In true Southern style, I do the full-on formal meal with linen, china, silver, and crystal. To me, that’s Thanksgiving. And I absolutely could not pull it off in a day or two.
I’ve had the big family dinner at my house several times now, so I’m kind of getting a routine for what to do when. And I've picked up some ways to make things a little easier. If you’re looking for some tips, I’ll tell you what works for me.
A week or two before
Plan the meal. Decide what you’re going to cook, what you’re going to buy premade, and what you get other people to bring. You should probably go ahead and shop for some of the important things—like a turkey—so you’re not stuck buying deli slices the day before.
My mother and I split up the cooking. I always do the turkey, which also means the gravy. And I always do a dessert that I can make a day ahead. This year I’m also doing green beans and a salad, both of which are very easy and can be done at the last minute.
I’ve decided to simplify the appetizers this year—we’ll pick up some nice cheeses and serve them with nuts and fruit. Who wants to fill up before the big meal anyway?
If you’re looking to simplify the cooking, you might try a pot-luck meal. Just make sure someone coordinates the dishes, so you don’t end up with four green bean casseroles. If you’re thinking of farming out some (or all) of the cooking, lots of restaurants and caterers sell precooked turkeys, sides, and fantastic desserts, but you have to reserve it ahead. You better start calling now!
The weekend before
Set the table. This gives me plenty of time to iron the table cloth, make sure the napkins aren’t stained, and think about doing some fancy napkin folding. I also figure out exactly which dishes and serving pieces we’re going to use, and then I make sure they’re all clean and the silver is polished. Start with the linens, and put everything out on the table as you go. When you’re finished ironing and cleaning, the table will be set! Ta-da!
Clean the house. I know, I have kids too, and the house doesn’t stay neat for more than a few hours. But if the house is clean ahead of time (at least the parts of it that your guests will use), it’s not much work to have the kids (and husband) pick up their things just before the big event.
Make a detailed grocery list. I make a list of everything I’m serving—this includes things like beverages (for kids and adults) and appetizer snack foods. Then I get out my recipes and make a list of everything I need from the store. Be sure you also have your usual things like breakfast cereal. You do have to eat meals other than the Thanksgiving feast.
Do ALL the shopping. This is a big job, so I just do this one thing and feel gratified to have it done. A glass of wine is in order.
The day before
Arrange a centerpiece. Since I use fancy china and silver, I usually do something simple for the centerpiece, like mixing a few small gourds and votive candles with things from my yard (beautiful fall-colored leaves, berries, rosemary sprigs, camellia blooms).
This year my camellia is covered in blooms, so I think I’ll place three smallish crystal bowls down the center of the table and float a single camellia bloom in each. I also have a collection of tiny vases, and I like to place one at each place setting with a single sprig of rosemary or a beautiful leaf.
Get a head start on cooking. I usually do a dessert that can be made a day ahead. I also get as much prep work done as possible for the next day. This includes things like putting the butter on the fancy butter dish and putting sugar in the silver sugar bowl.
The big day
COOK (or pick up the food you’ve ordered), SERVE, and ENJOY.
Don’t take it too seriously. If you start to feeling stressed and cranky, it’s time to simplify. And ask for help. Take a deep breath, and remember to have fun.
What’s the point of doing all this work if you’re not going to enjoy yourself?