If you already feel like a turkey running around with its head cut off, slow down. As someone who's cooked more than a dozen Thanksgiving dinners, and worked various jobs involving food (in catering, at a deli, at restaurants), I can guide you through the preparations with a handy checklist. I'll share what's worked for me, and what hasn't. Turkey is one of the easiest foods to cook, and as long as you have enough of it, and enough pie, your guests will be content.
The menu on Thanksgiving stays the same, but the guest list may be in flux from year to year. When your extended family includes college-aged kids, you never know who's going to be there for dinner and if they're bringing their girlfriends or boyfriends.
* Firm up the guest list before you do anything else. Once you have your "final" number, accommodate for an extra two guests just in case extra people show up. If your number stays the same, you have more leftovers to send home with guests, or you can make a couple of plates of food for any elderly friends or neighbors.
Order the turkey
Order a fresh or frozen turkey from the local farm, butcher, or super market. Personally, I always choose the fresh turkey. With a fresh turkey, you don't have to worry about how to thaw out a 20-pound poultry ice cube. Leftover fresh turkey can be given away or frozen for future meals.
* Plan on 1 to 1.5 pounds per person.
* Schedule time on the day before Thanksgiving to pick up the fresh turkey.
Three weeks and beyond
Make your grocery list for side dishes, desserts, paper goods, beverages, and more. Some items you may need that you don't normally have on hand include:
* A large aluminum roasting pan you toss away at the end of the day.
* Inexpensive foil or plastic containers you can give to guests with leftovers.
* Spray-can whipped cream or heavy cream to make your own (definitely worth it)
* Paper plates, dessert size
* Thanksgiving tableware: tablecloth, napkins
* Table and chairs for the kids
* Enough seating for all guests - You may need to borrow furniture from another room, rearrange things, or borrow bar stools or folding chairs.
Plan the menu
The joy of Thanksgiving is the simplicity of the menu. Your guests know what to expect on Thanksgiving, so you don't have to spend too much time trying to figure out a main dish that will please everyone. Make a list of all foods you want to serve. If your family likes to help out by bringing food, assign one dish or item per person and mark it on the checklist.
* Olive, pickle, cheese and cracker plate
* Fresh fruit plate
* Fresh salad or veggie plate
* Non-alcoholic beverages
* Wine or sparkling cider
* Meat stuffing
* Bread stuffing
* Gravy packets and canned gravy are always good to have on hand as back-ups for homemade gravy
* Mashed potatoes, mashed cauliflower, or sweet potato pie
* Green bean casserole or fresh green beans
* A vegetarian or vegan dish with lentils, quinoa, or spinach
* Pureed carrots and turnips
* Homemade bread or easy-serve dinner rolls
* Apple, pumpkin, chocolate cream, or pecan pie
One week ahead
Gather some craft items and ask the kids to make a centerpiece for the table. Kids also love to make place settings with the names of guests. Use craft items or natural objects. If the kids want to make place cards with food items (apples, Pilgrim ice cream cones), have them wait until the day before or the morning of Thanksgiving.
Prepare the fancy silverware or dishes. Locate them, wash and dry them, and set them aside, so you won't be scrambling on Thanksgiving Day.
Six to one days ahead
The safest way to thaw a frozen turkey is in the refrigerator. You will need 24 hours for every four to five pounds of turkey according to the U.S.D.A. For example, a 20 to 24 pound turkey takes 5 to 6 days to thaw in the refrigerator.
Three to one days ahead
* Bake the desserts
* Give the kitchen, bathroom, and living room a thorough cleaning
* Go to the store for last-minute items. If extra guests have been added to the list since you ordered your turkey, purchase turkey drumsticks or whole breasts.
* Pre-cook any vegetables for casseroles or side dishes.
* Before you go to bed on Thanksgiving eve, you need to do some math. Start with the time you would like to serve dinner, allowing 10 minutes to carve the turkey. Work backwards to find out what time the turkey needs to go in the oven.
- Use this U.S.D.A. guide for turkey cooking times.
- Save time by not stuffing the turkey. Cook the stuffing in a separate casserole pan or on the stove top.
- Do not try to take a shortcut by cooking the turkey one day ahead of time and then reheating it for Thanksgiving. I never did this, but I was at a family member's home for one such Thanksgiving. The turkey was dried out and lacked any flavor.
* Enlist your family's help in setting the table and arranging the seating.
* Set up the stove top with any pots and pans you'll need to cook the side dishes.
* Pull serving dishes and utensils out from cabinets and drawers. Label them with sticky notes to help keep family helpers on track.
Guests may retire to the living room to watch football, or take a walk outside to burn off some calories. Have the kids help clear the table and help you clean up the dinner dishes.
* Store leftovers in take-home containers for guests. Refrigerate.
* Start the coffee pot, so coffee will be ready to serve with dessert.
* Set out the desserts and paper plates.
United States Department of Agriculture: Let's Talk Turkey