I’m a little bit giddy about Thanksgiving this year, but not for reasons you might think. Yes, I’ll get to spend it in the company of friends, of people I love, and yes, there will be delicious things to nibble and drink, games to play, and fun to be had with some of my favorite faces. But this year, Thanksgiving, or Friendsgiving as it really is, is the first time in five years that I’m not responsible for the meal – and I’m pretty thrilled about it!
Don’t get me wrong, I love to cook for my friends, to feed them delicious treats, to decorate my home and make it super inviting, but it’s a lot of work that starts weeks in advance. This year, I only have to bring two vegetable side dishes, my best beau, some board games…and that’s it! That’s all that is required of me! I’m so excited to spend time enjoying my friends and being very present in the moment, as opposed to running back and forth to the kitchen like I normally do when hosting. I’ll be the girl on the couch with her feet up and a glass of rosé in her manicured hand – and I can’t wait!
But all of my years of hosting in the past have taught me a lot about how to have a beautiful Thanksgiving and what you can do days, even weeks, ahead in order to make the day itself less busy and more enjoyable. Let’s take a look at the 5 things you can do now for Thanksgiving!
1. Prepare your Lists
I’m no one if not someone who loves a list. And while it can get borderline neurotic any other time, if you’re hosting any big event or holiday gathering, organization is key. So get yourself situated early on by preparing your four main lists: guest list, menu, shopping list, and your day-of agenda.
- Several weeks in advance, you should have a firm sense of who is attending the fête and what they’re bringing. Lock in folks on one item or another based on their strengths. Once you know that one person is responsible for wine and another for their famous pumpkin cheesecake, you’re well on your way to organizing your menu and filling in the gaps.
- Having a menu in place early on should give you a sense of calm as the day gets closer because you know what’s ahead of you. Building in old reliables that you’re comfortable with executing and the rare new recipe or technique allows you the ability to foresee how to structure your time before and the day itself. You’ll know where you need to build in extra time for your first-time making a meringue-topped dessert for instance versus the mashed potatoes you whip up once a month, that feel like old hat.
- Planning your menu in advance also allows you to buy responsibly. Thanksgiving – and all holidays – can be expensive for the person hosting. If you take time ahead of time to plan a potluck or to designate specific items or dishes to others, it can alleviate some of the financial strain. If you’re going it alone and intend on not asking your guests to bring anything, planning your menu in advance also gives you time to take stock of what you have already. You’ll know if you’re down to half a bag of confectioner’s sugar or have four pounds stacked up in the back of the pantry.
- A little planning prevents overbuying as much as it helps you to not miss any key ingredients as you head to the store. Organize your shopping list based on the layout of the spot where you plan to do your shopping. You’ll move through your list faster this way and will be less likely to forget something integral. I always make sure to mark on my shopping list what I have a coupon for or what the sale/deal is so that I’m also certain I’m buying the specific item (the 10oz box versus the 12oz box) that is actually on sale.
- A day-of agenda for executing the meal itself is where many folks would draw the line with list-making, but I promise you that it’s worth doing – especially if you’re new to planning or cooking a big meal for a crowd. Doing so will allow you to have a schedule to keep yourself to – one that has already considered that the stuffing can go in the oven at the same temperature as the sweet potatoes, but 20 minutes after. A day-of agenda also comes in handy once you’re ready to put all the food out to confirm you haven’t forgotten to warm something or put out the dinner rolls. Consider it a little blueprint to get you through the day.
2. Ready your serveware, your place settings, and your tools
A week or two before the event is the time to make sure you have everything you need in terms of your tools prior to the event. Take down your platters from the tops of your cupboards, pull out your box of extra wine glasses, dig through your utensil drawer and find the baster and meat thermometer, sharpen your knives. The worst thing is a stressful day before the holiday when you’re scrambling around trying to finish cooking and prepping and you still have to gather together all of the serving pieces you’re going to need the next day. Be good to yourself and take the time to plan so that on the night before, you can order a pizza, maybe trim some veggies, and take it easy. I like to gather all of my plates together, wash anything that got a little dusty during the year in the back of the closet, and then wrap everything in a clean, spare table cloth and keep them on an empty closet shelf.
3. Wash and press your linens
If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that I have a thing for cloth napkins. Do Bear and I use them every day? No, of course not. Laundry isn’t free, nor is it in our apartment, and we’re not jerks. That said, though, I love a cloth napkin when I’m entertaining people, so the week before, I figure out what my table is going to look like and what table cloth and napkins I’m going to use. You know what you don’t want to be doing the night before Thanksgiving? Laundry. Two hours of work weeks ahead of time will save you last-minute annoyance and anguish closer to the holiday. Of course, if you’re thinking of using paper napkins for your event, I say there’s no shame in that. Easy clean-up where you can get it is totally respectable in the face of cooking a huge meal. If linens aren’t where you think your precious time needs to be spent, I get it! No shame!
4. Plan your table decoration and layout
A beautiful table doesn’t have to be difficult, elaborate, or expensive. A simple bouquet of flowers separated into smaller, shorter bouquets with a few small tea light candles won’t put you back much and will make you and your guests feel truly special. Pinterest, of course, is a great source of inspiration, so I recommend browsing around in your very early planning stages and getting some ideas. Two things I like to keep in mind as I plan what I’ll have on my table: 1) It’s important for your guests to be able to see each other, so I tend to put together items that aren’t very tall. For Thanksgiving, think pumpkins, gourds, candles shaped like maple leaves, pine cones, etc. An arrangement that includes lower-profile items will be beautiful and won’t risk interfering with conversation. 2) Remember that you’re going to have other things on your table aside from your centerpiece. Be sure you allow room for everyone’s place setting, rogue drinks that make it to the table, extra serving dishes of sides if you’re not buffeting your meal, and elbows! Don’t sacrifice you or your guests’ comfort and ability to stretch out a bit for a really elaborate table design. The whole point of getting together is to enjoy your time together and that’s not possible if you’re getting pushed out by too many wicker turkeys.
5. Look to make-ahead dishes
After my first two years of cooking Thanksgiving, it took me about two to three days to fully recover from the amount of work and stress it was – and I was still in my 20s then! But all of that changed as I started to plan better and learned from experience that there were several key parts of the meal I could prepare ahead of time to save me such valuable time. The first? The gravy! Every Thanksgiving I’ve ever had includes this incredible gravy from the one and only Ina Garten. For me, there’s no turkey without this gravy. But you know what? Making gravy in the final moments before your meal goes to the table is hella stressful. It is the worst! So what do I do? I make my gravy two weeks ahead of time and keep it in my freezer. On the morning of Thanksgiving, I thaw it and warm it on the stove (or gasp! In the microwave!) right before we dig in. Sometimes it needs a little whisk or a quick buzz with the immersion blender to bring it fully together, but that’s nothing. Making the gravy in advance is such a time-saver and the result is piping hot, which is never the case when you’re whisking gravy together at the last minute. I make the gravy with drippings from a chicken I roast for dinner a few weeks prior and you’d never know that it didn’t start with a turkey. Take this tip and run with it, seriously!
I also make my cranberry and clementine conserve weeks ahead of time and freeze it as well. For Thanksgiving prep, these containers are your best friends, allowing you to make several different pieces of your meal in advance, and strong enough to withstand the chill of your freezer for a few weeks. Last year, I even made my mashed potatoes a day or two prior (don’t freeze these – the texture will never be the same), smoothed them into a 9×13 pan, covered it tightly with foil, and about 40 minutes out from the meal, I put them oven covered and let them get nice and hot. They fluffed up beautifully as I added them to the serving bowl and there was no last minute mashing and whipping of potatoes either. If you plan a menu in advance, with the possibility of doing some of it ahead of time, you can really take a lot off your plate for the day-of, allowing you to do what you’re meant to: enjoy your friends and family and reflect on how to improve, or contribute more to, our various communities.
Whether you’re hosting your first big meal, bringing a pie, or staying home with take-out and Netflix, I wish you a wonderful, stress-free day of entertainment and one hell of a big piece of pumpkin pie. Enjoy, everyone!