Thanksgiving Prep: Get Your Turkey On! And Don't Stress About It!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


I love Thanksgiving. Well, let me qualify that: I love what Thanksgiving should be about. Regardless of the historical inaccuracies and Christmas-Up-Your-Ass-ness around it, it's actually a great holiday and great idea. Although I think we should be thankful more than one day a year, I love it because it's a chance to take a break during the chaotic holidays and enjoy the wonderfulness of the fall season. And what better way to do so than with FOOD?!

Sadly Thanksgiving (as other holidays) have also grown into an uber-competitive, money-draining stressball of an affair that has most people cooking dinner freaked out, stressed out, and otherwise not looking forward to it. I was one of those people. I've cried in the kitchen when butternut squash burned, I've had a full on panic attack realizing the turkey was not done all the way through and everything else was ready and people were starving, and I yes...I've even broken a plate in complete and total frustration. But, I've also learned that it's not worth it to bet that upset, and I've developed some tricks and techniques to help me get through not only Thanksgiving proper, but the entire week and weekend before and after it! Allow me to share my top five tips for a successful, fun, and easy Thanksgiving so you can enjoy the holiday too.  

1. It's All About Organization
Just like most things in life, events are only as good as they are organized. The more you plan out ahead of time and account for while you have time, the less stressful it will be when you're in the thick of it. You've got a few weeks before the big day. Sit down for a quiet moment and simply jot down on a paper or type out in an email to yourself everything you need to get done for Thanksgiving -- every single thing -- starting on Thanksgiving Day, then work yourself backwards and forwards. Especially if you have kids getting off at different times than you're used to, people coming in from out of town, or any other big details you don't want to miss or distract you, put it all together in one, cohesive schedule. Here's an example:

Tuesday Evening: 
-dance class 5 pm
-brine turkey
-pick up _____ from airport at _____ flight #____ airline____

Wednesday Morning: 
-kids to school
-clean fancy china and stemware
-set table
-HALF DAY: pick up at 12:30! 

Wednesday Afternoon: 
-pick up liquor
-prep veg for stuffing
-make pie crusts

The problem with people getting overwhelmed I feel with the cooking marathon of Thanksgiving (or Christmas for that matter) is they don't account for the small details that can seriously screw up your time. Like traveling to airports, cleaning houses, appointments. Simply put, you can't do two things at once, so don't double book yourself between the cooking aspect of Thanksgiving and the rest of life. Write every single thing down, from what you have to clean in your house down to each vegetable you need to chop into a very detailed schedule you can save on your phone or print out and keep in your house where you'll see it often to double check yourself that you're not missing something or getting surprised. This has helped me immensely, and I highly recommend it if you've got a lot going on Thanksgiving week.

If you have help, then you can allocate responsibilities. For example, if your partner can help out with anything, then code yourselves on your list. Like, I'll highlight my responsibilities pink and my husband's blue and print out two versions of the schedule -- one near the desk and one downstairs by the fridge -- this way everyone sees it and can double check what they have to do. If you have kids old enough, get them involved!

Is it a little OCD? Yes. Is it a pain in the ass to put together? Yes. Will you thank me after you make one and see how smoothly it goes? You will. Just make a schedule as detailed or not as you need it for your holiday and go to it frequently.

2. Have A Back-up Plan in the Freezer
Ok, so Thanksgiving Emergency #3 is "What if I screw up the dinner?!" Look, it's happened. Turkeys get burned or are underdone, vegetables burn, pies don't set right, explosions happen, power can go out, the dog can eat the entire bowl of mashed potatoes when you were distracted with the turkey, kids can knock over the turkey onto the dirty can be chaotic, and shit can happen. So, here's my two part plan:

(1) Don't panic -- it's just food and not worth it. Yes I know you were super excited to serve the turkey and you worked days on it (I know....believe me, I understand this), and I feel your pain but it's just food and if it's not edible, it's over. Don't think about it. Instead, I want you to have a shot of whisky immediately, throw the ruined food to the dogs (or in the trash) so you're not staring at it and getting upset still, and move into action with step 2:

(2) Take out one of your Emergency Back-Up Foods -- because you're smart and talented and everyone loves something with filo dough or pastry. Then, go have another shot of whisky or a big ass glass of wine. Put your feet up while it's cooking in the oven, and relax with the mixed nuts.

You can make these foods ahead of time or buy them from the store or Williams Sonoma has a fantastic selection of ready-made, freezer foods that are special enough to serve for any holiday or party. You can serve anything from a fantastic cheese plate with cured meats to full on freezer meals to pastry bites or spanikopita or finger foods. The idea here is have a few dishes or items that can stay in the freezer or you have on hand in the pantry or fridge that in a pinch, you can take out and serve quickly or throw in the oven to bake. Here are some ideas:

  • stuffed mushrooms
  • assorted pastry appetizers 
  • latkes 
  • a few good cheeses, nuts, fresh sliced fruit 
  • dried cured meats like salami 
  • pasta or risotto 
  • olives 
  • smoked salmon 
  • piggies in a blanket (yes, I'm serious) or cocktail weenies
If something gets messed up, you can still salvage it. For example, if the turkey gets ruined some how or is not fit to serve, however you most likely have sweet potatoes or yams or some sort of squash being served with the dinner. Take the sweet potatoes or squash and roast it, boil some spaghetti. Toss the cooked spaghetti with the roasted sweet potatoes, add some rendered bacon, some garlic, and a shitload of parmesan cheese and it's actually a fantastic main course meal. 

If you screwed up the side dishes it's really no big deal -- take out a freezer food to supplement if you really need to, or simply turn the dinner into Thanksgiving Make-Your-Own Gourmet Sandwich! 

The point is, although it's not what you planned to do or what you were looking forward to do, don't sell yourself short. Think on the fly and change it up. It doesn't "have" to look or be served exactly as you envisioned it. I understand your disappointment, but think of it as a Top Chef challenge instead. Vegetables and ingredients can be used in a variety of ways; turn a main course into a side dish, turn a vegetable for a side into a main course pasta, make a risotto in 30 min to go with the turkey if the dog ate the mashed potatoes, or do a salad with dried cranberries, stilton, and pecans instead for a low-carb version, AND ADD BACON TO ANYTHING TO SALVAGE IT (this includes desserts sometimes!). 

If you make or invest in the freezer foods think of them as insurance. If you use them then fine, if you don't then save them for an easy dinner or serve them up at Christmas!  

3. Booze, Booze, BOOZE 
Ok honestly? The best part of any holiday the booze. Make sure you have a shitload of wine and spirits and any goof up with the food will be instantly mitigated by offering good drink. Booze goes with everything: soups, salads, foods, side dishes, desserts. No one complains about the booze. Don't have bad booze or even worse, no booze, because then you are screwed and I cannot help you. Have some wine, some vodka and rum to make easy mixed drinks. some cranberry juice and apple cider for something festive, CHAMPAGNE is always chic, a good bottle of whiskey or bourbon, and BEER. Everyone drinks it. Have some sparkling cider and fruit juices for kids and non-drinkers. Serve it in fancy glasses to make it special. If your food is a fail then your drinks will be a success!

4.  Work Ahead 
Do as much as you can in advance:

  • Do your laundry day in advance -- you don't have time to fold and wash before Thanksgiving and it sucks to do it the day after! 
  • Clean your house head to toe 2-3 days in advance; this way you just have to do a quicker touch up the night before or morning of instead of a huge house over-haul. 
  • Plan out your outfit the day or night before so you're not freaking out in your closet as your spouse is answering the door downstairs. Do your hair too. And by the way, buns are very chic and "in" right now too so don't stress about it. Everyone looks great in black and with a nice red lip or smoky eye. 
  • Take a tour of your pantry a week or even two before to make sure you have flour and sugar and brown sugar and nuts and condensed milk and chicken broth and everything non-perishable you need for your dishes. 
  • Take a look and clean your machines -- check your standing mixer, your blender, your crockpot or whatever you use. Make sure your potato ricer is still working. Are your knives sharp enough? Remember when you broke the whisk? Ya, go buy one now not the morning of thanksgiving. Take an inventory to make sure you have all the equipment you need, and that it's clean and in working order. Do this a week or more in advance so you have time to buy whatever you need. 
  • Order or purchase your turkey in advance. Make sure you take it out to defrost in time!  
  • Make a shopping list for your ingredients and shop a couple of days in advance. Go organic, go fresh, go green -- it tastes better. 
  • Make your pastry crusts the day before and keep in fridge. 
  • Brine your turkey a day or two in advance. It'll taste better and give you less to do. 
  • Set your table the day before! Everything -- down to the floral arrangements! Not only is it one less major thing for you to do the day of, every time you pass it you'll feel accomplished and it will make you at peace and excited to see something pretty as you enter the disaster that is your kitchen. 
  • Make sure your kids have shit to do so they're not bother you -- maybe pick up a new Christmas video, record some cartoons, get them some holiday workbooks or coloring books -- make sure they're preoccupied so they're not in your grill. 
  • Prep your veggies the day before. Keep everything grouped together. For a stuffing recipe, I'll chop up all the veg to be sauteed into a bowl and cover it with plastic wrap, then place that in a bigger bowl that has the cubed bread in it. I'll label it "STUFFING" so I can work fast the next day and not search for ingredients. 
  • Have your husband work on the damn playlist a few days or week BEFORE thanksgiving. Heads up guys -- the morning of Thanksgiving is not the time to download the Frank Sinatra version of whatever song you heard on the radio. The correct day was last Thursday. 

You get the point. Do as much and whatever you can in advance. This will greatly decrease your stress level and keep you on point with the day of Thanksgiving.

5.  Remember No One Remembers The Small Details
 Let me let you in on a little secret...
No one gives a shit in the end about the food or even the drinks; they care about how much fun they had. Crying over the turkey, spilled cream, threatening to give the dog away for eating the mashed potatoes...that's what people will remember that year for Thanksgiving. Instead, focus on the vibe -- cool, calm, go with the flow. If something doesn't taste that great, offer another glass of wine instead. If the pie looks like shit but tastes good, laugh about how fugly it is and eat that sucker. Does the house still smell of burnt stuffing? Fry up some bacon and everyone will be salivating. Remember that these holidays are not about how perfectly crafted your Thanksgiving themed table place cards are, or how good the turkey is, or whatever. It's about getting together, having fun, and enjoying each other while we've still got one another. Don't get caught up in the details. And if something does go wrong, learn from it and fix it next year. And remember: you always have Christmas! ;)

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