The Secret to a Stress-Free Thanksgiving (Next Year)
Don’t worry. This is not a posting error. I am posting a guide to a stress-free Thanksgiving the week after actual Thanksgiving. This is on purpose.
Every year I get a ton of questions from ambitious home cooks, many of whom are tackling a big meal like Thanksgiving for the first time. They all want to know how to succeed and, trust me, I really want to help them!
My general advice in the moment is to tell them to relax, not stress about any one part too much, and try to have fun with friends and family.
I stick by this advice!
But the reason I stick by it is because there is very little you can do from a cooking perspective to prepare yourself for a huge undertaking like Thanksgiving at the last minute. So you might as well crack open a beer and try to enjoy the experience.
The Hard Truth
If you only cook a full bird once a year, and that bird happens to be an 18 pound bird, you are probably in for a rough ride.
If you only make a pie once a year, and you want that pie to be from scratch, delicious, and pretty, you will most likely experience a spike in blood pressure.
If you only throw a party once a year, and that party includes lots of high maintenance dishes, drinks, and people… then there will be cursing.
The truth is that the skills that make for a successful Thanksgiving aren’t teachable in a list or in any sort of magazine article (even though I have frankly written such articles trying my best to help).
That’s why now is the best time to get to work on preparing for your stress-free Thanksgiving next year. As with anything, it’s really all about practice and if you break it down into parts, you can practice these things at your convenience for the next 12 months and then you’ll stroll into next year’s holiday season with a weight off your back.
The good news? Practice in this case really just boils down to cooking a lot. So it’s fun… and delicious.
The Skills You Need
As the great action dude Liam Neeson would say, “I have a very specific set of skills.”
For me that set of skills unfortunately does not involve dispatching bad guys, but it does include all the things I need to set up a Thanksgiving feast. Here’s the short list of things that can help you prepare for next year along with some practice ideas!
No matter how you do it, cooking a huge bird is a tough thing to do well. Obviously there are millions of things you can read on the Internet to hopefully put you on the right track, but the only way to really get it down is to practice.
The good news is that you don’t necessarily need to cook a whole turkey to get the idea. Roasting chickens occasionally throughout the year will give you a good feel for how a whole bird should cook.
The Zuni Chicken – I really need to update this post with new photos. It’s not only an amazing recipe, but has similar flavors and methods as roasting a whole turkey. It involves salting the bird in advance and using the drippings to make a salad. It’s a little more work than just sticking a chicken in the oven which is exactly what you want in a practice recipe. It also tastes amazing.
Five Spice Chicken – This is an easier roast chicken and a good starter recipe that just involves a simple rub and glaze. It also walks through some stock making which is great practice for Thanksgiving!
If you want even more help with roasting, my book (Love Your Leftovers) has an entire chapter devoted to roasting chickens. It’ll get you all set for next year.
Some people would argue that the post dinner pie is maybe the most important part of Thanksgiving. It’s the one time of year that a lot of people try their hand at homemade pie.
And that unfortunately results in a lot of bad pies.
Making excellent pie crust is pretty tough work, but making really good pie crust isn’t that hard. With a few practice pies throughout the year for special occasions, you can get it down without a problem.
A Spring Rhubarb Pie – Just go ahead and put it in your calendar to try and make a rhubarb pie in the spring when rhubarb is in season. This is great practice for any fruit pie and you get to practice making a double crust!
Pumpkin Anytime Pie – I have no idea why a good pumpkin pie is only popular over Thanksgiving. I could see having it for many occasions. This chocolate pumpkin pie adds a nice twist to the classic.
To be honest, making the pie and making the turkey are the two most skilled aspects of Thanksgiving in my opinion. Many of the other recipes are pretty straightforward assuming you have some cooking experience.
Mostly, a successful Thanksgiving comes down to planning. Stuff like knowing what you can make in advance, how much of each dish to make, and even planning oven space. All of that stuff is very important.
Again though, you just have to practice it! That’s not to say that you have to throw huge rager parties throughout the year, but planning a few smaller low key get-togethers can make hosting a larger thing like Thanksgiving seem like not quite as big of a deal.
Host a Cocktail Party – This is easy and fun. Once or twice a year, Betsy and I will have a group of people over for a few fancy cocktails and appetizers. It’s a good way to catch up with friends and people love an excuse to come drink fancy drinks and eat small nibbles.
Have a fun Brunch – If you’re feeling ambitious you could try something like my chicken and waffles brunch, but it doesn’t have to be that crazy. Just making a big stack of really good pancakes with some fruit salads and stuff. It’ll be a big hit.
Having a few different dishes during a brunch party can help you plan out amounts and cooking order (don’t cook the pancakes first).
Create a Theme Party – This doesn’t have to be over-the-top, but something that your friends can look forward to each year is always fun. Every year Betsy and I host a huge deep fry party and it’s always a good way to check in on our party supplies and try out a few new recipes. Last year we had around 40 people at our deep fry party so it helps to put things in perspective!
What Are Your Tips?
Did you struggle with any parts of Thanksgiving this year?
Do you have any long term things you can do to be better prepared for a less stressful holiday next year? Would love to hear other ideas in the comments!