I love entertaining, so when it comes to inviting people for Thanksgiving, my motto is simple: the more, the merrier. This attitude makes my mother nervous—her feelings about big dinner parties run from “meh” to “so-so”—to say the least. But my parents are very accommodating people, and over the years they’ve let me slowly turn their very small family Thanksgiving celebration into a full-blown extravaganza with a relatively sizable guest list.
In addition to quadrupling our attendance, each Thanksgiving I seem to find a way to make things a little more complicated on the food front. In recent years, we’ve added two hardcore vegetarians to our list of (previously very carnivorous) annual attendees, not to mention a smattering of gluten-free guests and the occasional lactose-intolerant invitee, as well. On top of this, I’m ambitious and want everyone to feel like they have a full-on feast, so the menu invariably grows and becomes more elaborate each year.
We’re talking beer-can turkey, honey-baked ham, tofu turkey, two or three kinds of stuffing (including one with scratch cornbread), creamed corn, mashed potatoes, cranberries, gravy, Brussels sprouts with pancetta, vegetarian sprouts, some sort of roasted squash dish, green beans, cheddar-broccoli casserole with homemade bread crumbs, a green salad, homemade Parker House rolls, scratch pumpkin cheesecake and apple pie, homemade vanilla ice cream, and two kinds of homemade spiced nuts to start. And did I mention that I like to drink champagne while cooking, as do my parents and whatever motley crew of friends are helping in the kitchen?
In order to keep everyone (okay, mostly my mother) calm and champagne’d up, and the feast on track, I’ve come to depend on one thing, which has made all the difference: an overly detailed, hopelessly micromanaged schedule.
I do as much as I can before the actual day—set the table; make the centerpiece and playlist; figure out the serving plates/cutlery for each dish; write the place cards; make the spiced nuts, ice cream, pies, cornbread ahead of time; chop all of the onions, celery, carrots, green beans, Brussels sprouts, and parcel into labeled plastic bags—so that my mise en place is already done and I’m not chopping like a frantic person on Thanksgiving Day.
A night or two before Thanksgiving, I print out every single recipe and go over the instructions in detail. Thinking about which dishes require the oven versus the stove, and which ones can hang tight in the stay-hot oven versus those that need to be done at the last minute, I start making a schedule of when every single thing needs to get done.
Almost no detail is too small. Last year’s schedule included to-do items like “2:30 p.m.: assemble ham,” meaning to arrange slices of honey-baked ham on its assigned serving platter; “3:30 p.m.: preheat oven to 350° F for turkey”; “6:10 p.m.: drain and dry potatoes”; and “6:15 p.m.: put warm potatoes through potato ricer.”
When the schedule is perfected, I then make copies for my parents and all the friends who are cooking with us so that everyone has their own copy. Early on Thanksgiving afternoon, we meet in the kitchen for a debriefing, loosely assign responsibilities, and claim our countertop space. As we cook throughout the day, we check off each to-do item on the schedule and check in constantly to make sure everyone's staying exactly on schedule.
Is it overkill? Maybe. But it works, first and foremost, and it's also fun, because we feel like a team. Additionally, it takes the guesswork and stress out of Thanksgiving, because you’re never second-guessing yourself or wondering what you should be doing. And that means you can drink champagne and dance to Motown while cooking, which is always a good thing in my book.
take out broc-cheddar gratin
turn oven to 425°F
put broc-cheddar gratin in oven
stir butter/cream (warm) into potatoes
check and remove sprouts from oven
check sprouts in oven
take turkey out of oven/let rest 30 min.
turn oven up to 400°F
put sprouts into oven
put stuffing in oven @ Brown's for 45 min. at 400°F
put tofu turkey in oven @ Brown's for 45 min. at 400°F
start searing sprouts
turn oven on @ Brown's at 400°F
take salad dressing out
put turkey in oven @ Kerr's at 350°F
turn Kerr's oven on at 350°F
assemble broc-cheddar gratin
take turkey out of fridge
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