First time hosting Thanksgiving? Don’t panic.
It can seem overwhelming, especially with the holiday so close, but you can do it. Just think: after you finish cooking for a single day, you’ll have leftovers for weeks to come and a food coma that’ll last through all of Black Friday; maybe even for some time after that.
At the same time, it’s always good to give yourself a lot of time to prepare and that applies to more than just the food. Before you buy or make anything, get a precise head count of how many people will be coming to your house and make appropriate arrangements. For example, if you’re hosting 8 or more adults, it’s probably best to serve your dishes buffet-style instead of trying to keep all of the food on the dinner table at once. Also, make an organized seating chart that places you (the host) near the kitchen should you need to get more after people start eating. This will have the added benefit of getting your guests to their chairs faster and keep them from taking their sweet time choosing a place to sit as the feast you spent two weeks preparing gets cold.
As far as planning the menu, it’s probably best to make traditional dishes: turkey, stuffing, casserole, cranberry sauce, etc. It’s great to be adventurous by making bizarre, unorthodox food but for your first time as the host, prepare things everyone’s familiar with and therefore more likely to want. If you really need something to spice things up though, make a pitcher of fun cocktails such as mulled red wine sangria or hot scotch. These will also come in handy if you need to keep everyone preoccupied if all the guests arrive before the food is completely ready.
Once you know what you’re making, find out what you need from the grocery store and make a shopping list. This might take multiple trips so try to mark times on a calendar when you could potentially go buy the food. People tend to do this five to six days before Thanksgiving but the earlier you go, the better, considering how chaotic supermarkets get this time of year. On the Sunday before the holiday, make the go-ahead dishes that can be shelved for days in advance. This includes gravy bases that can be frozen as well as casseroles that can be cooked and refrigerated for up to 2 days before they start to turn along with cranberry sauce and rolls that can be made days in advance of the actual feast. In short, make as much food as possible before Thanksgiving Day to make things less stressful.
Of course, no Thanksgiving feast is truly finished without some form of turkey and although there are multiple ways to cook it, there are a few important guidelines people tend to follow. There should be about ¾ – 1 pound of bird per person, and try to buy the meat early then freeze it since every four pounds needs about 1 day to thaw. Therefore, the size of your bird and the day you buy it depends heavily on how many people you’re going to host. This is another instance of when a calendar could be useful in that it will help you stay organized as you balance the responsibilities of being a host.
No matter how you prepare it, when you think the turkey’s done, the thermometer needs to be placed in the breast, thigh, and stuffing (assuming that you cook it inside the bird). Quick note: putting the stuffing inside the bird can be risky in that it doesn’t always finish cooking when the turkey does. There have been instances of people stuffing the main course of their meal with undercooked food so be sure to treat the stuffing as a separate dish. A good method for this is cooking all the stuffing before putting it inside the turkey. Sautee or grill any meat, vegetables, and anything else you’re putting into it and then cook it inside the bird at 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Regarding the turkey itself, the actual cooking time will depend on its weight along with how it’s being cooked, but keep in mind that no matter what you do, there are numerous hotlines run by culinary experts (such as (800) BUTTERBALL) who are prepared to address any of your concerns or questions. These people have prepared this meal in nearly every way imaginable so no matter how distinct you’re trying to make it, they know what to do. On an added note, these services routinely operate throughout November and December so take advantage of the free advice while you can. And should the worst happen, resulting in the turkey or some other dish not turning out perfect, keep in mind that all your guests are on your side and honestly just grateful that they’re not hosting this year.
It’s important to keep in mind that you have options when it comes to preparing this dish and although it’s common to finish it on Thanksgiving, there are other methods that will yield equally delicious results:
- Cook the turkey on Wednesday night, then carve the meat and place it in a crock pot with some tin foil on the bottom to keep it elevated. If you want, use the bones as the stock in your gravy and put some of it in the bottom of the crock pot when you re-heat the meat. Turkey’s often cooked on Thursday as the guests arrive and takes up much of the host’s time but this method will allow you to focus on other dishes instead.
- Don’t even bother buying a whole bird. Instead, just purchase turkey breasts and legs individually. Don’t feel bad about doing this; cooking a turkey whole is difficult on its own and you have plenty of other hosting responsibilities that will need attention. This method allows you to simply pop the meat in the oven and won’t take long to finish, which your guests will certainly enjoy.
For added enjoyment, consider purchasing a fresh turkey from a butcher. Just be sure to order it a few weeks in advance.
Of the many methods used to cook this bird, deep frying it has become one of the more popular but is probably not a good choice for the first time host. Even for the more experienced cook, this is dangerous and frequently results in burned decks and houses. Should you use a deep fryer, though, make sure a fire extinguisher is accessible and use an oil with a high smoking point like canola or corn; never olive. Also, if you take this route please be careful when lowering the bird into the fryer since the boiling oil splashing out is the most common cause of injury.
Should planning, purchasing, cooking and presentating all this food understandably prove too much to handle, ask for help. If someone offers you their assistance, take it. If you want, turn the entire event into a potluck so that everyone shares a stake in the outcome of the feast. Not every dish needs to be home-cooked and most people enjoy being involved in preparing the meal, so assume that your guests want to make this easier on you unless they indicate otherwise.
Should you decide to ask them to contribute and they respond with, “Okay, how?”:
- Tell them to bring a bottle of wine or 2 or any form of alcohol you like.
- Ask that they contribute a side dish they like, even if it’s not a traditional Thanksgiving delicacy, or tell them to bring something for dessert.
- And if they don’t seem capable of doing any of these things, give them a simple task: bring Tupperware or any container for leftover food. Chances are good there’ll be a lot of it.
On Thanksgiving morning, get up early, because even after the food’s taken care of, your home might need some work. In rooms where people will be sitting before and after they eat, put any valuables away while keeping the living space as open as possible so that your guests will feel free to move around. This is especially important if children are coming to your home because they have the day off from school and they will be particularly hyper. You don’t want fragile or particularly expensive items lying around for them to potentially damage while they wait to be fed. It’s a good idea to have something for the kids to do such as a football or Frisbee to throw outside. If it’s too cold for that, have board games or a deck of cards on display in the house so that the guests have ways to entertain themselves. There’s always the possibility that people won’t want to stay all day indoors so try to have some type of activity planned that could get them out of the house. Some families will already have their holiday decorations on display for December and it might be fun to take a group to go look at them or take a trip to the park if it’s a nice day. Finally, as a point of courtesy, put a candle in the bathroom; your guests will appreciate it.
If some of your guests need a place to stay for the night, make any potential guest bedrooms as neat and inviting as possible. Change or wash the linens on the bed, vacuum the floor, fluff the pillows, and make sure the nearest bathroom is spotless.
On a related note, find time to shower. Don’t forget that you’re still the host of a party and want to look good in any pictures that are taken. Schedule this in and make sure you follow through before your guests arrive. Remember that they’re expecting free food and God forbid some of them show up early.
Even with the potluck as an alternative though, cooking the food is still a challenge and if you’re not confident in your ability to make a feast from scratch, don’t do it. An increasingly popular option is buying pre-made meals from grocery stores. These are the key to the least stressful holidays possible because even the experienced host gets stressed out making all the food. This option allows you to bypass that and focus more on enjoying the company of your guests than scrambling around the kitchen. An added benefit to this is that clean-up becomes immeasurably easier.
Should the unthinkable happen and something spill, be sure to have some type of stain removal product at hand: cotton cloths, white wine, detergent pens, etc. Expect that something will tip over at some point and be sure to remain composed after it happens; the guest responsible will feel embarrassed enough for making the mess. They’ll appreciate you cleaning it up for them and might even help clean the dishes after the meal ends. You can even make that a provision for anyone who doesn’t contribute a dish to the meal. Tell them they can still eat the food as long as they’re willing to clean the dishes after everyone’s finished. If you don’t trust any of your guests to do this effectively, you can simply hire someone to take care of your post-Thanksgiving mess. This may seem like an unnecessary expense but after the meal you’ve spent so long assembling is finally eaten, cleaning dishes will be the last thing you’ll want to do.
Should you find yourself with potentially weeks-worth of leftovers, be sure to freeze them in order to increase their shelf life. You went through a lot putting this meal together so be sure you reap the edible rewards.
As a final note, even if you are hosting and preparing every dish yourself, enjoy it! Have fun! Don’t forget this is a holiday and be sure to treat it accordingly. Even if the get together doesn’t go the way you envisioned it, those are the parties people remember. The wacky times are what really stick with you so try to stay loose during the festivities. Good luck and Happy Thanksgiving!