How to Host
Thanksgiving Dinner - and Even Enjoy It
by Skip Lombardi
nominated; or perhaps your family has issued a decree; or perhaps
it's simply your turn. No matter what the reason, you're hosting
Thanksgiving dinner this year. This need not be a burden. In fact is
can be a pleasure, given the right planning and organization.
I've found that
the key to an almost effortless-looking dinner is thinking backward.
Start your Thanksgiving planning by visualizing yourself, surrounded
by family and friends at the dinner table, then work backward to
determine how you got there. Ask yourself which foods took the least
amount of preparation, which took the most. Write these things down
in a list.
Now refine the
list--but only slightly. Which dishes can be prepared the day (or
evening) before? Which dishes need to be prepared that day? Which
dishes need to be prepared within an hour of dinner?
At this point, you
should have at least a vague idea of your plan of attack. So now it's
time to refine the list further. In fact, it's time to begin to
create a schedule. If you expect to serve dinner at 2:00 p.m., for
example, and the turkey will take three hours to roast, then half
hour to rest before carving, it needs to be in the oven at 10:15 a.m.
Why 10:15, and not
10:30? My start time factors in the three and one half hours, plus
approximately fifteen minutes to get the bird carved and arranged on
a serving platter after it has rested. And don't forget that it will
take approximately fifteen minutes to pre-heat your oven too. Your
schedule should reflect all of those variables.
By now, your
list--or maybe lists--has grown substantially, as you refine the
necessary tasks to get to that wonderful image of yourself sitting
among family and friends at the dinner table. The next step in the
process is to begin to identify the tasks involved in preparing the
ingredients for the dishes that will make up your Thanksgiving menu;
the prep work.
It's lovely to
watch the chefs on Food TV blithely talking about adding a cup of
chopped onions to a sauté pan--as they grab a cup of chopped
onions that's been placed within easy reach on their counter. Of
course, they have the benefit of having four sous chefs backstage who
keep them supplied with the chopped, minced, pureed, or marinated
ingredients they'll need to create a smooth-running half hour
television show. You can do the same. (although you can't count on
having the four sous chefs backstage).
As part of your
master schedule, allow plenty of time for prep work. This will
guarantee smooth cooking when the time comes. You do not want to be
hunting for a clove of garlic in a refrigerator stuffed with food for
twenty, while you have a pan of hot oil on the stove waiting for you.
This is also the
time to think about how many of the recipes on your menu will require
the same ingredients. If, for example, you have two dishes on your
menu that each require a cup of onions, be sure to chop two cups of
onions, and have them on hand, pre-measured and ready to go when the
time comes to cook.
Think about which
ingredients could be prepped, perhaps the night before too. Carrots,
celery, and onion, for example, can be chopped within twenty four
hours of the meal, and stored, pre-measured, in zip-lock plastic bags
in the refrigerator. This step alone could save up to a half hour on
Thanksgiving Day. Try to think of other ingredients that could be
prepped early as well.
that should be part of your to-do list before Thanksgiving is
checking to see that your oven is properly calibrated. If you don't
already own one, get an inexpensive oven thermometer and test to see
that the temperature that you set on your thermostat is indeed the
same one recorded on your thermometer.
In addition, it
would be wise--again, if you don't already have one--to get an
instant read meat thermometer. Knowing that you've cooked your turkey
to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F. will give you a great
deal of confidence, and allow you to focus on the myriad last-minute
details of getting the meal on the dining room table.
One last thought
about prep work that will help the entire Thanksgiving experience
flow more smoothly: give yourself a break when you've finished
chopping vegetables, measuring ingredients, and generally assuring
yourself that you have the situation in hand. Relax; perhaps have a
cup of coffee before you begin the actual cooking. This break serves
two purposes: it gives you a chance to reflect on your work so far,
and to reassure yourself that you are indeed prepared for the next
step. And it helps you to mentally shift gears and move from the role
of prep cook to the role of chef.
Of course, at some
time before Thanksgiving, you'll need to shop for ingredients. I've
not spoken about shopping, because I feel that there are too many
variables to be able to talk about it in full generality. Issues like
your menu, proximity to a mega store or a specialized deli perhaps,
your work schedule, etc. make it difficult to talk about in universal terms.
Suffice it to say
that if you've set a menu and created a schedule, they will tell you
what you need, and when.
So now that you
have your menu, done your shopping and prep work, what to do on
Thanksgiving morning? First: trust no one. People are rarely more
giving of themselves than at Thanksgiving, so offers of assistance in
the kitchen may be profuse and generous. Be wary. You may delegate a
close friend or relative to keep an eye on the creamed spinach, but
don't be surprised if the Macy's parade, or the NFL game draws your
well-meaning helper away from the stove before the spinach is done.
It's okay. You've
factored that into your schedule, and you can pick up the slack. When
I say that you shouldn't trust anyone, I mean that--as I've written
elsewhere--90% of cooking is being there. And Thanksgiving is a tough
time to be standing at the stove for anyone, not least of all, one of
Finally, at times
like Thanksgiving, I'm reminded of a piece of advice I once got from
a doctor friend: In case of an emergency, the first thing to do is
take your own pulse. This is to say that things may not go entirely
as planned. But don't panic. Trustworthy or not, you will have help
available. An emergency in the kitchen is guaranteed to draw the most
hardened NFL fan away from the game to lend a hand. Just stick to
your schedule, as best you can, and everything will be fine.
Take the time to
plan your Thanksgiving meal thoroughly, and well ahead of time, and
you'll reap huge rewards at the dinner table in the form of
compliments, possibly applause, and happy, thankful diners. And as
you dry the last of the pots and pans that served so well in
preparing your feast, you can enjoy the satisfaction that comes from
a job well done, and the knowledge that next year, it will be someone
About The Author
is the author of two cookbooks: "La Cucina dei Poveri: Recipes
from my Sicilian Grandparents," and "Almost Italian:
Recipes from America's Little Italys." He has been a Broadway
musician, high-school math teacher, software engineer, and a
fledgeling blogger. But he has never let any of those pursuits get in
the way of his passion for cooking and eating. Visit his Web site to
learn more about his cookbooks. http://www.skiplombardi.com For
comments or questions, e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.