Thanksgiving Dinner Ideas

Don't let the stresses of hosting Thanksgiving keep you from enjoying the day. Follow these simple steps to prep, plan and execute a memorable Thanksgiving dinner for your friends and family.

The first sign of the holidays sneaks up earlier and earlier every year. Stores are bringing in Christmas merchandise before Halloween trick-or-treaters have even carved their pumpkins. But no matter how soon we think about the holidays, there is always the mad dash just before the big day to get things done.

Thanksgiving is no exception. We ponder the menu and mull over the table setting far in advance, but then fail to put those ideas in motion until the clock is ticking down. Acting on those ideas needs to become a priority in order to avoid the stress that can come with hosting a big dinner for family and friends.

Lauren Groveman host of the PBS show “Baking Made Easy” and author of "The I Love to Cook Book" says the key to a stress-free Thanksgiving feast is doing as much as possible in advance, including cooking practice.

“The holidays bring a lot of expectations. You need to be muscular,” says Groveman, a New York native who also does life coaching for people who want to experience “the art, soul, and spirit of delicious living.”

“You wouldn’t go to the gym and expect to bench press 150 pounds on your first day," adds Groveman. "You want to be more adept in the kitchen when walking into a holiday. Cook more often. Practice. Then you’ll be better prepared to show your stuff on Thanksgiving Day.”

Prep Early

Groveman suggests that the holiday cook prepares as much food as possible in advance to save valuable time on Thanksgiving Day. She makes an Apple-scented, Curried Butternut Squash Soup a month in advance, freezes it and her first course is all done.

She says many desserts, such as pies, can be made ahead and frozen or refrigerated. For cookies, mix the dry ingredients and store them in the cabinet. When you’re ready to bake, just add the remaining ingredients and you’ll have your dough in the oven in just ten minutes.
Breads, rolls, and muffins can also be frozen to avoid Thanksgiving Day kitchen burnout. Season the turkey the day before (which also allows the herbs and spices to better absorb the flavors) and then you need only stuff the bird and pop it in the oven on Thanksgiving morning.

(Remember: never stuff your turkey ahead of time because bacteria can develop in dark, moist places like the bird’s cavity.)

“Break everything down into manageable steps,” Groveman advises. “Do things ahead so you’re not suddenly overwhelmed with minutiae.”

Gather up your recipes three weeks ahead of the holiday and make your shopping list. Include necessities like a meat thermometer for the turkey, an oven thermometer, a disposable roasting pan and other non-grocery items.

Use the oven thermometer to test your oven temperature to make sure it’s accurate. If you buy a frozen turkey, allow sufficient time for thawing so you don’t have a rock-hard bird on Thanksgiving morning—which leads to dinner served somewhere after sunset.

The preferred method for thawing is in the refrigerator. Allow three to four days for turkeys that weigh 8 to 16 pounds and five days for a bird that weighs 17 to 24 pounds.

Dealing with Décor

Advance prep doesn’t end in the kitchen. Look around your home and decide where you want decorative accents, like flowers, gourds and other autumn accents. A small investment in holiday tableware can help establish the mood.
Think about your table’s centerpiece—and if you even want one—and have it ready ahead of time. Make sure you select a centerpiece that doesn’t block the view of the dinner guests. For fresh flowers, let your florist know that you want a bouquet or arrangement that will reach full bloom on Thanksgiving Day, not before.

Orange roses add fragrant elegance while sunflowers are cheerful. Buy a few bunches of gerbera daisies in the color palette you want. To keep the thick-stemmed flowers standing straight, add a shot of vodka to the water.

On Thanksgiving morning, trim the stems and place one bloom in a small vase at each place setting. Next, go ahead and set your table a few days before Thanksgiving. The added time lets you check your tablecloth for stains, snags, or holes. Plus, the wrinkles will fall out naturally, saving you the time required for ironing.

By setting up early, you can examine your glasses, stemware, and flatware for unsightly spots or marks. Place your empty serving dishes, bowls, bread baskets and gravy boats on the table with a note on each one as to what menu item will fill it on Thanksgiving Day. This step allows you to envision the space on your table and determine if you need an additional serving area.

Use these dishes as a visual checklist to make sure you don’t forget to put out side dishes, like cranberry sauce, that are often left in the kitchen amidst the turmoil. To protect your perfect placement, cover your table setting with a cloth or sheet. 

Recruit Help

There is no “Holiday Meal Mandate” that requires you to do everything yourself. Consider delegating dishes and duties to guests. Many people want to be more involved with the holiday and will welcome the opportunity to beam with pride while other guests are praising their cooking.

Share the wealth here.

When your guests inevitably ask if they can bring something, suggest a side dish, salad, bread, or dessert. Make a list on your refrigerator to keep track of who is bringing what.

Two days before Thanksgiving, call, email or text each person to confirm they’re still planning on bringing their promised dish so that you have no surprises when someone shows up empty-handed.

On Thanksgiving Day, be prepared with duties that can be handed off to guests who want to help out. Uncorking the wine, serving hors d’oeuvres, carving the turkey, bringing out desserts, making coffee and helping with clean-up are easy ways to allow others to feel useful—and to give you one more thing to be thankful for!

Plan now to make your holiday stress-free. Imagine yourself relaxing with your guests instead of rushing around the kitchen with an oven mitt on one hand and potato-covered whisk in the other.

When you’re relaxed, your guests will be, too.

Good luck with your Thanksgiving dinner!