This was written for Thanksgiving, but it applies equally well to any big holiday dinner.
Thanksgiving dinner can be a maddening experience for many people, and it’s getting worse as fewer people cook with any regularity. (When I was food editor for the San Jose Mercury News, a reader called in a fit of panic. She had no idea how to cook a turkey. I said, “Relax, it’s just like cooking a chicken.” She replied, “But I don’t know how to cook a chicken either.”)
It’s also a meal that almost everyone prepares only once a year. So, it’s not like you can practice before the big day. And speaking of big days, Thanksgiving can be one of the few times you get together with certain members of your family, or your spouse’s. More often than not, some of those folks are going to, shall we say, “disagree” with each other during dinner table conversation, especially this year!
So, here are some tips to make the meal at least go more smoothly.
1) GET ORGANIZED. Write down the menu. Make a shopping list from the recipes. Then shop as far ahead of time as you can. Also take into account what dishes you’ll need for serving and eating, including glassware. For example, next to the specific food, put the dish in which it will be served. Don’t forget decorations, candles, linen, and anything you can think of.
2 ) BUY A SMALLER TURKEY. We’ve been conditioned to think that we need to have a Godzilla-sized bird so we can eat leftovers for three weeks. But the rule of thumb for portions of turkey is one pound per person. So if eight people are going to be eating, a 10 to 12-pound bird will do just fine and still provide leftovers.
3) MAYBE YOU DON’T NEED A WHOLE TURKEY. If your family doesn’t like dark meat, why not buy a turkey breast instead? It will be faster and easier to cook and carve.
4) MAKE FEWER SIDE DISHES. I’m as guilty as the next person. I feel have to include not one but two dressings, sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes, and so on. Pretty soon you’ve got 10 side dishes. Keep it to a manageable 4 or 5. For example, one dressing, sweet potatoes or mashed potatoes, a green vegetable like string beans or Brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce, and perhaps a salad.
5) HAVE GUESTS BRING A DISH, DECORATION OR BEVERAGE. I’m cooking for my family this year but my mother and sister are bringing the pies. Try to match up people with things they do best.
6) KEEP THE BEVERAGES SIMPLE. Beaujolais is an easy to drink red wine that won’t be overwhelmed by the cacophony of dishes on the table. (see Beaujolais story.) Sparkling mineral water and apple cider are good non-alcoholic choices.
7) MINIMIZE THE HORS D’OEUVRES. You’ll actually be doing your guests a favor. The last thing they need is a lot of food before dinner. A colorful platter of raw vegetables with a simple dip and perhaps some mixed nuts or olives are all you need. Pre-dinner munchies should be cold or room temperature so there is no worry about making them at last minute or keeping them warm. As with the dinner, keep beverages simple. Sparkling wines are a good idea. Spanish cava is a good value. Italian Prosecco is refreshing and lower in alcohol.
8) SIMPLIFY DECORATIONS TOO. An attractive floral arrangement may be all you need.
9) IT’S OK TO USE SOME CONVENIENCE ITEMS. I love chestnuts but they’re a pain to peel. So I buy cooked and peeled chestnuts in a jar. Canned chicken stock is perfectly acceptable for gravy and soup.
10) DON’T BE ASHAMED TO BUY A FEW PREPARED ITEMS. Just because you’re having guests, doesn’t mean you have to cook every dish. For example, if you’re not a good baker or dessert maker, buy the desserts.
11) PREPARE AS MUCH FOOD AHEAD AS POSSIBLE. Start as far out from the actual serving time as you can, then work up to dinnertime. For example, what dish can be done two, three, even four days ahead? What can be done the day before? The morning of? Most, if not all, side dishes can be done ahead, then reheated. Some dishes actually improve in flavor if made in advance. Leave as little as possible to the last minute.
12) CONSIDER HOW THE FOOD WILL BE COOKED OR REHEATED. You’re not going to be able to reheat everything in the microwave oven. So figure on doing one dish there, another in the oven, another on top of the stove and so on. Remember, the turkey needs to rest at least 20 minutes outside the oven before carving. Use that time to reheat some, if not all, of the side dishes.
13) SET THE TABLE THE NIGHT BEFORE. Having the table set when you wake up on Turkey Day puts your mind at ease and gives you a feeling that things are under control.
14) ASSIGN GUESTS TASKS. If one person is particularly adept at carving, have him or her slice up the bird. Another can open and pour the wine as well as putting the other beverages on the table.
15) SPLURGE ON A HOUSE CLEANER. You don’t have to make every room spick-and-span, just the rooms your guests will see like the living room, dining room, and powder room.