How to Not Screw Up Thanksgiving, According to a Bunch of Moms

Turkey Day veterans share their best intel for first-time hosts around the country

November 23, 2020 8:26 am
thanksgiving dinner
Everything you need to know about having your first Thanksgiving dinner in your household. (Photo by Camerique/Getty Images)
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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage on, Thanksgiving will look very different this year. With the CDC urging everyone to avoid travel and skip large gatherings, many people who typically spend the holiday celebrating at someone else’s house are now faced with the prospect of fending for themselves and hosting the traditional meal for the first time.

But even if you’re scaling back this year, there’s a massive amount of prep work and organization that comes with cooking a whole turkey, an assortment of sides and a dessert. To help get a handle on it, we reached out to the people in our lives who know best — moms, and also one non-mom who has hosted no fewer than five large Thanksgivings — for their tips for Thanksgiving beginners and advice about common mistakes to avoid. (Of course, you don’t have to be a woman to excel at cooking and hosting, and we’re by no means trying to imply otherwise; hopefully this guide can help dismantle that stereotype by encouraging more men to get into the kitchen.)

Hopefully you’re planning on adhering to public health recommendations and keeping it small this year. (The CDC says, “As cases continue to increase rapidly across the United States, the safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to celebrate at home with the people you live with.”) But the recommendations below can also be applied to a larger, more normal Thanksgiving next year when it’s (hopefully) safe to have a big celebration again. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for that, but in the meantime, consider this holiday to be a trial run and check out the things every new host should keep in mind below.

“1. Most dishes can be made the night before, which then gives you enough time to clean the kitchen before going to bed. Casseroles and mashed potatoes (with a bit of added milk if they dry out) are especially easy to reheat the day of. I think many desserts can also be prepped a day ahead, but I’m not a baker.

2. Make a written list of what you’re serving. Categorize it by oven temperature and write the bake time next to it. It’s way easier to follow a schedule than to do all the calculations in your head while stressed. This also prevents forgetting to serve something that you bought or prepped. 

3. Don’t try any complicated new recipes or techniques. Most people like comfort food, so this is not the time to experiment. 

4. Make sure you take care of yourself: get enough sleep the night before, eat breakfast, hydrate, maybe have a glass of wine and turn on music while cooking. Hosting is stressful and overwhelming, so try to find ways to relax and enjoy.”  Sarah Cross

“Give up the control and let people help. Remember it’s about being together and being thankful. And be sure to buy extra leftover containers ahead of time — I feel like we never had enough, especially if you want send leftovers with guests, which may not hold true this year.” Kerry Loetscher

“Don’t forget you have to make gravy. Lots of it. (Also do not put kale in the dressing.)” Darlene Miller

“Like many things in life, timing is everything. Because a traditional Thanksgiving dinner is composed of many different dishes, it is very easy to forget to coordinate the preparation (how long something will take or how difficult it might be) of so many diverse and possibly unfamiliar items. Green bean casserole isn’t usually part of an everyday meal. Along with the preparation time, it is also important to coordinate when things are going to be done so everything can be served at the right temperature at the same time. If too many items need to be cooked in the oven near serving, especially at different temperatures, that can be challenging. The same can be true if many items need the stove top. A good solution is making ahead as many items as possible, or at least doing a lot of the prep work. Doing a re-heat near to serving time works well for stuffing (if it is not in the bird, which is a whole other complex decision) and even for mashed potatoes.” — Diane Bleier

“Menu planning, timing, and fresh herbs are everything. Luckily most things can be prepped in advance. Then, mis en place: get all the ingredients for each dish out and in place. Fixate on your favorites. You can’t do everything perfect every time. I’m just doing a turkey breast this year. (Brine in salt. Then brown at 425 for 30 minutes and finish low and slow for another hour.) I love dressing: ALWAYS cook separate outside of the bird. Make it as tasty and fanciful as you dare! Green bean casserole can be original or all prepared products. People like creamy mushroom beans with a crunchy topping of anything — onions, parmesan, bacon, etc. — another creative opportunity. Desserts should be crazy rich. Buy it unless you are a great baker. Gravy takes experience. Just buy it until you’ve become an expert on the other components of dinner.” Betty Monk

“Practice makes perfect and cooking is love more than a recipe, especially this year, when others aren’t around. Before I started hosting, Guyanese food was always incorporated into Thanksgiving dinners, so I tried to do the same for mine. While my first attempts were pretty bad, over time I learned how to make things well. Also over time, I’ve been incorporating my kids more and more in the process. While it can mean some things are not quite as exact or you have to improvise more when mistakes are made, it makes for forever memories and the best family bonding experiences! You may feel frustrated in the moment but kids only remember the beauty of it.” Sabrina Eldridge

“We’ve had a lot of burned rolls over the years — after a long day of cooking, and all the chaos toward the end, the rolls are the last things to go into the oven, and they are easy to forget.” Cheryl Loetscher

“One word: spatchcock.” Stacy Bell Rosen

“Break every dish into its own set of micro tasks; having to make some fiddly finishing component while a dish is cooking is going to make you nuts. Fry shallots for your casserole on Tuesday, put together crumble topping and keep it in the fridge on Tuesday, that kind of thing. Get the tedious stuff/the stuff you don’t want to do done first; give yourself copious praise when you need it and it’s already done. If you’re sharing the cooking duties with someone else, make sure you agree about who’s cooking what when you make your menu. Don’t have a silly fight over sweet potatoes. Roasting a big turkey breast is a great whole turkey alternative for a smaller crowd. Drink water! Have little snacky things for yourself but also whoever you need to get out of your hair.” Claire Lobenfeld

“Two smaller turkeys as opposed to one big turkey. They don’t dry out while cooking.” Michelle Jandreau Cahill

“The turkey will take soooo much longer than you think/plan for.” Isabel Cullen

“The best advice I have is if you have a grill to consider cooking the turkey on it. It cooks the same as in the oven, and you don’t have to rush to make all the sides after the turkey has been taken out!” — Jaime Donovan


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