Serving a big Thanksgiving meal is like feeding a small army. If this is your first time trying this, have no fear. Plenty of others have gone before you. By planning well, doing some clever advance-preparation work, and getting all the supplies and materials needed, you will look like an expert. This guide will help you impress friends and family members alike.
First of all, you do not have to do this all alone. It is better and less stressful if there are plenty of prepared dishes brought over by guests. You want them to bring things that do not require any cooking, only re-heating or serving.
Do not allow a mob to form in the kitchen on cooking day. No matter how big a kitchen is, it is nicer to be able to move about freely with the help of only one trusted assistant than to have to trip over others getting in the way when trying to cook.
Here are the steps that will make cooking a Thanksgiving feast a wonderful experience:
- Plan the meal
- Make a shopping list
- Take inventory of items needed for preparation, cooking, and serving
- Go shopping
- Prepare things ahead of time
- Decorate the table one day in advance
- Do things in order, yet multi-task
- Serve according to a timeline
- Make everyone else clean up
- Give leftovers to departing guests in disposable containers
1. Meal Planning
There have to be the basics or it is not really a Thanksgiving dinner. The basics include turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, tasty side dishes, and pie (pumpkin and apple preferred). While reading this, stop planning for a moment and make a snack because just thinking about this delicious meal makes almost everyone a bit hungry.
Make a list of the items that make up the full meal. Ask your guests in advance if they have any special dietary needs. Add anything needed to accommodate those needs or ask them to bring it. Decide who will bring what, what can be purchased pre-made, and those items that need to be cooked. For example, if you are not that good at baking pies, there is nothing wrong with buying nice ones from the bakery and serving them for dessert.
2. Make a Shopping List
Estimate the amounts needed for the number of expected guests. Err on the side of getting too much. It is almost expected that there will be leftovers. To make it easier to buy things in the store, organize the items on the shopping list according to how a grocery store is laid out. This will help avoid having to go back and forth all over the store.
3. Take Inventory
Take everything out that is needed to make and serve the meal. Put everything on the countertops to determine if anything is needed but not available. Take things out of storage and clean or polish things as necessary. Mark the cooking pots and serving utensils and dishes with post-it notes to identify how they will be used. Add things to the shopping list if they are needed. Make sure there are enough plates, glassware, napkins, and silverware.
4. Go Shopping
You will want to go shopping twice. Buy supplies and things that do not spoil in advance, such as drinks, packaged goods, frozen items, and canned goods. Buy perishable items the day before. Go to the store early on that day to avoid the last-minute crowds and because you will use the day before to get many of the things ready in advance.
5. Prepare Things Ahead of Time
Many things that are cooked on Thanksgiving Day can be prepped a day ahead. For example, vegetables can be washed, chopped, and then stored in the refrigerator for later use. Some side dishes can be prepared in advance and then only heated to get them ready for serving.
6. Decorate the Table in Advance
The day before Thanksgiving, the table can be set and decorated with colorful things that are fun to eat such as nuts still in shells that are placed in a nice-looking bowl along with a colorful nutcracker. Decorate the table with a mixture of fresh fruits like apples, pears, and oranges. Live blooming flowers in attractive pots are easier to deal with than using fresh flowers.
A couple of thick, scented candles on tall candelabras make a nice centerpiece. They can be lit right before the meal is served to create a nice aroma in the room. Small pumpkins, colorful dried Indian corn, and other festive fall things can also be used for decoration.
7. Do Things in Order, yet Multi-Task
Prepare a list of the timing required to get everything ready at the proper moment. The turkey is prepared first. It goes into the main oven and cooks the longest. Turkeys taste better when cooked inside an oven bag to hold in the juices. It is more convenient to cook a turkey that has a plastic thermometer, which pops out to show when it is done. Allow one hour after cooking time for the turkey to cool down in the oven before trying to cut it.
The goal is to have everything ready at the same moment by placing things to cook in the order needed to have it all get done at the same time. Make a plan and use an alarm or timer as a reminder if necessary.
Most people enjoy this timeline. Ask guests to arrive around noon. Serve drinks and appetizers at 1:00 p.m. and serve the main meal at 2:30 p.m. Have dessert and coffee at 5:00 p.m.
9. Clean Up
Clean up is the time to get everyone else to help and the time for the cook to have a break.
It is a nice gesture to send everyone home with some leftovers, especially some of the things that they really like. Use disposable containers that seal nicely and do not have to be returned.
You did it! After all the guests leave, sit down and pour a nice nightcap drink to celebrate your Thanksgiving meal success.
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