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Secrets to Hosting the Best Thanksgiving Ever

“Thanksgiving,” by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, portrays the first Thanksgiving, which took place in 1621. Credit: Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts/Public Domain

Some secrets which will allow you and your family to have the best Thanksgiving ever will help even seasoned cooks — like many Greek-Americans are — to be able to enjoy this wonderful holiday even more.

As we look forward to celebrating this beloved American custom on the 402nd anniversary of the first Thanksgiving in 1621, let’s explore how we can make it even more enjoyable.

Thanksgiving is about taking time to be thankful — and this is hard to do when harried cooks are pushed almost past their limits in preparing one of the greatest feasts of the year. Why not take some tips from some of the best — and most organized — cooks out there, so this year and in the future, you can relax a bit more and truly enjoy the Thanksgiving experience?

Taste of Home magazine, which offers down-home recipes to American cooks, recently compiled a list of everything we would do well to emulate every Thanksgiving.

First things first — plan the dinner early. While it may be a bit late to do this now, you should get into a habit of starting early in November, asking your family what they would like to contribute to the great feast. Never, ever feel like you have to do it all yourself — hosts should always feel free to request others to bring at least one dish for this greatest food extravaganza of the year.

“It’s good to have a sense of who is coming and what they’d like to bring as early as possible. And don’t feel bad about asking others to bring cheese plates, wine or dessert! You don’t have to do it all alone,” says Maggie Knoebel, culinary assistant at Taste of Home.

And don’t feel guilty about using your freezer, either, when it comes to Thanksgiving. “I make dressing in advance, place it in a zip-top bag and freeze. I write the instructions on the outside of the bag, so I know what steps to take before I put the thawed mixture in the oven,” says Rashanda Cobbins, the food editor at the magazine.

Lisa Kaminski, the associate editor of Taste of Home, also encourages all cooks to not take on all the responsibility for the huge dinner, saying “Don’t do Thanksgiving prep alone! Enlist your friends and family to help you the evening before.

“Every year, I get together the evening before Thanksgiving with my mom, sisters and aunts. We bake all the pies, prep the sides and set the table — essentially we do as much work as we possibly can. With six of us, the work goes quickly and we treat ourselves to pizza after. It feels a lot like a party, especially with the exclusive guest list.”

While assembling such a large crowd in one kitchen may not be feasible for everyone, try to ask at least one of your other family members or friends to join you the evening before to do as much as possible together, making this great holiday into the multi-day event that it deserves to be.

Make a timeline for all the dish prep

Hosting Thanksgiving dinner is not for the faint of heart — it’s akin to a military operation in some ways — so it is important to make a timeline, or list, of what should be done and when.

“Even though I’ve been hosting 25-30 people at this special dinner for some 20 years, I still create a timeline, determining when I want dinner to be served and then planning backwards for when the different dishes need to go into the oven, started on the stovetop or tossed together,” explains Julie Schnittka, Taste of Home’s senior editor.

It may sound like a bit of overkill, but when it comes to the complexity of prepping and roasting a turkey, including the all-important stuffing of the bird, along with the many side dishes and pies that are part of the big day, a methodical approach may be best.

Non-cooks should also contribute to the great feast

There is enough going on during Thanksgiving that a few store-bought dishes will fit right in; there are also many other things that those who shy away from the kitchen can bring to make the day memorable. “Your guests would love to bring a special Thanksgiving drink, flowers for the table or a store-bought dish to pass,” says Lara Eucalano, another senior editor of the food magazine.

And then you have to get your energy going in the morning as well, so don’t forget breakfast, Katie Bandurski, the associate editor of Taste of Home, tells interviewers.

“Thanksgiving isn’t just dinner! My family loves to kick back and watch the Macy’s Parade on Thanksgiving morning. We make cinnamon roll turkeys with canned cinnamon rolls (these overnight cinnamon rolls work, too), with candy corn, candy eyes and bacon tailfeathers… It’s a simple, delicious and festive way to start the day.”

As usual, huge dinners can have pitfalls, so you should always allow yourself more time than you think you might need for the great autumnal feast.

“Overestimate how long it will take you to do everything. Chances are, there will be some sort of monkey wrench that will throw off your timing, whether it’s a missing ingredient and a trip to the grocery store or a broken folding chair that needs to be fixed before the company arrives!” says Peggy Woodward, senior food editor.

Another great idea is in the form of labeling serving dishes with their eventual contents so that no essentials get lost in the process of preparing the feast.

“One year, we forgot all about the dinner rolls. Now, to make sure all of the foods make it to the feast, we set the table with empty serving dishes labeled with the recipes they’ll eventually contain. When it’s about time to eat, we fill the serving dishes and put them back in their spot on the table,” recalls the executive editor of the magazine, Ellie Martin Cliffe.

Self-serve beverage stations are sure to be useful in the runup to Thanksgiving dinner as well. “If you’re hosting, the last thing you need to be doing is opening bottles of wine or mixing drinks—you’ve got enough to do!” explains Kaminski.

“Instead, stock a self-serve beverage station and let it be known that guests are welcome to it. Be sure to have plenty of ice, bottle openers, corkscrews, cups and all the refreshments you need.”

Enjoy time with your family and friends — that’s what it’s all about

“Hosting Thanksgiving dinner is a lot of work, and you could easily spend all your time in the kitchen prepping the feast. But your guests came over to see you! Don’t make dinner so complicated that you are too stressed to step out of the kitchen and enjoy everyone’s company, urges Emily Racette Parulski, senior editor of Taste of Home.

She encourages hosts to “Prep as much as you can ahead of time, and don’t be shy about asking for help. As much as I love cooking, I always have a better time hosting when I can join in on the fun outside of the kitchen.”

Perhaps most importantly of all, Kaminski says, is to carve the turkey away from the table, allowing for a much easier process.

“As impressive as bringing a whole turkey to the table for guests to ooh and ahh over, it’s a huge pain to carve a large turkey at a cramped dining room table. It’s way easier to carve the turkey in the kitchen where you have some space to work (and make a mess)… And don’t forget you can still make a pretty presentation on a gorgeous serving platter.”

Accepting help is key

Perhaps the most important tip for after the gigantic dinner, senior editor Lara Eucalano says, “When a guest volunteers to do the dishes, always say YES!”

So this year, try to take it easy and use as many of these time-tested tips as you can to make your Thanksgiving as trouble-free as possible. Perhaps most important of all, as can be seen below in the cautionary video, be safe — and remember to use extreme caution if you’re planning on deep-frying that bird in the backyard!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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