16 Tricks for Keeping Your Sanity If You’re Hosting Thanksgiving
All that cooking and cleaning you have to do can make you feel not so thankful. Here's how to stay calm during Thanksgiving hosting.
Keep your cool this Thanksgiving
Few holidays inspire as much nervous anticipation as hosting Thanksgiving. In-laws and cooking? The stakes are high, and something could go wrong at any moment. Fortunately, with a little food science and common sense, you can avoid the pitfalls that sitcom writers love to rely on. Check out these 15 tips to make your holiday that much easier. Plus, once dinner’s on the table, avoid these contentious topics of conversation for a stress-free meal.
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Keep it simple
Unless you’re a culinary master, trying to pull out all the stops and create every possible dish that might show up in a Hollywood-perfect Thanksgiving feast is a recipe for disaster. Turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy, and a simple vegetable dish such as string beans is already a feast. If nervous about cooking for guests, pick dishes that you’re comfortable making. If you’re trying something new, give it a practice run a few days before. Check out these easy Thanksgiving side dishes guaranteed to please your guests.
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Even if you are a culinary whiz, divvying up courses is a great way of bringing a group of people together, and an opportunity to pass along culinary traditions to younger generations. If you have young kids, you can also use it as an opportunity to give them confidence in the kitchen. Making mashed potatoes? Hand the recipe over to your kids and offer to be their assistant chef.
French for “everything in its place,” mise-en-place is the practice of prepping all the ingredients and measuring them out in advance. Making a stuffing? Dice up the celery and veggies the day before, and store them in a plastic container or plastic bag in the fridge. Using breadcrumbs? Spices? Measure them out into another bag or small container. If you’re baking your stuffing separate from the bird—recommended for food-safety reasons—you can even stash the mise-en-place parts inside the baking pan and store the whole thing in the fridge. Then, on Thanksgiving day itself, just pull the pan out of the fridge and mix-and-go. (Tuck a copy of the recipe into the pan when you’re prepping, too!) Repeat this for all your dishes, and you’ve already cut the big day’s work by more than half. And if something goes wrong while cooking, check out our simple fixes for 10 common Thanksgiving food fails.
Use the microwave
I know, heresy, but the microwave does a great job for cooking certain types of foods such as potatoes, asparagus, and string beans. Cooking starchy foods like potatoes is all about heating the starch granules up to around 180 to 190°F for the starches to melt and then gelatinize, and popping a potato in the microwave gets it up to around 212°F, the boiling point of water—well above the temperatures need to cook that potato. Figure about a minute to two per potato, checking as they cook. For veggies like asparagus and string beans, throw them in a microwave-safe bowl, add a few teaspoons of water, cover with plastic wrap, and microwave until the water starts to steam, four or five minutes. If you want to go fancier, you can always toss the veggies into a pan and sauté them in butter or olive oil and add spices.
Cook turkey breasts separate from the legs
Cooking a whole turkey is a challenge for a simple reason: turkeys don’t cook uniformly. Turkey breast meat will be finished cooking before the darker, leg meat because the ratio of the types of proteins in the meats differ, and different proteins cook at different temperatures. If you don’t mind giving up the tradition of standing at the head of the table and carving the turkey, try cooking turkey breasts and turkey legs separately. Experiment with cooking the turkey legs in a slow cooker in olive oil—they’ll come out moist and delicious after six hours—and roasting the turkey breast in the oven, just like any other type of roast. If you totally mess up your meal, these are the restaurants that are open on Thanksgiving.
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Use a thermometer
Meats are done cooking once they reach a certain temperature. Medium-rare steak is done when it hits 135–140°F, whether that takes 10 or 30 minutes. Same thing with turkey. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service advises cooking turkeys until the thermometer reads 165°F; this is the “instant kill” temperature for any bacteria that might be present. With care and proper hold times, you actually can safely cook turkey to lower temperatures to avoid potential dryness, but hold time becomes critical for proper pasteurization. Regardless, use a good digital probe thermometer to let you know when the turkey has reached temperature.
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Cheat on your dessert
A good bakery can turn out a great pumpkin pie for practically the same amount of money that you’d pay for the ingredients yourself. If you’re really into baking, or feel that the homemade touch is important, try making something else. Chocolate is always a winner, so why not chocolate mousse? Buy a pumpkin pie for those that prefer it, and try an exciting new dessert recipe.
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Use square or rectangular pans
If there’s one thing that rings true about Thanksgiving it’s this: the kitchen gets crowded. If you are the hostess with the mostess and have several different dishes to prepare/keep warm in the oven, opt for square or rectangular pans to fit more at a time. You’ll thank yourself later when both your stuffing, sweet potatoes, vegetable casserole, and biscuits all need some time in the oven. Check out some more surprising Thanksgiving cooking hacks using everyday objects.
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Chill wine quickly
Sometimes guests arrive too early, sometimes you’re so crazed it slips your mind, sometimes you just need a drink yourself after all the cleaning and cooking. In order to cool your bottle fast, try wrapping it in a damp cloth or towel and placing it in the freezer for about ten to 15 minutes. It’d be great to chill wine in any of the stunning wine cellars.
Set your menu a month in advance
I know that sounds early, and can make you feel like you’re overthinking, but an entire month will flash before your eyes on top of everything else you have going on. In order to ensure you’ll have everything you need and enough time to prepare, write out what you want and need for your menu come Thanksgiving. Divide your list into perishables and non-perishables so you know what you can buy and stock up on immediately.
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Put your cookbooks away
Seriously, if you’re following a recipe this Thanksgiving it’s so much easier to print out and tape your recipe on a kitchen cabinet than to have a giant cookbook take up your counter space. It’ll also create an easier visual than to keep bending over and checking the pages with your food-stained fingers. Or try adding this simple tablet stand to your kitchen.
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Set the table the night before
It might sound like common sense, but how many times have you actually set your table the night before? Taking one thing of that Thanksgiving “to-do” list can relieve more stress than you can imagine. Do it the night before that way you have one less thing to worry about come the morning.
Brine your turkey in a cooler
If there is one thing that takes up the most space in your fridge on Thanksgiving, it’s the turkey. You can brine your turkey by putting it in a cooler with a lot of ice, and this will create more room for anything that has to go in the refrigerator. In fact, you can simply use a cooler as an extra fridge for other items. Do whatever helps create the most space and organization for you on the food-packed holiday. Here are the quick answers to the most frequently asked Thanksgiving questions.
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Serve a buffet-style meal
Yes, it is a very nice idea to have all the food gathered on the table, to pass it around, and carve and serve the turkey right in front of everyone. But you just spent hours cooking a beautiful meal for everyone in the kitchen—you don’t need to hand it to them too. Set up a buffet on a counter so everyone can put what they want on their plate without all of the “excuse me’s” and “pleases.”