar instead of salt into a cooking pot is a recipe for disaster.
Step 11: Even though cooking dinner is a race against time, it's not a race to the finish. If the bird is in the oven and the guests are expected to arrive at 4 p.m., count backward to when the slowest dish needs to go into the oven and then add a buffer of 10 minutes or so between each recipe. Use the gaps as grace periods between bouts of cooking.
Step 12: Relax and put your feet up. By the time the guests arrive, the food should be in the final stages of being ready and cooked, as it should be. The rest of the day's drama will unfold in due course.