How to Stay Sane on Thanksgiving: Advice From An (Almost) Reformed Procrastinating Over-Acheiver

Monday, November 24, 2014

Yikes! Do you hear that? That's the sound of November flying past me before I can grab a moment to get the rest of my holiday recipes up! Seriously, the challenge of blogging, looking for a job and keeping up with a crawling infant is just... exhausting. I'm tired guys. The thought of cooking Thanksgiving dinner this year is starting to feel like a daunting task. Last year I managed to pull an all-nighter baking pies, pregnant mind you. I cooked all day like a boss without so much as a nap, only to fall asleep at the dinner table. This year? I'm wondering if they'll miss me if I just hide under the covers with the baby. I don't know if it's mommy-fatigue or food blogger angst, but I have been extremely overwhelmed in the kitchen lately. There are days that I literally have to pat myself on the back for getting one meal cooked. When I looked at our family's tentative Thanksgiving menu and realized 95% of it is on me, I'll admit I had a brief moment of panic. I feel like I'm going to disappoint my readers by saying that - let's face it, out of all the holidays this one is pretty much the culinary Super Bowl. But the truth is? I was kinda over this holiday before it even started. I've tested and re-tested and even triple-tested recipes for damn near everything I'd want to eat on Turkey Day, so I wouldn't complain if we just ordered a pizza. Okay - totally not going to happen in real life, but it's sounding great in my head. I'm sure I will ratchet up some last minute energy and find a way to look forward to cooking Thursday. But just saying, the pizza sounds nice.

Raven, upon hearing about our menu for Thanksgiving.

End rant.

Forgive me, I know you came here to figure out just how the hell you're going to pull this day off yourself. Well I trust that you've already scoured all your favorite cooking magazines for tips and conjured up the perfect Thanksgiving Day cooking extravaganza in your head. You know, the one that ends when your deliciously golden brown turkey is ready for carving at precisely the right moment and your guests gather 'round the table, holiday cocktails in hand. That's cute. Listen, I hate to be the one to tell you but it probably ain't gonna happen like that. And that's fine. Once you take away the delusion that you will somehow transform into the Barefoot Contessa overnight, we can start getting down to the business of conquering Thanksgiving dinner, for normal people. And before you balk at that, yes, I'm putting myself into the category of "normal" people. I am by no means a professional chef or cook in a professionally equipped kitchen, nor do I have unlimited resources to devote to this one fancy dinner out of the year. As a food blogger, do I have a bit more experience in the kitchen than most? Absolutely. But on Thursday, I'm still a home cook and a mom of two - and like so many of you, I'll be busy in the kitchen trying to get some decent tasting food on everybody's plate at a reasonable time, without killing anybody who gets in my way. So while you don't have to take all my advice, just know that it comes from a place of understanding. Believe me, I've been there - remember my Thanksgiving adventures 2 years ago? If I can do this, you can too. Below, my suggestions for staying sane on Thanksgiving.

1. Plan a realistic menu. Thanksgiving isn't really the day to attempt culinary masterpieces in the kitchen for the first time. So if just last week you were learning how to dice an onion, a homemade Turducken is not a wise choice for your holiday menu. Trying out a couple new dishes is fine if they are at the same level of difficulty you're comfortable cooking, but don't stress yourself out trying to up the ante. There's a good chance that crazy new gourmet recipe won't work out exactly as expected, or it'll end up being a huge time suck that throws off your schedule. Either way, it's going to be far less stressful to stick to cooking what you know and focus on doing those things, better. I get that you want to wow your dinner guests with a fabulous spread, but they'll be most impressed with flawlessly executed, albeit simple dishes. Along with that, be realistic about your resources - don't plan to cook more than what you can handle. This is especially true for anybody who won't have much help in the kitchen that day, those cooking in small kitchens, and people on fixed incomes. Just know your limits, and think those things through when considering what to add to your menu. Our food culture tends to be one of excess, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with scaling back on the menu if that's what needs to happen to make Thanksgiving possible.

2. Stick to classic dishes. I struggle a bit myself in this area because I like to try new things and not sit down to the same traditional meal every year. But what I've come to learn is that everybody isn't going to be as adventurous as I am about food. Most people really crave those same tried-and-true dishes at Thanksgiving. This is precisely why the horror that is canned cranberry jelly still exists in a world where fresh cranberries are abundant (for the record, I'd still eat it.) My suggestion is if you really have the urge to switch it up, put a spin on your classic dishes by changing the spices a little bit or maybe prepare the same veggies but in a different way. Maybe you can work in one new side dish or pie that you don't typically have. As an example, I snuck in a warm Brussels sprouts salad last year and it went over so well that it was requested this year. I've also successfully gotten that dreaded green bean casserole off our menu. People fear change, but you can coax them into a new frontier if you plan strategically and ease them into it gently. If somebody fakes scurvy at your table, don't say I didn't warn you.

(Side note: I don't actually care for Stove Top anymore, but the commercials are hilarious.)

3. Don't wing it. By all means have a plan. Even if it means scribbling down your menu on the back of a napkin on your way to the grocery store Wednesday night, have a plan. Take a few minutes to write down what you'll be serving Thursday - everything from appetizers, to dinner, desserts and drinks. Don't forget things like breakfast that morning and snacks to munch on throughout the afternoon. Use this to plan your shopping lists (more on that later.) For many people, that's probably where your planning will begin and end, and that's better than nothing. But if you can, consider taking things a step further for your own sanity. Make a working schedule for yourself and whoever else will be cooking. It can be as informal as simply listing the order in which you plan to cook things, or down to the nitty gritty details of what time the turkey needs to go in the oven and when to reheat those casseroles you baked ahead of time.  One of the best tips I've read over the years is to set out your serving dishes and use sticky notes to label them for what will go in each one. Little things like that can prevent last minute confusion, which inevitably leads to food getting cold or forgetting about those rolls you popped in the oven. Thanksgiving is like any other event in that the day will go smoothly if you have a plan in mind for getting everything done.

4. Shop smart. Take inventory of your pantry and fridge in the week or two leading up to Thanksgiving. Stock up on what's running low now so that you're not overwhelmed with remembering those odds & ends on top of your real shopping list. It's okay if you haven't finalized your menu yet, just make sure you have the typical things you'd need for every day cooking. Keep in mind that between Thanksgiving and New Year's, you'll probably use a lot more of staples like flour, butter, cooking oils, stock, sugar, etc., so it's not a bad idea to double up or take advantage of bulk sales if you have the storage space.  In past years we have done our bulk shopping first, then shopped for produce and specialty items between our two local grocery stores. You can save money if you're not afraid to shop around a bit. As far as writing your shopping lists, there are lots of mobile apps that can come in handy. I'm still a fan of Out of Milk, and I also use the mobile apps for our local stores because those link to coupons directly. If you tend to grab your recipes online, many popular recipe sites allow you to build a shopping list based on recipes you select there. I tend to do things the old fashioned way and either print out or jot down the ingredients for all the recipes I'll be cooking that day. Then one by one, I add everything I need to my shopping list and mark the items I need in multiples. We tend to wait until Monday or Tuesday of Thanksgiving week to do our major shopping. It's a little less crowded than going over the weekend, and less time to worry about where to put everything between then and the actual holiday. Also, remember to consider things like trash bags, ziploc freezer bags, aluminum foil, paper towels, etc. Between cooking and storing/reheating leftovers, you'll use a lot more of these things than usual so make sure you're covered.

5. Clean out your fridge. Speaking of space, the weekend before Thanksgiving is a great time to clean out your fridge so that when you do your major shopping you have a place to put it. Eat up your leftovers instead of adding more to the fridge over the next few days. Throw out any old, forgotten condiments and empty out those mystery tupperware containers. Check your freezer for foods that are past their prime as well. If you find yourself with a ton of random veggie scraps, make a stock -  your Thanksgiving recipes will thank you. Remember that all produce doesn't necessarily need to be kept in the fridge as long as your house isn't crazy warm. And if you live in an area where it's chilly outside this time of year, stick a cooler out in the garage to handle what doesn't fit in the fridge. It's okay to leave many of your fruits and veggies out on the counter for a day or two if you need the fridge space for things like milk, cheese, and gigantic hunks of meat. By the way, how genius is this tip to use your vegetable crisper drawer as a space for brining that bird? As far as leftovers go, ziploc freezer bags can be huge space savers. Instead of trying to stack tupperware or odd shaped casserole dishes, just transfer your leftovers to freezer bags which are much easier to squeeze into the fridge.

6. Prep whatever you can in advance. You don't have to cook everything from start to finish on Thursday, in fact I will tell you that's probably the biggest mistake I've made in past years. There's so many more things that can be done in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. You can also try to organize your ingredients in the fridge by recipe so that things are easy to find and grab when ready to cook. There are some dishes like salads and mashed potatoes that I personally think are better made the day of, but that's a call you can make depending on your menu. Here's a sample menu I jotted down with examples of how I would spread it out over the week, plus additional notes below.

  • Turkey: Brine it on Monday or Tuesday and once rinsed, let it air chill until Thursday. An air chilled turkey is going to have crispier skin, so this do-ahead is only going to make things better. Whether you're slathering it with butter or stuffing herbs under the skin, all of that can also be done Wednesday night so the bird is ready to pop in the oven in the morning. If you're spatchcocking the bird, that can be done before you brine - bonus, it saves a little space and the backbone can be used to make stock and/or gravy ahead of time as well.   (Update 2016: This post was originally written before I learned the magic of dry brines, which is now my preferred method. Dry brining can be done up to 3 days prior to cooking. No rinsing required, and the bird air chills at the same time. Read about it here.) 
  • Ham: Most hams are already going to be cooked when you buy them, but you can prepare a glaze ahead of time and keep in the fridge until needed.
  • Dressing or stuffing: Cube your bread the day you bring it home from the store and leave it out to get a little stale. The night before, you can chop up your onions, celery and whatever else you're throwing in there, and store in airtight containers. For many recipes you can probably even go ahead and pre-bake your dressing on Wednesday, covered with foil. On Thursday, you'll just need to reheat - take the foil off in the last 15 minutes or so to crisp it. The only thing you don't want to do is add too much liquid to a stuffing that will sit for awhile unbaked; it can get soggy and that's harder to fix.
  • Mac & Cheese: (Updated 2016) I have had great results assembling the mac & cheese up to a day in advance. A little bit of extra milk or cream helps to keep it from drying out. Alternatively, the bechamel cheese sauce can be made in advance and stored separately for a few days. Assemble with remaining cheese and noodles when ready to bake.
  • Veggies: When you get home from the store, you can immediately wash, dry and prep at least some of your veggies - think things like celery, carrots, and butternut squash that can be peeled and/or chopped without worrying about spoiling. Foods like apples or potatoes that deteriorate quickly you'll want to hold off on, but they can certainly at least be scrubbed. Greens like kale and collards are another one that take a ton of time, so go ahead and soak, destem and chop them up ahead of time - just store in ziploc bags until needed. Same with any lettuce or herbs that need to be washed. If you have any recipes involving caramelized onions, that's definitely not the move on Thanksgiving - make a huge batch earlier in the week so you're not babysitting a skillet the day it's needed. 
  • Pies: Definitely something you can do earlier in the week. Pie dough can be made weeks in advance even, and frozen - just thaw the day you'll need to roll them out. If you're going to be making single crust pies, you can roll out the dough and place into pie shells, then freeze the shells until you're ready to fill. I'd bake my pies as early as Tuesday, depending on the type - some may have a tendency to get soggier than others, plus you don't want to be stuck needing precious fridge space. If you're making cream pies, you can always hold off on adding the whipped cream topping until Thanksgiving morning, or consider stabilizing your whipped cream if you want to prepare it even earlier.
  • Cranberry sauce: Make it early in the week and refrigerate. It'll have plenty of time to set up that way, and the flavors will intensify a bit with time. 
  • Spices & herbs: If you'll be using your own spice blends, mix them a few days before Thanksgiving, especially if you're doing any kind of toasting & grinding whole seeds. Just store your blends in airtight containers - I like to use small mason jars for this, labeled of course. As far as fresh herbs go, I use the same blend of chopped fresh parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme for the turkey and several side dishes on Thanksgiving. What I do now is finely chop a gigantic batch of it at once instead of repeating that for each recipe. It can be done the night before, stored in a mason jar or tupperware, and popped into the freezer to stay fresh. There's no loss in flavor at all and it's one small hassle out of my way.
  • Breads: Biscuit dough can be mixed and cut out ahead of time, then frozen. They'll bake just the same when you're ready for them and don't even need to be thawed first. Cornbread is perfectly fine to make the day before - if it's for stuffing/dressing, you'll actually want to make that several days ahead so it can dry out. If you're making other fresh breads, consider rustic recipes that don't require kneading - usually the trade off is a long rise time, but if you can do that ahead of time you'll be rewarded. And don't shy away from ready-to-bake frozen Parker House style rolls - it's one of the few (only) store bought items you'll see me approve here. Word to Sandra Lee.

7. Accept help if it's offered. Go ahead, groan. I know how it is though as somebody who does the majority of the cooking myself. You're an hour away from serving time, haven't showered, and have about 4 half-finished dishes on your hands. At this point, you can't remember which pot needed the melted butter that just splattered all over the microwave. But when your less-than-favorite distant relative who never stops talking sticks their head in the kitchen to ask if you need an extra hand, what do you say? "Oh, that's okay - I'll be fine!" As cooks, we've probably all been there. It can be impossible to gather your thoughts long enough to even explain to somebody what you'd need done, let alone the control-freak impulses that will inevitably kick in when they start dicing onions the wrong way. But on Thanksgiving, if it gets to that point there is no better time to learn to let go and say "Yes, I'd love the help - here's what you can do." If you're easily flustered, it's not a bad idea to refer back to that list you made (ahem) of things that need to get done, so you could possibly pick off something easy to delegate. Like setting the table, in the other room, away from me. I had a moment last year after fighting help all day, in which I finally needed to let my uncle stir the roux and bechamel for my mac & cheese, and my mom finished the gravy. It was terrifying, but it got done, and dinner was served.  

8. Remember why we're celebrating. If at any point all of the above fails and you're at wits end, I want you to stop, breathe, and remember the reason any of us actually put up with this shit every year.

The Thanksgiving Leftovers Sandwich.

Happy Thanksgiving guys. Now, let me get my act together and post a few recipes for those of you who are still planning your menus...

Update 11/20/15: A year later, I'm "officially" working as a professional personal chef now. I was delighted to read through this post and realize that the advice I'm giving out today is still in line with my thoughts here. If you've found my post and are still putting together your Thanksgiving menu, check out my eBook! It has everything you need to pull off the big day.

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