The aromas of roasting turkey and fresh-baked pie, the sounds of laughter and chatter and football: It’s the quintessential family celebration, and nostalgia rules the day. Now that you’ve taken on holiday hosting duties, it’s time to make a plan. Most everyone expects their familiar favorites on the table, but you want the Thanksgiving meal to have your personal spin, too. This handy guide will help you walk that line, get everything ready on time, and still have a chance to sit back with a glass of wine and enjoy the spoils of your labor.
Finalize your menu a couple of weeks ahead, then make a schedule using our handy guide. Want to stay cool as head cook? Make “get it done early” your mantra.
A week or more ahead, you can:
- Bake cupcakes and freeze them, unfrosted and tightly covered.
- Make pie dough, flatten it into disks and wrap them well, then freeze.
Three days ahead, you can:
- Start thawing your turkey, if it’s frozen. See our Poultry Thawing Chart as a guide.
- Make spiced nuts and store them in an airtight container.
- Make cranberry sauce and refrigerate.
The day before, you can:
- Peel, prep and chop all veggies, except potatoes; store veggies in resealable bags in the refrigerator.
- Thaw pie crust and bake pies. Refrigerate pumpkin and pecan pies; cover the apple pie and store it at room temperature.
- Remove cupcakes from the freezer to thaw; frost them and store them in the refrigerator.
- Bake cheese straw twists and store them in an airtight container.
The morning of, you can:
- Prep your turkey and stuffing and get them in the oven.
- Get the spiced cider started in the slow cooker.
- Make dough and form cloverleaf rolls; let them rise (bake later, as the turkey rests).
About an hour before, you can:
- Finish preparing and bake the sweet potato casserole.
- Finish preparing and bake the green beans with leeks.
- Reheat the mashed potatoes you prepared the day before.
Just before serving, you can:
- Finish preparing the confetti succotash.
- Make gravy.
- Mix up the kids’ punch.
- Carve the turkey.
Harvest Table Tips
Quick Place Cards:
- Cut a slit across the top (in front of the stems) of miniature pumpkins. Write the name of each guest on a small card and place it in the slit of each pumpkin (the stem will help hold it up). Or, instead of cutting slits in the pumpkins, secure each card to the pumpkin with a T-shaped pin. Place each place card on a pressed leaf near each place setting.
- Another idea is to add a few seasonal greens and blooms to miniature vases and set one at each place setting.
- Even quicker: Have the kids make the place cards! (See At the Kids’ Table.)
- Gather an abundance of small and miniature pumpkins and gourds (from garden centers, grocery stores or roadside farm stands) and arrange them with unshelled nuts and whole fruits such as apples and kumquats. Display them along the length of the table. Add colorful fall leaves and votive candles in glass holders to complete the look.
It Takes a Village
Too much work, too little time? There’s no reason Thanksgiving has to be a one-woman show. Lots of great hosts spread the holiday workload around—and do it with panache. Some guidelines:
1) When inviting guests, let them know that you’ll prepare the core of the meal—the turkey, stuffing, trimmings, plus any signature dishes you’re famous for—then ask each guest to take on a side, dessert, bread or appetizer.
2) Be flexible. If you adore cornbread stuffing but your mother-in-law doesn’t think the day is complete without her cracker-and-oyster combo, do both! You make yours, and have her bring her dish to share. No such thing as too many choices on the Thanksgiving table.
3) Plan oven time accordingly. Find out in advance who will need to heat their dish when they arrive, so you don’t end up with a traffic jam in the kitchen.
4) Have plenty of serving dishes and utensils at the ready to avoid last-second scrambles.
At the Kids’ Table
Who doesn’t remember the year they graduated from the kids’ table to the grown-up one? It was a thrill. (And yet wasn’t it surprisingly a little bit boring once you got there?) Here are some ways to help the little ones enjoy the fun while it lasts:
- Get kids in on the pre-dinner action by having them make place cards for themselves and grown-ups alike: Send them outside during the flurry of cooking to gather plump pinecones. Back indoors, they can cut colorful “feathers” from construction paper (using kid-safe scissors), write each guest’s name on a prominent feather, then glue them to the cones to create mini turkeys. Or have them trace their hands on colored paper and cut out the tracings, then decorate them like turkeys—the thumb forms the head, the other fingers the feathers—and write a name in the center of each.
- Use a disposable or easily washable tablecloth or set of placemats so you won’t stress about mess. You can even cover the table with plain brown kraft paper and set out cups of crayons so your youngest guests can doodle between bites.
- Write bits of silly Thanksgiving trivia or knock-knock jokes on kids’ napkins so they can entertain each other as they await dessert.
- After dinner, set out bowls of candy corn and sprinkles and let kids create their own turkey cupcake masterpieces!
Waste Not, Want Not
Every family has its Thanksgiving-leftovers fanatics. You know the ones—they prowl the kitchen at midnight, eating stuffing straight from the fridge. But even for them, turkey and sides can eventually get tiresome. Salvage what’s left with a few inventive post-turkey-day dishes:
Next-Day Turkey Soup
Cranberry Sauce Muffins