By Mark G. McLaughlin
To anyone who has never had the responsibility of hosting a Thanksgiving feast, the task seems daunting – but it shouldn't. This is, after all, something that wives, moms and grandmas (and, more recently, husbands, dads and maybe a few grandads) have been doing for holidays for centuries, and there is neither mystery nor magic involved. What Thanksgiving is, however, is work – and, like any job for which someone has a deadline, the more they can get done ahead of time the less stressful things will be when the final bell rings – in this case, the Thanksgiving dinner bell. Here are just five key things to know about how to host a first Thanksgiving.
Like D-Day, Thanksgiving Needs Advance Planning
Thanksgiving will only go as well if plans and the preparations are made made in advance. Just because everyone knows what is on a traditional Thanksgiving table doesn't mean that your Thanksgiving feast will or must be limited to that basic menu. There are appetizers, extra meals for those guests with dietary restrictions or preferences, and dishes that are traditional to a particular family (pasta, rice, mashed turnips) to be considered.
Making a list of what foods and beverages will be needed – and all of the ingredients that go into the making of them, is only half of the list you need to make. The second half should be devoted to what is needed to serve those items. Do you have a pan big enough to roast a turkey? Do you have enough serving platters and bowls and the utensils for them? Do you have enough place settings, silverware and glassware to accommodate your guests? Are you going with paper or cloth napkins? These are not things you want to find out about on Thanksgiving, especially if the answer is "no." Make a list of what you need well before the big day.
Do Not Wait Until Thanksgiving Day – or the Night Before to Cook Everything
A lot of what goes into a Thanksgiving meal can be prepared a day or more ahead of time. Desserts (pies, usually) can be made several days ahead of time – or even weeks before if you pop them into the freezer. The same goes for many types of appetizers. Nobody says you have to wait until Thanksgiving to mash potatoes, yams, turnips or the like. They can be made a day or two in advance and kept in the fridge. The same is true for cranberry sauce and for many other garnishes and side dishes (such as that lasagna so often found on an Italian family's sideboard at Thanksgiving).
Allow Time to Fully Thaw, Thoroughly Clean and Cook the Bird
A fresh turkey is ready to go as soon as you get home from the store, but a frozen one will take at least three days – maybe even four if it is particularly large – to thaw in the refrigerator. No turkey or any poultry should be left at room temperature before cooking, lest it spoil (and spoil things for everyone). Turkeys also need to be thoroughly cleaned. Mostly, that means removing the bag of gizzards from the main cavity – and often from the rear cavity as well. Many a first-time turkey cook forgets to look in the back. Those gizzards are also something that can be cooked ahead of time, either for use in the gravy or to give to guests who enjoy them. Also allow plenty of time for the turkey to cook. The size of your turkey will determine how long it needs to cook in the oven.
Don't Do It By Yourself – Share the Work – and the Joy
Thanksgiving is supposed to be about everyone coming together to celebrate the many things they are thankful for. No one person need do all of the work or shoulder all of the expense. Ask guests if there is something they would like to contribute. This can be anything from a side dish to a bottle of wine. A lot of people like to bring something to the table, as it makes them feel like they are part of it all, and not just guests. This can also apply to the pots, pans, plates and everything else needed to make the meal and set the table. Borrowing is what friends, families and neighbors do when they need something they don't have. If in need, ask for help – and do not turn it down if it is unexpectedly offered.
Give Yourself a Break, and Be Thankful
Thanksgiving is not a command performance or a test, so do not approach it like such. Thanksgiving is supposed be a time of joy, of sharing love and celebrating friends and family. If the host is frazzled, stressed out, overwhelmed or exhausted, no one else is going to have a very good time, either. Guilt is a bad appetizer. Build in some time to shower and change between cooking and the time the guests arrive. Share the work before and after dinner. Allow for things to be imperfect. No matter how much planning, preparation and work you put into Thanksgiving, something is probably going to go wrong. When it does, remember to smile, ask for help and make the best of it. After all, it is not just the guests, but also the host, who has much to be thankful for.
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