From its origins as a celebration of the harvest to becoming one of the most celebrated and my most favorite holidays, Thanksgiving is a holiday that’s all about sharing great food with family and friends., and most importantly, being thankful and counting our blessings. Held on the 3rd Thursday of November, Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on the past year and prepare ourselves for the coming winter by sharing our time, our homes and the bounty of our table with those we love. But if you aren’t careful you can overextend yourself and while your guests may have a good time, you might end up stressed and exhausted. Not only do you want to clean and decorate your house, you also want to wow your guests with a fantastic meal. While we have plenty of time after the holiday to relax and enjoy, we may find our schedules are packed with work, kid’s activities and errands right up to the day before, which is why I’ve put together my best advice on how to plan a perfect Thanksgiving.
GUEST LIST & STYLE OF THE DINNER
As the days of fall get shorter and temperatures drop, it’s time to start thinking about the type of meal you’d like to prepare and how many people you’d like to entertain. At this stage, you don’t have to detail your menu, but you should be thinking along the lines of how you will present your meal: family style or formal, and whether you’ll be serving traditional or modern foods, then you’ll want to share that with your guests.
As many people travel for Thanksgiving, make plans as early in the autumn as you feel comfortable with. Having your guest list and an idea of your meal, let’s you set the style of your dinner either casual or formal and allows guest to make plans to attend.
When choosing your invitations, be sure to include the time you’d like guests to attend, if you’d like them to dress up or wear festive attire, any special activities or entertainment you have planned such as: sharing what you are thankful for, watching a football game a movie or any food or beverages you’d like them to bring. Make sure to include an RSVP date, so you’ll have adequate time to prepare enough food for all the guests who are intending.
DECORATING FOR THANKSGIVING
Thanksgiving decorations use natural colors and celebrate the vibrant beauty of fall, so decorating is natural, beautiful and fun. A quick trip to a community pumpkin farm or farmers market should provide you with enough mums, pumpkins, gourds, dried wheat and dried leaves to decorate your entire house.
Autumn place setting with leaves, candles and pumpkins.
Creating a Tablescape
Setting the table for Thanksgiving can be tricky depending on the type of meal you plan on serving. Thanksgiving dinners can be served family style; with dishes and platters of foods on the table; or buffet style with one table set aside for food, so as you plan your tablescape keep in mind how much space you can use for each setting and how you will need to set-up your dining room.
Whether or not you use a tablecloth depends on the look you are going for. Layering fall jewel-colored tablecloths, runners, placemats and napkins is lots of fun and a great way to express your creativity. Don’t forget to add name cards, menus, poems or words of thankfulness for your guests as well.
Having a centerpiece adds more color and a festiveness to your table and is also a great place to add candles, that really bring an ambiance to the meal. Centerpieces and candles can be used for casual or formal settings, it’s all in how you place them.
Thanksgiving is a great holiday to bring out your best dishware, and unless you have a very large collection it’s also a great time to mix and match pieces. As it’s not uncommon to host more people than you might be used to, you’ll want to make sure that you have enough extra plates, utensils, servers, platters and bowls for your meal. The best way to figure this out is to tally your guests and plan your meal so you’ll know exactly what you need.
Traditional foods featured at Thanksgiving are nuts, apples, pear, cranberry, pumpkin, potatoes, greens, green beans, corn, sweet potatoes, roasts, turkey and ham. Once you combine these foods with sweet and savory spices the possibilities are almost endless.
Pro tip: Prior to the meal, don’t forget to have appetizers for people to snack on: they don’t have to be extravagant or cooked: a simple cheese board with artisan breads or crackers, olives, figs and nuts both looks beautiful and tastes amazing. It will also keep guests satisfied if dinner happens to be a little bit late.
Pro Tip: If you want your guests to bring things to the meal, have a plan for how to store it, or heat it up prior to the meal. Don’t be afraid to ask your friends to pitch in and help with preparing and serving the meal or tidying up and washing dishes after especially if you have a more casual dinner.
WHAT NOT TO DO:
Before we talk about how to make the meal, let’s talk about what not to do. It’s said that the best-laid plans always go to waste and that was completely evident when I cooked my first big Thanksgiving. Not only was I novice cook, I was unaware that I was a novice cook. I planned an enormous meal and I absolutely insisted on doing everything myself the day of Thanksgiving.
As you might expect I did not spend the day with my guests catching up and making memories; I spent the day in a frenzy in the kitchen. I served the meal an hour later than scheduled with some foods nearly burnt to a crisp and others nearly raw with dirty dishes all over the place.
Fortunately for me and my guests, I’ve learned many things since then about planning, prepping and preparing a big holiday meal. It’s hard to not spend a good part of the day in the kitchen preparing Thanksgiving, but with some good planning and some help you’ll be able to enjoy your day and your guests as much as possible.
As you plan your meal, you’ll want to write out a menu, it doesn’t have to be fancy, just write what you want to serve:
MY THANKSGIVING MENU
- Roast Turkey & Gravy
- Mashed Potatoes
- Praline Sweet Potato Casserole
- Green Beans
- Dinner Rolls
- Cranberry Relish
After you write your menu, you’ll want to write a shopping list. You’ll want to look at your recipes, see how many people they serve and adjust for the # of guest that you have attended. Most Thanksgiving recipes serve 12 people and often include tips on how to double the recipe.
I start shopping early in November for Thanksgiving: I pre-order a turkey or any other large meat that I want to serve like a ham or a roast. I also buy spices and nuts and items that will store well that are on sale and readily available before the holiday.
PREP, PREP, PREP… CLEAN, CLEAN, CLEAN AS YOU GO
The key to a successful dinner is to prep as much as possible before in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. Doing prep ahead of time, allows you to spend more time enjoying the day with your guests enjoying the holiday. Cleaning as you go, avoids the big pile-up of dishes that seem almost inevitable on Thanksgiving, and working in a cleanish kitchen makes you feel calmer and in control.
I typically prep my Turkey 2 nights before Thanksgiving. I rinse it in salt water, pat it dry, season it, place it in the pan and cover it well, this way on Thanksgiving morning, all I have to do is pop it in the oven to roast.
Pro-tip: Do not ever guess if your turkey is done: buy a meat thermometer and check the temperature in the thigh and in the breast. Be careful not to place the thermometer close to any bones, when the turkey is done the thigh will read 180 degrees F and the breast will read 170 degrees F.
Once you have the main protein taken care of you’ll want to do as much prep on every other item as possible. Even doing the smallest thing, will save you time on the day of your dinner and will allow you to not only have more fun, but to add some extra special touches.
The day or night before as you prep is a good time to enlist some help, either from your family or friends to wash vegetables, wash and peel potatoes, assemble casseroles, whip cream, plate butter and help set the table.
While I am no longer a novice cook, I am a smarter and more realistic cook. I have found that over the years while I like the idea of homemade everything…reality tells a different story. When I plan big holiday dinners and many of my guests are traveling and can’t bring dishes or help me out in the kitchen, I make a list of things that I won’t be making and they typically include sweets, pies, cakes and breads.
I’ve also gotten meats, roasted vegetable trays and casseroles from my local market. I basically don’t cook what I don’t have time to, what I don’t have room in the oven for or don’t have the skill to.
Desserts for any meal or holiday are the finishing touch that always ends a meal beautifully. The traditional flavors of spicy pumpkin pie or caramelized pecan pie with creamy whipped cream are hard to beat, but some folks don’t feel like a meal is complete without chocolate.
I like to include different desserts both to satisfy my guests’ sweet tooth and so I have leftovers to treat myself to after the holiday. Desserts you can serve at Thanksgiving are cheesecake, flourless chocolate cake, truffles, candied ginger, apple pie, wine poached pears, cookie, mousse or parfaits, carrot cake and caramel tarts.
Thanksgiving is a notoriously difficult meal to pair drinks with as there are so many flavors, spices and textures, so drink what you enjoy drinking. I like to make a warmed spiced non-alcoholic cider for youngsters and guest that don’t drink and I usually make a special Thanksgiving cocktail. During the meal, I always serve water and both red and white wines at the table. For after dinner I have a few liquors or champagne and coffee to serve with dessert. This year my go-to cocktail is a Cranberry Ginger Royale, with a make-ahead homemade cranberry and ginger syrup:
- 2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 Tablespoons chopped Ginger
- 2 ounces fresh lemon juice
- 1 ounce Campari
- 12 ounces Champagne or dry sparkling wine
- Fresh (for serving)
- Cook cranberries, sugar, ginger and 1/4 cup water in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring often until sugar is dissolved, do not bring to a boil.
- Reduce heat and cook for 15 minutes.
- Allow to cool and strain through a fine- sieve.
- Store in a clean glass jar in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
To make 2 cocktails:
- In an ice-filled shaker add 2 oz. cranberry-ginger syrup, 1 Tablespoon lemon juice, and 1/2 oz. Campari in an ice-filled cocktail shaker.
- Cover and shake well.
- Pour into chilled glasses and add 3oz of champagne to each glass.
- Garnish with fresh lemon and candied cranberries.
THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF PLANNING THE PERFECT THANKSGIVING
By far the most important part of planning the perfect Thanksgiving is to not lose sight of what you are thankful and grateful for in your life. Often we strive and work so hard to achieve a goal, that we forget that it’s every moment of the experience that fulfills us.
Gratitude is a powerful process for shifting energy and bringing more of what you want into your life. Whether your guests are early, the meal is late or the potatoes lumpy are things that you will quickly forget. It’s the act of caring, planning, preparing and considering your guests’ needs, opening your home to your family and friends and sharing food and laughter and making memories and joy