I’ve been supplying Philadelphia’s sustainably-minded shoppers with locally-sourced turkeys, and all the other holiday ingredients you could ask for, for the past six years.
In the more than half a decade that America’s annual turkey-thon has been a part of my job, rather than just my home life, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to stay sane – and how to end up with a delicious Thanksgiving meal – in the days leading up to and throughout the biggest food holiday of the year (which also extends to Christmas, and in some countries, even Boxing Day).
Check out my tips for a stress-free holiday. With a little preparation and planning, you’ll be celebrating with a smile on your face!
1. Start Early
The retail food industry is sort of like the fashion industry – we’re always a season or two ahead, thinking about grilling trends in December, Christmas hams in summertime, even seafood sources for a Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner months before it even arrives.
Thanksgiving is no different: I usually reach out to turkey farmers in August for updates on pricing, and to plan logistical details like order deadlines and delivery dates.
While everyone else is planning their Labor Day weekend getaway, we’re mentally stacking cases of turkeys on pallets and updating order forms with the latest information, so that the birds are ready to preorder when fall really starts at the end of September.
If you’re a planner, you’ve probably had spreadsheets of ingredients and guests prepped for the big day for weeks now. If you’re not, hosting a Thanksgiving celebration is a great reason to become one.
Avoid being that person who’s racing around to every open supermarket on Wednesday night looking for a few sage leaves, or sobbing over the phone at some poor turkey hotline staffer because you just realized the massive frozen bird you bought can’t possibly be thawed and cooked in time for the crowd of friends and family you invited to enjoy it. Suck it up, start early, and start making lists!
2. Source Your Ingredients Well
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in over six years of selling turkeys, desserts, sides, and even fresh oysters from small farms and food artisans to consumers, it’s that at Thanksgiving, people aren’t afraid to shell out for the good stuff.
As the child of a Canadian and an American living clear across the country from our nearest (American) family members, Thanksgiving meant cooking a big, special meal, sure – but we did it in our pajamas between rounds of watching movies and playing board games.
For a lot of people, though, Thanksgiving is a big production with a long guest list and an even bigger budget. Heritage breed turkeys, heirloom cranberries, the best bacon, biodynamic cream – Thanksgiving is when many home cooks and families pull out all the stops for the feast.
As an advocate for small farmers, I of course recommend that you source your Thanksgiving goodies from your nearest farmers market or food co-op – depending on the source, you’re getting fresher food that often costs the same (or sometimes less) than what you’ll find at the supermarket.
Depending on your taste, especially if you’re a dark meat lover, a heritage breed turkey might be worth saving up for at least once. While breeds like Red Bourbon, Standard Bronze, and Narragansett can cost a pretty penny – starting around ten dollars per pound and going up from there – the flavor is totally worth it.
But there’s another way that you can cook the best turkey of your life without spending a day’s pay (or maybe two) on the bird. You just might have to hunt around for a good source near you. Which brings me to the next topic…
3. Buy Fresh, If You Can
A fresh-killed, never-frozen turkey will make a bigger difference in the juiciness of your finished bird than all the wet wet brines, dry brines, and dry rubs in the world. The freezing/thawing process causes the moisture to leave the turkey’s flesh, resulting in a higher risk of serving a dry, unappetizing turkey.
First, it’s helpful to know what “fresh” really means when you’re talking turkey. Did you know frozen turkeys can be processed up to a year in advance, and then stored at arctic temperatures before being sold?
If you do end up with a frozen bird, you’ll need to budget about a day of thawing in the fridge for every 5 pounds of turkey you’re cooking.
“Fresh-frozen” is a USDA term meaning the turkey has been stored at a temperature no lower than 26°F. It will develop an “ice shell” that will make it seem just as frozen as an actual frozen turkey, but it should thaw more quickly than one that’s completely frozen.
Be sure to ask your turkey purveyor how a “fresh” turkey has been stored so that you can plan for the time and fridge space necessary for the bird to finish thawing, if need be.
A turkey that is actually fresh –something that’s not always easy to find – will be processed the weekend before Thanksgiving and stored in a nice, cold fridge until you pick it up before the holiday.
That’s how The Howe Farm in Downingtown, PA – my favorite turkey purveyor – does it, with a small army of family and friends working around the clock to process and pack about 4,000 birds over the week before Thanksgiving.
If you do score a truly fresh turkey, be sure to ask your purveyor how they like to cook it, as a fresh bird will require different cooking times and temperatures than a frozen one will.
The Howes recommend cooking the bird for 12-15 minutes per pound, starting it off uncovered with a blast of heat. Cook for the first half hour or so at 425°F, then lower the heat to 350°F and cover the bird for the remainder of the cooking time.
4. Don’t Be Afraid to Outsource
I’m not exactly an advocate of “semi-homemade” store-bought solutions. So often, they’re sadly inferior to the real stuff for a higher price tag.
But strategically identifying a dish or two that you can purchase ready-made from a good-quality source will please your guests, and save you much-needed time and stress on Thursday when it comes down to the wire.
The easiest sides to outsource are things that don’t benefit from being served bubbling from the oven. Think artisan breads and rolls; cold sides like potato salad, fruit salad, or a green salad; and desserts like pies and tarts.
Whenever I’ve sold turkey preorders, we’ve offered sides like these, giving shoppers the easy choice of simplifying serving a fancy dinner to a crowd while also supporting local nonprofits and food artisans.
And besides – your favorite bakery probably does Parker House rolls and pumpkin eclairs better than you can. Let them help you! (If not, you clearly have everything under control, Martha.)
Outsourcing to your favorite home cooks on the guest list also counts. That, or even getting your kids involved in your own dish creation!
And many guests will be happy to bring a side or other dish. Just be sure to specify exactly what they’re responsible for, to avoid a dinner with three giant bowls of mashed potatoes and nothing else besides the turkey.
Speaking of admitting your limitations, don’t forget self-care in the hectic days and hours leading up to the meal. That includes making a plan to…
5. Feed Yourself (and Your Family and/or Guests)
Just because visitors are in town for Thanksgiving doesn’t mean every meal you share at your home has to be a showstopper.
If you’re entertaining for a few days rather than a few hours, talk up your favorite neighborhood Thai place or gastropub, and make plans for at least one dinner out.
Stock up on healthy snackables that can easily transition into a cold smorgasbord, like precut carrot and celery sticks, snap peas, and cucumbers, along with hummus, ranch, or your other favorite dips and spreads.
Simple yet iconic dishes, like cacio e pepe or kale Caesar salad, are also your friend.
Artisan cheese is another clutch player here, especially if you’re looking to make a simple meal – like dinner the night before, or an early lunch on Thanksgiving day – into an extra-special affair.
Set out three of your favorite cheeses in complementary styles, with some tasty pickles, honeys, jams, nuts, fresh or dried fruit, and crackers or slices of baguette. Boom – you’ve got a swanky meal that’s ready to go in the few minutes that it took to put out the components.
Be sure to set the cheeses out for at least 30 minutes before serving, so that they can come to room temperature and full flavor. It’s better to leave them wrapped during this time, so they don’t dry out.
6. Always Have a Plan B
As Thanksgiving approaches, I have nightmares about somehow ordering the wrong number of birds, or my giant preorder spreadsheet getting sorted improperly, or a million other things that can go wrong when your job is making sure that several hundred people can have a happy Thanksgiving with the size and type of turkey they want.
The only thing you can be certain about in times like these is that things will go wrong – and besides deep breathing and calming teas, there’s not a ton you can do about it.
But how you react, and what you have in your back pocket to fix the problem, are things you can control. We always order a few extra turkeys just in case, but sometimes things go really wrong…
There was the time I got a call from a new turkey vendor that had been a dream to work with on the Tuesday afternoon before Thanksgiving, and he was supposed to deliver our order of turkeys at 5 a.m. the next day. Although he’d been doing this for a decade, he’d vastly underestimated the weight of the birds once they’d been processed – we’d sold turkeys up to 25 pounds, but not of the resulting turkeys that were ready for delivery were above 12 pounds or so.
Our solution? Order extra turkeys and offer customers two 10-pound birds when they’d ordered a 20-pounder (plus a bit of a discount). Not an ideal solution, but better than offering up puny turkeys to customers planning to serve a dozen people.
All I’m saying is, it might make sense to stock up on macaroni and cheese or frozen pizza… just in case something goes wrong.
7. Don’t Forget the Booze
After four days of waking up at 5 a.m. and hauling hundreds of 60-pound boxes of turkeys, anyone could use a drink. Around 3 p.m. on the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving, when customers are finally picking up their birds, a bottle of Wild Turkey (of course) magically appears, and everyone’s sleep deprivation-induced irritability turns into a loopy sort of adrenaline. (We’re still at work, so moderation is key).
If you don’t or can’t drink, more power to you – my experience shows that many will need it to get through this week. But if you do, a nice bottle of wine with dinner (at the very least) is a must on Thanksgiving, with maybe a nice strong nightcap (or three) after dessert.
Guests love bringing wine, or stronger libations, to share with the meal or as a gift for the host or hostess. There’s nothing that makes me happier than a well-stocked bar for the celebration.
But there is an important caveat to this: do not rely on your guests to provide all the alcohol, no matter how well you know them, no matter how competent and trustworthy they are.
Maybe the line is too long at the liquor store, or it’s closed. Or they drop the bag and the bottle breaks, or they just forgot, or any of a million other horror story scenarios that could take place – what will you do if they actually come to pass?
Stock your bar! Choose whatever you like – but if you just can’t decide, I recommend a couple bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau (so seasonal, and not too robust to go with turkey) and maybe a few bottles of prosecco or vinho verde (the bubbles are festive). Something fancy and brown that can be sipped or made into a classic cocktail – Bulleit Bourbon or Rye is my go-to – completes the list.
You’re Gonna Make It
I hope my tips for stress reduction, simplification, and preparation help you to stay sane during the sprint towards Thanksgiving or Christmas this year – and on the day of. And hey – if all else fails, all you really need is pie and booze to make it a real party anyway.
What are your favorite tips, tricks, stress relievers, and quick Plan Bs for a smooth-running and delicious holiday dinner? How are you making sure you stay sane – and enjoying yourself! – while hosting what is probably the biggest holiday meal of the year for your loved ones? Let us know in the comments!
Photo credit: Shutterstock.
About Alex Jones
Alex Jones is a local food consultant and writer based in Philadelphia. Evangelizing about local food is second nature to Alex, whether she’s working an artisan cheesemaker’s farmers market stand or developing growth strategies for her favorite small-scale artisans. Her favorite areas to work in currently are the artisan cheese and pastured meat supply chains. When she’s not working, Alex spends her time managing her usually-overstuffed fridge, growing vegetables, foraging for fruits around the city, playing tuba in a disco cover band, and hanging out with her partner Dr Thunder, Philadelphia’s karaoke superhero, and their two cats, Georgia and Li’l Mama. Alex’s favorite food is some kind of cheese on some kind of bread.