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Rule Your Thanksgiving Kitchen

While working as a food stylist a few years back, I prepared a Thanksgiving dinner for photos that we planned to take in the afternoon. I started cooking at a reasonable time in the morning, with no substantial prep the day before. The turkey, its trimmings, side dishes and pie were on the table in five or six hours. At the end of the shoot, I shook my head. Why can’t it be that easy on the big day?

The answer: way too much fretting. For Thanksgiving, just as for a photo shoot, planning is everything. Lock that down early, and it’s easy to relax about the whole occasion.

  • Old school is never overrated. Don’t let intimidating trends get the best of you. Include a wild card or two in your menu, but veer towards nostalgia.
  • Write a killer grocery list. Organize it according to your store, so that you only snake through the crowd once. Include details (“4 pounds medium red potatoes” instead of “potatoes”), and shop a few days in advance.
  • Makes dishes ahead. Throw recipes together the day before, and then gently reheat them. Items like cranberry sauce and pie dough can be made up to a week ahead, so make tracks over the weekend.
  • Don’t sweat shortcuts. Use a store-bought pie crust, a jar of gravy or frozen vegetables if it means less fretting. Buy some, make some saves a lot of dinners; it’s okay to wave the white flag.
  • Accept help. Guests will bring something anyway, so be forthcoming about how they can help. When have you ever had a lousy meal at a potluck?
  • Wear good shoes from the minute you wake up. It’s the best advice I ever got from my grandmother, and it matters in the kitchen. Don’t switch to flats, boots or heels until you hear the doorbell ring.
  • Always make extra, but don’t go overboard. Send guests packing with turkey for a sandwich, but each doesn’t need a pie for midnight snacking.
  • Use timers and a thermometer. Guessing takes more time than you think.
  • Bend like a willow. Allow for change to the number of folks at the table, the availability of ingredients, and your running out of casserole dishes. Improvise and you’ll do fine.
  • Be ready one hour in advance. That includes the house being clean and the table set. It’s not just the turkey that needs time to rest.
  • Go simple with cocktails and wine. One choice for each is perfect.
  • Never, ever apologize. This Julia Child adage is bad for marriage, but good for cooking. If you don’t think the lumpy gravy is awful, neither will guests.
  • Claim the chair closest to the kitchen. Position yourself smartly at the dinner table and you’ll minimize the back-and-forth.
  • And then actually sit down. Let it all go because you, my friend, did a bang-up job.

How do you prepare for the big day? I’d love to know your tips and suggestions for cooking and enjoying Thanksgiving dinner. Share your ideas in the comments section below.

From carving with confidence to pouring with pride, our online Holiday Cheat Sheet means more of your best for less stress. Order holiday meals online too; we'll do the work, you'll take the credit.