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Complete Guide to Thanksgiving Dinner

Updated on August 17, 2014

Your Complete Guide to Thanksgiving Dinner Or, How to Work With the Bird, the Family & Remain Sane

We're diving into Thanksgiving - and we look forward to it all year long! As we plan and prepare our way toward this special day, we know it's all about the bird - and so much more.

When family and friends gather at your table, we'll help you present a beautiful bird, smooth gravy, moist dressing, and the sweetest sweet potatoes. We'll even guide you through the grocery aisles for a quick menu (if you're short on time) or a totally traditional dinner.

Whether you're planning your first feast (yes, it can be a wee bit overwhelming) or you have hosted many gatherings (always with a few surprises), there is something new to learn or the adventure of special dishes that will create fresh memories and warm the heartstrings of those around you.

We'll guide you from start to finish - first with a timeline and those tricky lists. Next, you can pick and prepare the perfect turkey in our featured section on The Bird. In our third section on Sides and Desserts, you'll also discover breads, beverages, and a few great suggestions for pairing wines with the many glorious and diverse sides and desserts.

Before you're through, you'll also discover some terrific tips for creating mouth-watering leftovers - for much more than an endless parade of post-turkey sandwiches.

Turkey Timelines: Organizing a Great Gathering

A timeline will help you track what needs to be done and when.

Three-Four weeks ahead

-- Buy canned goods, including pumpkin, evaporated milk, etc.

-- Purchase frozen vegetables

-- Purchase beverages, including wines

-- Make rolls and freeze

-- Now is the time to order a fresh turkey

If you're planning to introduce new recipes for Thanksgiving, take time to try them out. Never serve an "experiment" to guests.

Two weeks ahead

-- Make apple pies and cheesecakes for freezing

One week ahead

-- Purchase cream, butter, and other condiments that will be used in the last-minute cooking process. Waiting until the day before may render some of the better-quality items out of stock.

Three days ahead

-- Purchase fresh vegetables

-- Make pies and rolls (if you're preparing them fresh instead of frozen)

-- Prepare stuffing, cranberry sauce, and relishes

Turkey note: Always follow packaging instructions for safe thawing. Times will vary based on the bird's weight.

One day ahead

-- Purchase last-minute items, such as rolls if you're buying from a bakery

-- Chop vegetables and store properly

-- Prepare makeahead casseroles

-- Thaw frozen rolls and breads

-- Rinse and dry salad ingredients

-- Perform any prep chores that will keep overnight in the refrigerator

Thanksgiving Day (where it all comes together)

-- Cooking, baking, heating, carving, serving, enjoying - see how easy it is?

Thanksgiving: the Comforts of a Traditional Table

The splendor of a traditional Thanksgiving table rewards us with vibrant fall colors and many favorite foods. They are comforting as well - packed with warm memories of past family gatherings and expectations of those to come.

The standards remain in many homes, which mean a large browned turkey with all the trimmings. Differences lie in the region and our diverse heritages, of course. Timeless recipes will fill your heart with anticipation and, eventually, your table with a spread of fabulous proportions.

Turkeys are the star attraction. In New England, they'll receive a honey glaze, while in the south it will be a simple baste of the bird's own broth (and in Kentucky, there'll be a strong hint of bourbon!).

Stuffing and Dressing - regardless of what you call it, it's delicious. Cook it inside the bird or separately as a casserole.

No traditional table is complete without cranberries. Recipes abound to please any palate. Their tartness is a perfect foil for the bird, especially dark meat.

Gravy - you can choose your weapon: cream or brown sauce. Either one will pool in potatoes, smother slabs of breast meat, and drown the dressing in rich and flavorful juices.

Side dishes - you know them well. Sweet potatoes covered in marshmallows and green beans camouflaged with crunchy onion rings. The mashed potatoes are simple and wonderfully fluffy.

Pies (pumpkin, pecan, and mincemeat, of course)

When planning your own traditional Thanksgiving dinner, keep colors, textures, and tastes in mind. They work together to please the eyes and the palate!

Thanksgiving: Modern Day Foods with Traditional Flair

The Thanksgiving table can be filled with a variety of foods. The importance lies in a range of dishes that is appealing visually as well as tasty. Traditions steadfastly abound in many homes, with fare based on generational recipes and customs.

Modern Thanksgiving dishes have veered in various directions from those many of us regard as traditional. They are becoming more popular for many reasons. Some annual gatherings are becoming smaller and more adventurous while others are leading an exciting surge into ethnic variations and a blend of cultural customs.

Main meat suggestions

-- Roast Goose

-- Turkey Roulade

-- Duck Breast

For intimate gatherings, couples, or singles:

-- Cornish Hen

-- Roasted Quail

Side dishes can be elaborate or simple for the modern table. They may bring a burst of color or simply serve to please the taste buds.

-- Mashed Potatoes with Goat Cheese

-- Shallots with Mashed Yellow Turnips

-- Cauliflower Polonaise

Breads and rolls remain at the modern table, with some fun ingredients.

-- Herbed Parmesan Muffins

Modern desserts are trending toward light fare, rather than completing the menu with a heavy crust and filling.

-- Fruit Compotes

-- Cranberry & Raspberry Mousse

Invite Everyone's Diet Lifestyle to the Table

Just as diverse as family members may be, so are their eating habits. Some of these dietary demands are simply eccentric, while others are based on health and lifestyle choices. You may not be as concerned about who hates peas (they can pick those out), but considerate hosts will want to please everyone with at least one or more dishes on the Thanksgiving table.

In many cases - whether it's low-carb, sugar-free, low-fat, or vegetarian - they'll be just as tasty as the standard fare and all your guests will love them.

It is perfectly acceptable to create two of the same dishes with varying ingredients. For instance, make one dressing with giblets and butter and a second minus the meat but with a vegetarian broth and margarine.

Vegetarians and vegans

First, it's important to know the difference between a vegetarian and a vegan - before you head to the grocery store. Vegetarians may consume dairy and eggs while vegans avoid all things animal-related, including their byproducts: whey, gelatin, sodium caseinate, and "natural flavorings."

Low-Fat

Most of us lose the desire to watch calories and fats on Thanksgiving. Why not throw in a few great dishes that will lift some of the guilt from consuming gravy and other goodies.

No-Sugar

You'll find many recipes that are just as tasty as the "real deal" and without the sugary high. You may wish to create fun, unobtrusive placards for each dish so everyone will know which is which.

Reduced Carbs

Carbohydrate reduction is also a fit for some diabetic and low-sugar lifestyles. Select recipes that will please friends and family members who always worry about "what they can eat."

While we're talking about everyone's turkey day tastes, here are a few tips on etiquette for both hosts and guests!

The Well-Dressed Bird and Other Decorating Ideas

Thanksgiving Day brings wonderful aromas that waft throughout our homes. They fill the senses with real-time goodies as well as memories of celebrations of years past. It is an instant invitation to recall favorite family members greeting us with open arms and a laden table.

The food, especially the turkey, takes center stage, along with family and friends. Indeed, the table will need little in the way of additional festive creations. Placemats and the tablecloth should not compete with the beautiful array of foods.

The Thanksgiving centerpiece can be simple or elaborate, but it should be low-profile so that guests can converse. Indeed, you do not want to crowd the table. It will be busy enough with serving utensils, extra side dishes, and condiments. Leave plenty of elbow room for your guests, plus some. Another option is to set up a buffet and leave the table free for decorating and displays. Create a table "runner" of fruits, squash, and miniature pumpkins. Intersperse with candles for a glowing effect.

It is nice to set the mood with seasonal decorations that are welcoming, starting at the front door. From there, you can create a bountiful pathway to the table. Thanksgiving lends itself to incorporating food and natural materials as part of the arrangement. Fill baskets of all sizes with gourds, pinecones, twigs, and leaves for a burst of warm color. Let your arrangements mingle with bold material swags in blazing bronzes, and deep reds.

If you have favorite serving dishes that will not be in use, fill them with both shelled and unshelled nuts and place on side tables and countertops. Dried fruits can also add interest. Fill net bags with fresh fruits; they'll make perfect take-home gifts for your guests.

The dessert table can become a blaze of sweet colors. Here, you can incorporate fun and decorative serving plates and serving pieces. Make iced cupcakes and purchase a "tree" for display. Add risers or use seasonally-themed cakestands to add multiple levels of goodies.

Want more ideas? Here are a few festive and practical tips for kitchens, tables and buffet areas on Thanksgiving Day.

Tips for a Budget Friendly Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving: the Original American Holiday

Bring a little Thanksgiving History to the Table, Too!

Our Thanksgiving feasts of today have very little in common with the first celebrations by Pilgrims and Native Americans near Plymouth, Massachusetts. It is doubtful those cooks spent weeks making lists and planning for a turkey and pie overload. There was no milk and no sugar; no carving knives, placemats, or napkins.

Some historians surmise that it is more likely they dined on venison and fish - and perhaps lobster - with sides of maize, dried fruits, and watercress. They sat down to a simple meal in the outdoors while they were thankful for being alive and having food to eat from a successful, if minimal, October harvest. These festivals had long been recognized in many parts of the world - even in ancient times. It was, however, in the thirteen colonies that Thanksgiving was eventually to become an "original" American holiday.

Thanksgiving continued to gain popularity as settlers surged toward the west. It was refuted as a Yankee celebration in some Southern states. Soon, however, the joys of serving food and gathering family won the country over. By 1879, Canada also recognized this event, electing to remain more faithful to the timing of that first gathering - the second Monday in October. As time marched on, proclamations by governors and presidents took the harvest gathering from June to November, finally reaching the third Thursday.

Meals became more elaborate as the 1900s began. Dutch ovens were new and affordable for many homes, eliminating the perils and hassles of hearth cooking. Trains were readily transporting foods from one end of the country to the other. Thanksgiving meals proceeded to receive a "modern" reinvention.

Following an early surge in decadent celebrations, World War I took its toll on the festivities. When the men returned home, so did much of the Thanksgiving feasting.

There are many foods from Yankee menus that remain popular, including currant jelly and chestnut-infused dressings. It is also possible that cranberries are the one true staple that has reigned in popularity through the ages.

Regardless of the menu selection, it is the gathering of family and friends around food that creates the thread of a truly warm and wonderful Thanksgiving!

Wanna Gab about the Gobbler?

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