5 Tricks to a Trouble-Free Thanksgiving
Problem: You can’t buy all the food you’ll need for the big day in a single trip.
Solution: Divide and conquer. Besides the fact that an entire feast’s worth of grocery bags is too much for one woman to carryor one trunk to hold―you’re more likely to forget a key ingredient or encounter depleted shelves if you try to buy everything in one go at the last minute.
Set your Thanksgiving dinner menu a month in advance, then make a master list of what you’ll need and divide it into perishables (dairy products, eggs, produce) and nonperishables (canned goods, spices, baking supplies). Buy everything that won’t spoil as far in advance as you can. Return for the turkey, the herbs, and the cheeses a few days before you begin cooking. Use this Thanksgiving shopping list to make sure you pick up everything you need.
Problem: You got everything inside the refrigerator, but closing the door is another story.
Solution: Empty the refrigerator of all but the essentials. “I’ve found so many things in people’s refrigerators that don’t need to be in there, like vinegars and jars of unopened jellies,” says Jennifer Clair, owner of Home Cooking New York, in New York City.
- Make space for Thanksgiving by cleaning out unidentifiable leftovers and expired condiments and using up as much as possible of what’s in the freezer and the refrigerator.
- Store hearty produce, like apples, fresh cranberries, and potatoes, in a cool, dry place, like the trunk of the car or the basement, says Jessica Leibovich, owner of Entrée Nous, a personal-chef and catering business in San Diego.
- Use a beach cooler for the turkey, casseroles, dips, and other foods that must stay chilled. Filled with ice or frozen gel packs and stowed in the garage or some other cold spot out of the sun, a cooler will keep food fresh for at least 24 hours. (To make sure you’re in the safe zone, place a thermometer inside and make sure it stays below 40° F.)
Problem: 1 turkey + 5 side dishes + 2 desserts ÷ 1 stove = complete and total chaos.
Solution: To keep organized, create what caterers call a prep list, which lays out, in order, all the tasks that need to be done in the two days prior to your Thanksgiving dinner.
- First, figure out which recipes can be made at least one day in advance. Things like pies, blanched vegetables, and gratins can all be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated. Find make-ahead Thanksgiving recipes.
- Second, identify which of the dishes to be made on Thanksgiving Day will take the longest. Work backward from the time you want to eat, allowing 10 extra minutes per recipe.
- Third, look at cooking temperatures and see what can go in the oven at the same time. Use multiple timers to keep track of what’s in the oven and on the stovetop. Put a Post-it note on each timer so you won’t forget which dish it’s for.
Problem: You have six cookbooks open and you still can’t find that recipe for sweet potatoes.
Solution: Cut through the clutter and make copies of recipes or print them out from the Web.
- Tape them to cabinets at eye level. (This will save precious counter space, too.)
- You can also use a magnet and stick them to the hood above the range.
- Slip the recipe sheets into plastic sleeves and file them in a binder so they’ll be ready next year.
Browse Real Simple's Thanksgiving recipes.
Problem: No matter how huge the turkey, you always have too much dark meat and never enough white.
Solution: Cook a small bird and an extra white-meat–only turkey breast. You can present the whole bird to your guests before carving, then add the additional sliced breast meat to the serving platter. “No one will know the difference,” say Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh, authors of Talk With Your Mouth Full: The Hearty Boys Cookbook ($28, amazon.com). Smith suggests cooking the breast until it’s just underdone (about 12 minutes per pound, or 36 minutes for a three-pound breast) the day before, then finishing it with about 25 minutes in the oven the day of.
Problem: You take the turkey out as soon as the button pops, but the bird is always overcooked.
Solution: “Throw away the pop-up timer that comes with the turkey,” says Clair. These timers typically go off somewhere between 190° and 200° F, producing meat that is beyond done. (Keep in mind that the turkey will continue to cook after it is removed from the oven.)
The best way to determine if a bird is cooked is by inserting an instant-read meat thermometer into a thigh; remove the turkey when the thermometer reaches 165° F. (Do not let the thermometer touch bone or you’ll get a falsely high reading.) Since white meat cooks faster than dark meat, you may need to cover the breast loosely with foil if it darkens too quickly. Watch this video on taking a turkey's temperature for the how-to.
If, despite all these efforts, you still end up with a dry and overdone turkey, place the sliced meat on a platter, drizzle it generously with warm chicken broth or gravy, and serve. If you have the opposite problem and are faced with a serious raw-meat crisis, Smith recommends zapping the underdone meat in the microwave on medium for one to two minutes (or longer if necessary).
Problem: Everyone wants to help, but a crowded kitchen makes you crazy.
Solution: Move as many activities out of the kitchen as possible.
- Put all the glasses, ice, and beverages in the living room. Save an easy task, like serving drinks, for guests who simply must help, says McDonagh.
- Prepare for those who want to put finishing touches on the dishes they’ve brought by clearing a small area of a counter or setting up a small table just outside the kitchen. Set out anything that might be needed, like serving dishes and spoons.
- It’s also perfectly OK to ask your guests to bring only dishes that can be served either cold or at room temperature so they won’t need to use the oven or the stovetop during those last, busy minutes, says McDonagh.
Problem: The turkey took forever to cook, and now all the side dishes are cold.
Solution: Try using some of the following items to keep food hot:
- A microwave oven is insulated and will keep a hot pot warm for half an hour, says Clair. (Just don’t turn the machine on.)
- A cooler, which will also retain heat, can hold covered pots and stacked foil dishes.
- An insulated ice bucket or a Crock-Pot can keep rice or mashed potatoes warm. (You can set a Crock-Pot to low for longer periods.)
- A thermos will guarantee that the gravy stays piping hot.
- A heating pad inside a soft-sided insulated food carrier is a good way to keep a casserole steamy.
- A barbecue gas grill can double as a warming oven. Put it on low heat, place a pot or two inside, and close the lid.
Problem: Your famous apple pie is waiting in the wings, but it’s impossible to clear the dishes and serve dessert simultaneously.
Solution: Take a coffee break between courses.
- When you set the table, create a dessert station on a buffet or a side table in the dining room with forks, plates, pie servers, and coffee cups. Get Thanksgiving dessert recipes here.
- At the same time, set up the coffeemaker. When you’re clearing the table after your dinner (now is the time to accept those offers of help), push the brew button.
- Smith and McDonagh suggest having the sugar bowl full and pitchers of milk and cream ready in the refrigerator so you can put it all out quickly.
Problem: Dinner is over and all you want to do is kick back with your guests, but you have a mountain of pots and dishes waiting for you in the kitchen.
Solution: As long as everything is soaking in sudsy water, you can put off the cleanup indefinitely (well, almost).
- Before guests arrive, make like a caterer and create a breakdown station in the corner of the kitchen, the utility room, or the garage.
- Set up a lined garbage can so you can throw food scraps right into the trash, and organize soaking stations so the food doesn’t dry out and harden on plates and pans.
- After dinner, fill big pots with soapy water. Use them for soaking smaller things and utensils. Use the cooler again, for soaking larger items.
- If you want the mess out of sight fast, Harlan suggests giving pots a rinse, stacking them in a plastic laundry basket, and hiding it in the bathtub to wash later. Just remember to close the curtain.