Seven years ago, I hosted my first Thanksgiving dinner. Shawn and I were newly weds, and I couldn’t wait to play hostess. It was practically an obsession for me, and I wasn’t happy until I could do it. I devised an aggressive menu and tried my hardest to make it awe-worthy. In the end, the meal was okay — but I was so stressed about the whole thing that I barely spoke until we sat down to dinner. Back then, I didn’t yet have a tried and true method of preparation or a cache of recipes that I loved. All I had was a vision for this beautiful and epic dinner that reality couldn’t live up to. I’m lucky anyone let me do it again.
Since then I have hosted Thanksgiving every year — even last year when we had two Thanksgivings and in 2007 when I was released from the hospital on Thanksgiving Day after having Paige earlier that week (we actually had two Thanksgivings that year too — the second, where I cooked, was three days later). Over the years, I have changed how I approach the meal dramatically and honed a method that makes cooking for Thanksgiving practically stress-free.
So, what are my best Thanksgiving planning tips?
- Plan Smartly – The biggest mistake I made when planning my first Thanksgiving was that I selected recipes without paying much attention to how they worked together or how their cooking times differed. Now, when I plan the menu, I pay attention to ingredients and look for ways that I can use ingredients in more than one recipe. I also pay attention to cooking times and methods. I have two ovens and four burners to cook on (plus a hot plate with two more burners) and my turkey is cooked in a rotisserie — so everything needs to work within those cooking spaces.
- Don’t Overdo It – The first few years, I served a variety of hot appetizers in addition to dinner. Do you know what that meant? I basically cooked the entire time. It wasn’t relaxing or fun — just stressful. So for the past four or five years, I have stuck to cold appetizers that can be prepped ahead of time. This year, I am adding a hot dip in, but I will be preparing it the day before and just sliding it in the oven before it’s time for our guests to arrive. It won’t be a stress. Whether it’s the appetizers or side dishes that stress you out, it’s important that you recognize the problem and back off. You’ll be happier for it.
- Mix It Up – Traditional Thanksgiving dishes are great — but don’t feel like you have to serve them. Plan your menu around what your family likes instead. If you aren’t a turkey fan, it’s okay to trade in a spiral ham or a chicken. Not a sweet potato casserole lover? Then skip it. Thanksgiving is about honoring family and heritage and the harvest. The dishes you serve should reflect what you like — not about what you think you are supposed to have.
- Accept Help – Probably the smartest and best decision I ever made was to let Shawn make the turkey. He has his own recipe for creating a juicy, flavorful turkey in our rotisserie and takes care in creating it. Me? I’m happy to hand off the responsibility and focus on my favorite part of the meal: the side dishes. And in the end, we have an awesome turkey that goes really well with all of my sides.
After the jump … Thanksgiving Menu 2011.
This year’s Thanksgiving menu features a mix of my families annual favorites and some new additions.
- Selection of cheeses with Crackers and Bread
- Crudites with Ina Garten’s Blue Cheese Dressing
- Spinach Artichoke White Bean Dip with Tortilla Chips
- Shawn’s Rotisserie Turkey
- Asparagus with Pomegranate, Toasted Walnuts and Blue Cheese
- Maple Bacon Butternut Squash
- Buttery Glazed Carrots
- Roasted Beets with Thyme
- Steamed Haricot Verts
- Sauteed Brussels Sprouts with Lemon Vinaigrette
- Mashed Potatoes
- Chestnut and Bacon Ciabatta Stuffing
- Herbed Turkey Gravy
- Homemade Jellied Cranberry Sauce
- Cranberry Apple Sauce
- Pecan Pie
- Pumpkin Pie
- Fresh Whipped Cream