Isn’t Thanksgiving one of the best holidays? It’s a time for family and friends, community goodwill, and inner reflection and gratitude for our many blessings.
At the beginning of the winter holidays, Thanksgiving brings with it the warmth and joy of the season, and the time-honored traditions of family feasts and gatherings.
For most, it’s a time of celebration with those we love, a chance to pause from our busy lives and take a break from the normal hectic pace of our daily commitments. For most, that is the case.
But, for those who actually make the Thanksgiving dinner, the organization, prep, and cooking can create a pressure cooker of stress and chaos. It can feel a bit overwhelming, if you’ve got a ravenous riot of relatives in the house, all waiting to be fed…
So give yourself a break! Stop worrying about the logistics, take control of the details, and start having fun. A little bit of organization and planning will soon have you reveling in the spirit of the season, instead of scowling like a scullery maid.
If you’re looking for ways to save some time and bust the stress of cooking a big meal (and who isn’t?) our list of 19 Thanksgiving dinner hacks will help you to create a fun and joyous meal.
Even better, if you want to make the holiday dining last, check out these tips on how to stretch your Thanksgiving dinner the extra mile! Got bigger concerns? We also have some great ideas on how to survive your holiday dinners, whether for Thanksgiving or Christmas.
1. Plan Ahead and Set a Schedule that Works
Trying to get everything done the same day as cooking a large meal is a time bomb waiting to go off. Instead, take an hour today, right now if you can, to set pen to paper and get organized.
By preparing as much in advance as you can, you’ll have lots of breathing room to enjoy the day, and your company, as well as cooking the feast.
Write up a checklist of everything that needs to be purchased, taken out of storage, cleaned, thawed, pressed, set up, or prepped in any way. Then set some time aside in the days leading up to your big meal to get all of the various tasks done.
As you cross each completed item off your list, you’ll have a greater sense of control and calm – which is great for busting those feelings of being overwhelmed.
Write up a complete grocery list as well, and you’ll be able to take advantage of sales the week before the holiday. This is also a good time to call some of your guests and ask a few to help out by bringing specific dishes such as classic side dishes, salads, rolls, and desserts.
With a little advance planning, you’ll be able to spend more time with your guests, and time spent in the kitchen will be much more enjoyable.
2. Dry Brine the Bird
There’s no doubt that brining a turkey retains moisture to provide delicious, juicy meat. But, it’s also a messy and time consuming process.
Instead, dry-brine your bird with herbed salt for juicy meat and a beautiful, golden skin. Three days before cooking, pat your turkey dry with paper towels.
Then, mix salt with dried herbs such as parsley, thyme, and sage and rub the bird all over, inside and out. Seal in a large plastic bag and place in the fridge. On the third day, take the bird out of the bag and allow it to dry in the fridge on a plate for the crispiest golden skin.
While you’re waiting for the bird to marinate, why don’t you take this opportunity to get your spice cabinet organized? Check out Foodal’s review of the best spice racks here.
Food52 has good step by step video instructions for a turkey dry brine.
3. Bake Your Desserts a Day or Two Ahead of Time
This way, you only have prep the toppings, like whipped cream, just before serving.
4. Make Your Own Pie Weights
If you’re making pies that require pre-baking (or “blind” baking) the shell and don’t have pie weights on hand, try this easy solution. Use parchment paper to line the pie shell and fill with rice to weigh down the dough. Some folks use dry beans for this, but they can smell a bit as they bake whereas rice has a more neutral aroma.
I’ve also seen bakers use a pile of coins, but money is notoriously grubby and germ-laden (literally, not just proverbially). Personally, I’d be a bit leery about using them anywhere near food.
5. Leverage Help from Your Friends and Family
Don’t be a kitchen martyr! Asking your family and friends for help with the dinner is smart, and it serves double duty. Your time is freed up by having less dishes to prepare, and guests like to feel they’re contributing by bringing something everyone can share.
For best results, choose guests that can actually cook. For those who can’t, ask them to bring rolls, ice cream for serving with the pies, a pound of good coffee, a bottle of wine, or an after dinner liqueur – all good options for the non-cook.
Of course, just about anyone can be roped into the after dinner cleanup.
6. Set Your Table the Night Before
This is another task that, once completed, really contributes to a sense of calm on the day of cooking a big meal.
The night before your dinner, set the Thanksgiving table(s) with all the linens, trivets, serving dishes and utensils, seasonings, and individual serving sets that you intend to use. Dig out and clean off any extra chairs, high-chairs, kids’ dishes, etc. that will be needed, and make sure everything is in place before going to bed.
And remember to cross it off your list before retiring for the night – you’ll sleep much better!
7. Prep Your Cookware and Tools the Night Before
Similar to setting the table, prepping your cookware and having everything in place before you start cooking brings a sense of control – your brain can let go of fussing over details that are already done, and move on to the next task.
Dig out all the pots and pans, utensils, dishes, oven mitts, basters and thermometers, measuring cups, and so on that you plan to use and place them on the stove and counter in convenient spots, roughly in order according to when you’ll need them.
Set up your recipe books, or print out copies and tape to a cupboard door if your counter space is getting too cluttered.
With everything in its place, you’ll be ready to hit the ground running when it’s cooking time.
8. Chop and Prep Veggies the Day Before
Pull out your recipes, and dice and slice your way through all the veggies listed for the dishes you plan to make.
Chop, trim, and peel, then store in zip-topped bags in the fridge until they’re needed.
9. Don’t Peel the Spuds
Peeling enough potatoes for a large group takes a big chunk of time.
If you have other things to do with those precious minutes, cook your potatoes whole instead. When they’re ready, plunge into a bath of ice water. The skins will slip off in one fell swoop, ready for mashing.
10. Butter Up the Bird
Before cooking, rub the turkey all over with butter for juicy, richly flavored meat and golden skin. Using your hands, rub butter and dried herbs under and on top of the skin for a deep buttery taste.
11. Use a Meat Thermometer for Perfectly Cooked Poultry
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much to overcook a turkey, and the result is always dry meat. And undercooked poultry with pink meat and bloody joints isn’t a great way to impress guests either.
You can stop under and overcooking your turkey, and eliminate the guesswork altogether, with a good quality meat thermometer.
They’re inexpensive and easy to use, and the digital probe style is ideal for roasting a turkey as the temperature displays on a countertop unit – so the oven door can stay closed, retaining the heat and cooking the meat more quickly.
12. Make a Turkey Stock in the Morning
For delicious gravy, use the neck and giblets to make a small pot of stock while the turkey cooks.
To your pot, add a quartered onion, a couple of carrots and celery stalks, and cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, add some peppercorns, a bay leaf, some parsley and thyme, and simmer gently for several hours. Remove from heat and cool, skimming off any fat that rises.
Add to your gravy for a sumptuous taste.
13. Make Extra Stuffing as a Side Dish
It doesn’t seem to matter how big the bird is, there’s never enough room to hold all the stuffing.
The simple solution is to stop trying to over-stuff the bird, and double your stuffing recipe – with whatever won’t fit in the chest cavity going into a casserole dish. Bake with the bird for a side dish of extra dressing. You know it won’t go to waste!
And for all you trivia buffs, stuffing is considered “stuffing” when it’s cooked in the bird. But it’s called dressing when cooked separately. Just in case you needed to know that…
14. Let Your Bird Rest Before Carving
For the juiciest meat, allow your bird to rest for 30-60 minutes before carving, 20 at the very least.
This is true for all roasted meat and fowl. When cooking, the juices travel and concentrate in the middle of the mass. Resting before carving allows the liquid to be redistributed to the extremities, so all pieces are moist and juicy.
15. Have Your Soup Pot on Standby for After Dinner
Who doesn’t love turkey leftovers? And turkey soup is one of the best… so, have your soup pot and veggies ready to go after the bird is carved!
After slicing any leftover meat, add the carcass to your pot, cover with water, and simmer for several hours with stock veggies like onion, carrots, and celery.
Carefully strain bones, cartilage, and stock vegetables, then return broth to the pot. Add your soup veggies, some diced turkey, and some herbs, and simmer until the vegetables are tender.
This soup is great for lunch the day after the holiday, or freeze a batch for a rainy day.
16. Free Up a Burner with the Slow Cooker
Stove top and counter space are always at a premium when making a big meal, so free up some room with your slow cooker.
After the potatoes are cooked and mashed, put them in the slow cooker on low in an out of the way spot – they’ll stay warm and fluffy until ready to serve, and you’ll have a free burner on the stovetop.
This is also an excellent alternative for making that after-dinner soup. No need to dirty up the stove again!
17. Free up Some Fridge Space with a Cooler
Just like there’s never enough space in the bird for the stuffing, there’s never enough room in the fridge for all the goodies needed for preparing a larger dinner.
Ease the over-crowding in the fridge by filling a cooler or two with ice and loading them up with canned beverages, juice, wine, or whatever your guests like to drink.
Family and friends can help themselves, and precious fridge space is reserved for the food.
18. Serve Dinner Buffet-Style for More Room at the Table
A turkey dinner isn’t really a meal to be eaten standing up while mingling. But dining at a table with no room to breathe isn’t very comfortable either.
To free up space at the table, set it for a sit-down meal with seasonings and condiments on the table, but serve the food buffet-style.
Use countertops or a sideboard, or set up card tables and lay out all the goodies for guests to help themselves. Everyone will have more elbow room at the table, and it makes setup and cleanup easier as well.
19. Before Digging In, Take a Moment to be Thankful
If you’re sitting down to enjoy a feast with family and friends, you’re more fortunate than a good portion of the world’s population.
Pause for a moment with your loved ones to be thankful for their presence, and to count your blessings… your beautiful Thanksgiving dinner will taste even better with an attitude of gratitude!
Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.
About Lorna Kring
Recently retired as a costume specialist in the TV and film industry, Lorna now enjoys blogging on contemporary lifestyle themes. A bit daft about the garden, she’s particularly obsessed with organic tomatoes and herbs, and delights in breaking bread with family and friends.