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10 Cooking Tips for a Stress-free Thanksgiving

thanksgiving dinner ideas

Or . . . how to cook for a crowd without losing your mind.

For many years, I've hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for a crowd of family and friends. To maintain my own sanity, and actually enjoy the experience, I've devised strategies to simplify and plan the Thanksgiving meal. A stress-free holiday is mostly about organization, but it's also about accepting the fact that you can't cook the same way for two people as for twenty.

Here are some of my favorite cooking tips for a crowd to make Thanksgiving a pleasure, not just for the guests, but also for the cook:

  1. Plan your Thanksgiving menu around recipes that can be prepared in advance, and do as little cooking as possible on the day of the event. On Thanksgiving Day, I limit my actual cooking to turkey, gravy and potatoes. Everything else is just assembled or reheated.
  2. During the weeks before the holiday, make cranberry sauce, stuffing, breads and baked desserts and store them in the freezer. (This is also the perfect motivation to clean out your freezer and refrigerator)
  3. Prepare vegetable dishes and salads a day or two before Thanksgiving Day. Instead of a green salad, which doesn't keep well, try making a vegetable salad such as a seasonal beet or carrot salad. This way you can prepare the salad and the dressing ahead of time and combine them at the last minute.
  4. Accept that it's impossible have everything piping hot at the same time. Therefore, make some dishes that can be enjoyed at room temperature. Think of the antipasto display at an Italian restaurant. All those beautiful roasted and marinated vegetables sit out for hours without losing their appeal.
  5. Avoid making mashed potatoes for a large group. As irresistable as they are, mashed potatoes don't hold or reheat well. My standby potato solution is to cut white and sweet potatoes into wedges, toss them with olive oil, rosemary and sea salt, and roast them for about an hour in a 400 degree oven. Do this Thanksgiving morning and leave the roasted potatoes out at room temperature until just before dinner, when they can be crisped in the oven.
  6. Don't worry about hors d'oeuvres. At such a large meal, people don't need to eat much more than a few olives or nuts beforehand. If you want to get more elaborate, ask your guests who have offered to bring something, to bring a dip or crudites. Remember to ask that they not bring anything that needs to be heated up, since your oven will be busy.
  7. Strategize in advance how each side dish will be reheated - in the oven, microwave or on the stove top. Avoid putting all your side dishes into the oven at the same time, which will crowd it, and your side dishes will take forever to reheat.
  8. When you take your turkey out of the oven, let it rest for a good 30 minutes under a tent of aluminum foil. Not only will this buy you time to make gravy and heat up your side dishes, but it will allow the juices to settle, resulting in a more succulent turkey.
  9. Anticipate that your guests will eat smaller than usual portions of each dish, since the Thanksgiving meal includes many more items than an average meal. Plan accordingly, so that you aren't overwhelmed with leftovers.
  10. If you have a small kitchen, plan a menu that can be served on one plate, so that the dirty dish situation doesn't get out of hand.

Related: Gourmet File's Thanksgiving Recipe Roundup.