Cooking a Thanksgiving Feast this Year? Here’s Your Game Plan!
As thoughts turn to Thanksgiving, football fans prepare a slew of games that will hopefully be classics instead of stinkers. To that end, coaches are busy working on their game plan to avoid any unexpected — and unpleasant — surprises.
Well, if this Thanksgiving you’re tasked with preparing a feast — or maybe just a special meal for your family — then you also need a game plan as well to ensure that you have a happy and stress-free experience.
Of course, this is easier said than done! Cooking for Thanksgiving is a high-pressure event, like preparing to play in the Superbowl. If things go wrong, then it’s not like there’s another Thanksgiving right around the corner. It’s a full year away.
Fortunately, you don’t have to brace for impact and pray that the cooking gods look favorably upon you this year. Instead, you can follow this practical and proven game plan, and head for the end zone —where you can do a triumphant victory dance!
One Month Before Thanksgiving
In the Art of War, Sun Tzu sagely advises that a battle is won or lost before it is fought. I expect the immortal Vince Lombardi preached something similar in his many pre-game locker room speeches.
What this means to you is simple: don’t set yourself up for stress and struggles by waiting until the last minute to prepare your menu. Put an initial menu together and post it for everyone in your family to see (the fridge is a good place).
You should also invite — I would actually say insist — that your family provide you with feedback now; not later. It’s kind of like what they say at weddings: speak now or forever hold your peace!
And of course, you can certainly change your initial recipe in any manner that you wish; from minor tweaks to wholesale re-inventions. I’ve experienced many times that simply writing out a menu and posting it triggers all kinds of creative ideas. And even if I end up with a menu that looks nothing like the original version, I know that the first draft played a pivotal role in the final version.
Oh, and one more really helpful life hack: if you’re working with cookbooks or checking out recipes online, make sure that you write down/bookmark the page. You’re going to have a lot on your mind in the weeks ahead, and you don’t want to spend hours trying to hunt down a recipe. Or better yet, copy the recipe or print it out and put it in a file.
Two Weeks Before Thanksgiving
With two weeks to go, you should have a final menu ready that everyone in your family (and on your guest list, if you choose a wider distribution) is excited about. Even if you’re still taking care of some small details, you should know what the main dish will be — because this is when you want to place your order for you turkey, goose, prime rib, and so on.
Also, you want to inspect all of the linens you’ll be using. I’m deliberately using the word “inspect” instead of “check” — because you don’t want to discover unsightly stains and creases on Thanksgiving day. So do an inspection, and dry clean and press if necessary.
It’s also a good idea to purchase all of the non-perishable grocery items that you’ll need, as well as all wine, champagne and drinks. If you’re using a bread base stuffing or any vegetables dish, you can also be proactive and prepare the onions, carrots, celery and garlic. Store them in separate containers and freeze until needed.
One Week Before Thanksgiving
The excitement is mounting! With one week to go, it’s time to prepare the cranberry sauce, and purchase all of the items that will be hard to find as the clock ticks down, like chestnuts.
Three Days Before Thanksgiving
Three days to go! In Superbowl terms, the officials are checking out the field to make sure everything is perfect, the TV personalities are getting their make-up done, the half-time talent is testing out the sound system, and fans are streaming in from across the country and around the world.
You have fans as well — your family and any other guests — and they’re counting on you to razzle and dazzle. No problem! You got this. Here’s the checklist with 72 hours to go:
- Start baking cookies and any other sweet treats that can be stored (as a bonus, your house will smell amazing!).
- Start preparing appetizers that can be rewarmed at the last minute.
- Carefully get out the holiday china, crystals and silverware you are going to use. Polish as necessary, and get vases and table decorations ready.
Two Days Before Thanksgiving
With two days to go, you’ll thank yourself for all of the preparation work you start doing almost a month ago. While other people are scrambling and getting stressed out, you’ll be cool, calm and collected. Here’s the checklist:
- Do all remaining grocery shopping.
- Purchase flowers (if desired).
- Bake pies and cakes.
- Set the table (aren’t you glad you inspected the linen vs. just checked it?)
- Roast vegetables and make stock base for gravy (which you can store).
One Day Before Thanksgiving
The day before Thanksgiving is really fast-paced. Make sure that you stretch, drink plenty of water, and are in game shape — because you’ll need to be at your best! Here’s what’s on the checklist with just 24 hours to go:
- Clean and prepare all the vegetables and store them.
- Cook sweet potatoes dishes.
- Prepare stuffing and start the gravy base.
- Prepare flower centerpieces (hint: choose something small and low so you can have an easy conversation), and store them in the refrigerator or in a cool place.
- Assign serving dishes with silverware, and set table where all the dishes will be placed if you do a buffet style
- Set up all champagne glassware and small appetizers plates on an easy accessible table, or on a counter away from the kitchen work space (and no sampling — there will be plenty of time for that later!)
So it begins. The big moment is just hours away. However, before you can bask in the glory of your majestic creation — and in the smiles and “wow, this is all so amazing!”— you still have some really important work to do. Here are your tasks for the final stretch:
- Stuff the turkey and cook.
- Get all the sweets, appetizers, and sweet potatoes out so they can reach room temperature.
- Peel, cut and cook the mashed potatoes.
- Prepare all vegetables based on your menu (my favorites include carrots, Brussels sprouts and green beans).
- Warm up what needs to be re-heated.
- Set drink and appetizer table.
You did it! You’ve done so much work and should be immensely proud of yourself. Enjoy the day, and remember that YOU are the one who made it happen!