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How to Plan an Easy Thanksgiving Dinner

Updated on November 19, 2014
CarolineChicago profile image

Caroline is a writer with a passion for great cooking & sustainable, humane food sources.

Thanksgiving Made Easy

Ever since becoming an adult, Thanksgiving has been my favorite holiday for a number of reasons:

  • No gifts = No pressure
  • Harvest Food: I love cooking (and eating) the traditional foods of Thanksgiving, from the turkey and stuffing to the mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. Bring it on!
  • A sense of history: I'm a serious student of history, and Thanksgiving offers a rich tradition of Native American and Colonial history, even if it is more complicated and controversial than we learned in school.
  • Family & Friends: Thanksgiving features inclusiveness. Democrats and Republicans both celebrate it; it is not religious; and, the only holiday to match it would be Independence Day.

With just a little planning, you, too, can relax and enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday.

Planning Your Thanksgiving Dinner

Between cookbooks, food magazines, the Internet, and TV, an overwhelming number of resources exist for planning your holiday dinner. Here are the best planning tips and ideas:

  • Try to obtain a firm estimate about the number of guests at least two weeks before.
  • Order your turkey at least one week ahead of time. Afresh turkey makes all the difference. You butcher will be happy to work with you on how much to order based on the number of adults and children you are expecting and whether or not you want leftovers. A good rule of thumb is one pound per person, if you want a moderate amount of leftovers.
  • Go through your recipes, cookbooks, and online resources at least one to two weeks ahead to develop your menu. As host, you should definitely plan on making the turkey, the stuffing, the gravy, and the mashed potatoes, as well as providing beverages and some wine and/or beer.
  • If you have guests coming who volunteer to bring something, keep track of who is bringing what. Options for "What Can I Bring?" include the corn, sweet potatoes, green vegetable, cranberry sauce, appetizer, pies, and dinner rolls. Don't be shy. If you are anticipating a large number of guests, just politely ask: "I'm in a bit of a pinch. Can you bring the [insert dish] for me?"
  • Non-perishables and frozen goods can be purchased throughout the month as they go on sale.
  • Plan to do your fresh produce shopping the weekend before Thanksgiving.

Cooking Ahead of Time

Experienced Thanksgiving chefs includes a couple of dishes that can be made ahead of time. My mother-in-law freezes her pies. I have friends who specialize in appetizers that can be made ahead and frozen.

Cranberry sauce can be made the weekend before and stored in the refrigerator. Transfer to a serving dish on T-Day. Cranberry sauce recipes abound, but my favorite is the Cumberland Sauce found in an old issue of Bon Appetit. Some sweet potato recipes can also be made ahead.

I have a family recipe for a Mashed Potato Casserole. This is my Official Mashed Potato Recipe. I sometimes double it and make two pans. Now that we have three teenagers, leftovers are rare! You can easily make this recipe two days ahead of Thanksgiving.

Mashed Potato Casserole
serves 8-10

  • 10# Idaho potatoes
  • 1-2 sticks butter (yes, that's right. This is not low fat--but you'll love it.)
  • 8-oz container low-fat Philadelphia Cream Cheese
  • 2% milk (do not use skim)
  • 3-4 green onions
  • 3-4 cups Kraft shredded Sharp Cheddar or Colby Jack (do not use low-fat cheese--it doesn't melt right)
  • Pepper, to taste
  • Paprika

One day before serving, peel and boil your potatoes in a very large stock pot until fork tender. While boiling, chop up your green onions into 1/4-inch slices, white and green parts.
Once potatoes are fork tender, drain and put back in stock pot. Mash with a potato masher or wooden spoon, adding slices of the butter. Once one stick of butter has been added, get out your electric hand mixer and beat. Add milk to create smooth whipped potatoes. Add the entire container of cream cheese. Add more butter and milk as needed until you get creamy, smooth peaks. Add green onions and stir. Add black pepper to taste.
When satisfied with seasoning, stiffness and smoothness, scrape out into 13 x 8 inch rectangular baking dish, sprayed ahead with Pam. Even out your potatoes, then liberally sprinkle on the grated cheese. Top with paprika.
Cover and refrigerate.
On the day you are serving, cook at 350 degrees for 45 minutes covered and for 30 minutes uncovered.

The Thanksgiving Table

Each year, I struggle with whether or not to use the good china or our everyday dishes, the silver or our stainless steel.

For small groups (less than 10), I use our china, with children under first grade eating off the everyday dishes. Now that our children are older, I usually have the youngest people use the everyday plates (a seniority issue here, not a competence issue). But more than 15 people? Heck, let's bring out the melamine seasonal dishes from Target or Kohl's along with the everday dishes and serve buffet style because our dining room table doesn't expand to infinite proportions. For families with small children, consider setting up a separate children's table off to the side, using a little art table and child-sized chairs.

I learned long ago from my mother-in-law that a nice light-weight black tablecloth does wonders for any table. It matches any place setting, is elegant, and also coordinates nicely with the foods being served. To liven it up, I like a pretty--yet small--fall centerpiece in the middle of the table and small votive candles lit before we start serving.

Whether it is china or melamine, sterling silver or stainless, I have the table set the night before, with serving dishes and serving spoons laid out. If you have cats, avoid putting the crystal out until Thanksgiving Day.

We also have a large turkey platter that we received for a wedding gift many years ago. I use it every year for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Sometimes, we have a wild hunt for the platter. "Where is it?" "Has anyone seen the turkey platter?" "Check the linen closet! Is it under your bed?" For a couple of years, it was missing completely, then suddenly reappeared. We like to blame the ghosts of past relatives playing jokes on us. Whether you have mischievous spirits in your home or not, you do not want a frantic hunt for a pivotal serving dish on Thanksgiving, as your gravy boils away to nothing.

After-Meal Activities

Now that you've planned your meal, have your to-do list scheduled, and delegated some cooking to other households, it is time to tackle the issue of what to do with your guests between the big, heavy meal and the dessert.

This depends on what time you are eating. Is it before, during or after the football game? Do you have an active crowd that should get outside and play their own football game? Be sure to have some coffee and alcohol ready for those who don't like football. Playing a movie on a second TV is a good option--or going for a walk if it is a nice day.

Older kids usually take care of themselves, dispersing into each others' rooms. Little ones might need that TV more than the football fans--or some time to play outside. SpongeBob, Disney movies, and the Peanuts all are great entertainment. Even adults love SpongeBob and Snoopy!

Finally, you might be able to round up enough guests to play an old fashioned board game or game of cards. This is a great time to bring out those old Trivial Pursuit games, Clue, or Apples to Apples. And if no one is using the TV, toss around some Wii remotes and ski those calories off!


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