Our Ultimate Last-Minute Thanksgiving Survival Guide
If the holiday season caught you by surprise this year, we’ve got you covered. The bird’s still frozen solid? Your house is a mess and 15 guests are arriving tomorrow? You haven’t bought a single table decoration? No problem. Our last-minute Thanksgiving survival guide will help you get ready in no time. Whether you’ve procrastinated on meal prep, cleaning, decorating, or all of the above, we have tips and tricks to speed up the essentials and forget about the details no one will miss. Armed with our fastest recipes, easiest decor ideas, and one genius trick for thawing the turkey, you’ll be able to spend more time feeling thankful, and less time feeling stressed.
No Time to: Defrost the Turkey
Thanksgiving dinner is less than 12 hours away, and suddenly you realize—the bird’s still sitting in the freezer. Before you panic, follow our chemistry-backed quick defrosting trick, below. Holiday saved.
The secret to a fast defrost: submerge the turkey in a bowl of cold water in the fridge, rather than setting it on a shelf. Water is a better conductor of heat than air, so the bird will warm up more quickly, according to Robert L. Wolke, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of What Einstein Told His Cook 2 ($26, amazon.com). If you’re thawing a fully-frozen turkey, allow about a half hour per pound, and switch out the water every 30 minutes. No matter how desperate you get, resist the urge to thaw the turkey at room temperature or dunk it in a hot bath. Doing so will cause the outer layers of meat to become a breeding ground for bacteria.
No Time to: Clean the House
If your entire family (mother-in-law, great aunts, cousins, and all) are arriving tomorrow, but you’ve been too busy prepping the turkey to think about cleaning, don’t worry. Our speed-cleaning guides will help you prioritize the areas guests are sure to see—the main common areas and bathroom—and forget about the messes they’ll likely never notice.
Follow Becky Rapinchuk of Clean Mama’s 30-minute plan. Set the timer on your phone so you’ll actually stick to the schedule and move quickly, then start dusting, wiping, and vacuuming. Collect all of the clutter in one large laundry basket that you can store out of sight (guests likely won’t venture into your basement) and ignore the areas no one is likely to spot (they probably won’t look under the bed). Print out the downloadable checklist so when the timer dings, you can check off each item on the list.
No Time to: Prep All of the Food
You haven’t even done your grocery shopping yet, let alone started prepping make-ahead dishes days in advance. Take a deep breath. We’ve created the fastest Thanksgiving menu ever. It takes just a single day to make (no, you won’t have to work until midnight), and no advance prep is needed.
The trick to a quick-roasting turkey? Cut it up before you cook it. Not only is it ready in under two hours, but each piece is extra-crispy. Serve it with creamy smashed potatoes that call for just 10 minutes of hands-on time and a spinach-raisin-pistachio salad that’s ready in less than half an hour. To keep hungry guests happy as you finish cooking, mix up this creamy corn dip, a fun take on queso. The best part: It’s ready to serve in just 10 minutes.
No Time to: Make a Dessert
It’s no secret that the turkey is the star of the show, so it’s easy to get so preoccupied with the main course that you completely forget to plan a dessert. Luckily, there’s no need to overthink it—after feasting on turkey and stuffing, just a bite of something sweet is enough. To make sure your dessert recipe doesn’t take up time that would be better spent preparing side dishes, choose one or two from our list of favorite quick Thanksgiving desserts. Each one takes 20 minutes or less of active time, so you can make the sweet tooths in the family happy without having to stay up late baking.
No Time to: Set the Table
There’s still time to make the table look spectacular, even if you don’t plan to buy anything new. Our 30 favorite Thanksgiving table settings is full of clever ways to rethink things you already own. Corral the uncarved pumpkins and gourds left over from Halloween and group them down the middle of the table for a simple centerpiece. Or let your plaid blanket stand in for a tablecloth, as shown above from Home Is Where the Boat Is. Even a bunch of branches with colorful fall leaves can become a stunning focal point when arranged in a large glass vase. For the kids’ table, try wrapping it in craft paper so the little ones can draw and write down what they’re thankful for while the meal is prepared. And if mealtime gets messy, you can just roll up the paper and recycle it at the end of the night.
No Time to: Shop Around for the Best Wines
To save time at the liquor store, we’ve chosen the six best types of wine to serve alongside the Thanksgiving feast. For each type, we’ve also called out three of the Real Simple food editors’ favorite picks, so you won’t have to judge a bottle by its label. Pinot noir is fresh and fruity, which helps to lighten up a heavy meal. If you prefer white wine, look for a riesling that’s marked “dry.” Want to make sure you open the bottle correctly when the entire family is watching you? Follow along with our step-by-step video tutorial.
No Time to: Play Bartender
When you’re hosting, whether it’s a big family Thanksgiving or a casual Friendsgiving, you don’t have time to whip up custom cocktails for every guest. To keep it easy, mix up one big batch of a signature cocktail and let guests help themselves. All 10 of these crowd-pleasing cocktail recipes take just five minutes to make, so they’re almost as easy as opening a bottle of wine. And these 12 recipes require just two ingredients each, so you likely already have everything you need on-hand. A lemony gin punch creates a nice contrast to the rich food, while a rosemary, grape, and gin cocktail incorporates an herb that may make an appearance later in the meal. If you’re preparing for a crowd that really likes to celebrate, do yourself a favor and make a second batch ahead of time to store in the fridge. When the first round is over, you’ll have a second round chilled and ready to go.
No Time to: Think About Breakfast the Next Morning
If you’re hosting the big feast and having overnight guests, chances are serving breakfast the following morning isn’t on the top of your priority list. Rather than resort to cold turkey, whip up one of these delicious breakfast casseroles meant to feed a crowd. The sausage, egg, and kale strata can be prepped up to 12 hours in advance, so on Friday morning, all you have to do is pop it in the oven. Craving something sweet after all of the savory dishes the night before? These are the easiest cinnamon rolls ever, thanks to store-bought puff pastry.
No Time to: Quell the Family Drama
The last thing you need when you’re trying to host a last-minute Thanksgiving is distracting family drama. To make sure you’re not the cause of a conflict, keep in mind these eight things you should never say around the holiday table. Keep the group busy before or after the big meal by organizing one of these fun games that will get the family moving. There won’t be time to discuss politics when everyone’s busy with backyard bowling or a scavenger hunt. While the family’s gathered for a game, it will give you a chance to put the last-minute touches on dinner, or take a moment to relax and congratulate yourself for pulling off the big event.