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10 tips for a stress-free thanksgiving dinner

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I’m gonna give it to you straight—Thanksgiving is in two weeks and it’s mega stressful. Yup. You have 14 days to get ready for, quite possibly, the biggest meal of the year. It’s a crapton of cooking for a crapton of people with a crapton of pressure all rolled into a single day that is supposed to be fun and enjoyable.

I’ve gotten through cooking quite a few Thanksgiving dinners in the past few years (thanks to having two Thanksgivings each year—Canadian and American) and I’ve amassed a few tips and tricks for lowering the stress of cooking a big meal. It’s actually gotten to the point where I can drink some wine, laugh with my family and actually enjoy the day while cooking. What a crazy concept! I’m still exhausted at the end of the day, but it’s a good kind of exhausted!

Learn from my trial and error and make sure you implement some of these tips. Oh! And since hundreds of heads are better than one, share your own tips in the comments so we can all enjoy a totally Zen turkey day.

1. Make a menu.

This is pretty much my go-to tip for all kinds of things, but you need to plan. And planning for Thanksgiving means making a menu. A few weeks out, go through your recipes, figure out how many folks are coming and make a detailed list of what you are going to make. Do you need two pumpkin pies or will one be enough? What size turkey do you need? Will someone be upset if you don’t make Esther’s green bean surprise? Write it all out. If you’re feeling particularly over-achiever-y, turn it into a pretty menu for the day of. A posted menu can help starve off a whole lot of questions from guests. And as you’ll see in #8, keeping people out of your hair on T-day is super important.

2. Cut things.

Have your menu? All planned and ready to go? Now take a red pen to it. Slash it up. Cut, baby, cut. I promise you, you don’t need as much as you planned on making. You don’t need four desserts, three will be fine. You don’t need three different kinds of veggies, people will probably only take a little bit of one anyway. It can be so tempting to go huge and make a ton of different dishes, but it’s so much easier to make large quantities of a few recipes than it is to make moderate quantities of a bunch of recipes. Also, think about using pre-cooked/pre-packaged stuff if you can stand the idea. I’m 100% on the homemade train, but my Mama convinced me that dealing with yeast dinner rolls on Thanksgiving day wasn’t worth it. So I bought a giant bag of the frozen rolls and everyone raved about them. And they took me about 30 seconds worth of work. There is no shame in going only semi-homemade sometimes.

3. Plan two shopping trips.

You have your menu, you have your recipes, now go ahead and make two shopping lists. Why two? Well, you’re going to forget something. I promise. I don’t care how thorough you are, at 11pm on Wednesday night you’re going to be falling asleep and realize you forgot something totally obvious like cranberries or potatoes or wine (THE TRAVESTY). So you might as well use that second, last-minute trip to the store to your advantage. Make one shopping list for non-perishables (or at least perishables that can keep for a while) and shop off that list a week or more in advance. Then, keep a second running list of items that need to be picked up just a few days before. You can grab all your fresh produce while you’re snagging that case of wine. Cooking a frozen turkey? Buy it on the first shopping trip. You’ll need a few days to defrost it.

4. Check out your serving pieces.

About a week before the meal, grab a pen, some sticky notes and all your serving pieces and get to labeling. You want to make sure you have enough spoons, ladles, bowls, and platters to get all the food on the table. It doesn’t have to be perfect or even matching, but you definitely don’t want people trying to scoop out gravy with a fork. Make a list of the holes you find and buy the items. By doing this early, you can even maybe snag some deals on what you need from discount or thrift stores. Once you’ve got all you need, then wash them, label them and put everything away in a clean cabinet or shelf so it’s all ready to go for the day of.

5. Cook ahead.

This one is a no brainer—you want to do as much ahead of time as possible—but I think a lot of people don’t realize quite how much you can do ahead of time. Mashed potatoes reheat beautifully in the oven or a slow cooker. If you aren’t stuffing the bird, the dressing can be made ahead and baked off right before dinner. Almost all the desserts can be made ahead of time. Even if you can’t cook the whole dish, you can do prep work ahead of time. Snap your green beans, peel your potatoes, make your stock. It’s amazing how much easier it is to cook dinner when you only make one or two dishes a night and pop them in the freezer or fridge. You can even cook the turkey ahead! My Mama cooks the turkey on Wednesday, carves it, places it in an oven-proof casserole dish and stashes it in the fridge. About an hour before dinner, she pours some broth over it, pops it in the oven to warm and brings it to the table. It’s not as Rockwellian as the golden brown bird on the table, but it certainly is a lot easier and less stressful (and just as delicious)

6. Get yourself and your table ready first.

On the day of, get up early and set your table. You don’t want to be fiddling with centerpieces and place-settings when you have all five burners of your stove going. Take some time, drink your coffee and enjoy the process of making your table pretty. Put out all the plates, napkins, placecards and even set out your serving dishes. If you are eating earlyish, you might want to pop the turkey in the oven first, but then, definitely head over to the table. Trust me, it’ll make you feel much more together if your table is all ready to go. While you’re at it, take advantage of the calm before the storm and go ahead and take your shower, do your hair and get dressed. Trying to figure out when to flatiron your hair while you’re simultaneously cooking 10 dishes is no fun. Take care of yourself first and you’ll feel put together (both appearance-wise and to-do list-wise). Also? Getting ready early gives you a chance to showoff a super cute apron. You do have a super cute apron, right? No? I’ll be posting a tutorial for a crazy-easy one next week.

7. Keep folks out of the kitchen.

For me personally, this is quite possibly the #1 most important tip on the list to keep stress levels down. Other than folks you really trust or really think will help, try to keep people out of the kitchen. You don’t need to be juggling hot casserole dishes while trying to entertain guests. Remove any stools or chairs from the kitchen area to discourage folks from lurking. Set up snacks, appetizers, and the bar in an area away from the kitchen. It doesn’t have to be totally disconnected, but a little bit of distance is a good thing. You don’t want it to feel like you’re putting on a cooking show. If you do want people to help out, the next tip has some ways to make that happen without adding stress to your world.

8. Have tasks ready for sous chefs.

Even if you keep people mostly out of the kitchen, folks are going to want to help. It’s human nature to want to help when you see someone working so hard (and means you’ve got some pretty swell friends and family). Instead of pushing them away or handing them some big important recipe last-minute, go ahead and plan for some tasks that are perfect for sous chefs. Setting out a veggie tray? Even your half-drunk Great Aunt Cheryl can arrange baby carrots and dip on a platter. Need five onions chopped for stuffing? Set someone up with a knife and a cutting board. If you have a small kitchen, you can even set up some outside-the-kitchen tasks. Don’t set the silverware on your tablesetting and let someone else do it. Someone can put ice in water glasses. Someone else can be in charge of making sure the appetizers stay full. If you plan these tasks ahead of time (and maybe even set up little “stations” for sous chefs to help) you’ll get some actual help and your guests will feel helpful. Win, win.

9. Take notes!

This won’t help you this year, but it will help you a ton in upcoming years. TAKE NOTES! Doubling that mashed potato recipe make the perfect amount for eight people? Write it down. Did the pumpkin pie need to bake 15 more minutes than the recipe said? Write it down. People didn’t love your green bean recipe? Make a note to find a new one. You will not remember it 365 days from now, I promise. I actually have a copy of my Mama’s Thanksgiving notes, plus my own set. They live with copies of all my go-to Thanksgiving recipes in a folder in my recipe binder. When it’s Thanksgiving time, I just pull out the whole folder and I pick up where I left off last year.

10. Remember: it’s about the people, not the food.

The final tip is something easier said that done—try to remember that Thanksgiving isn’t about the food. It’s about being with your family and friends and giving thanks for all the wonderful things you have in your life. No one is going to care or notice if you didn’t use homemade chicken stock. And if they do? They need to readjust their priorities. Try to not put so much pressure on yourself, because, in the end, it’s just one meal out of 1,095 meals we have a year. The friends and family you’re sharing it with? They are what is special. Happy Thanksgiving!

Are you cooking Thanksgiving dinner this year? What are your tips for keeping in stress-free?

Cassie is the founder and CEO of Wholefully. She's a home cook and wellness junkie with a love of all things healthy living. She lives on a small hobby farm in Southern Indiana with her husband, daughter, two dogs, two cats, and 15 chickens.

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11 Responses
  1. How about I just come to your house this year? I’ll eat your food, and then I’ll give you a kick-butt training session the next morning, deal?
    Really, I have no idea what we’re doing! Greg’s parents live in Florida and Boston, so we usually get together with my family. But it’s hard planning things with a blended family- and so many step-siblings, and their spouses, etc… I would prefer if it was just my parents that came over here and we hung out.
    It’s also weird because I want to continue with the vegan diets, Greg wants to eat turkey and I’m sure that everyone else will… guess i’ll be getting a tofurkey for myself. 🙂

    1. Cassie

      Honestly? We’re totally just kinda skipping Thanksgiving this year. Since we did the whole big family thing last month for Canadian Thanksgiving, we’ve pretty much decided to spend November 22nd eating leftovers and watching movies. 😛

  2. This is something for my future life and I just can’t wait… Now I’m a sou chef and that’s find, but my heart secretly desires this task to be done in my own kitchen. One day, one day. I love that you have a house in IN and make Canadian Thanksgiving in it! Livin the dream right there…

  3. This year will mark my 3rd year (I think, maybe 4th?) that I’m the main cook for Thanksgiving dinner. I’m really excited, because I love to cook, and I love to make people happy with food, but it’s definitely stressful. The biggest thing for me is actually that I turn into kind of a control freak in the kitchen, and obviously Thanksgiving is a family event. So I have my mom, and I have aunts, and everyone wants to help and contribute and has ideas, and I do want there to be unity but also, MIIIIIIIIINE.

    I think my main thing is that I just need to get over myself. But also, they’d just better leave my mashed potato recipe alone. You don’t mess with perfection.

  4. Shelley

    My husband and I usually host an “orphan” Thanksgiving with our friends/co-workers who can’t travel home for the holiday. I try to delegate as much as I can which is directly linked to giving up on my control issues and my desire for things to be perfect. I’m a firm believer that everybody has a task they can do and that by participating they enjoy the meal more, (so, I disagree with your #7, but that’s cool.)

    We have tasks ear-marked for younger guests like setting the table or rolling the crescent rolls. I bring in a step stool for them or we set them up at the table.

    This year I’m really excited to not actually cook a turkey, but just buying a smoked breast from our favorite BBQ joint.

    Some tips I really liked that I learned last year:
    -Buy extra food storage containers before hand. You will most likely have left overs and it is nice to be able to pack them up (and send home with people).

    -Clean your fridge and pantry out the/2 week(s) before Thanksgiving. It makes things so much easier.

    -Have your favorite music playing while you are in the kitchen.

    -The best recipes start with “Open bottle of wine/beer; consume one glass; repeat every 1 hour; now….”

  5. Great list!
    The past few years I’ve cooked the majority of Thanksgiving dinner for my family. The problem is that I travel from Louisville to Pikeville and don’t get there until the night before! I always make a menu and grocery list ahead of time, send my family to do the grocery shopping in Pikeville and hope for the best! Talk about stressful – hah!

  6. Cassie this is a great list…I especially love the “label your serving dishes” and “take notes!” But like you said, it all really comes down to friends and family. Gorgeous pics!!

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Hello. My name is Cassie, and I’m a healthy home cooking expert.

I'm a Certified Holistic Nutritionist, and I've been developing healthy recipes professionally for over 15 years. Food is my love language, and my kitchen tips and nourishing recipes are my love letter to you!

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