Thanksgiving Dinner – Tips and Tricks for a Stress-Free Holiday Meal

I make a kick-ass Thanksgiving Dinner.  Not being egotistical, because it is just a fact.  Here are some of my favorite tips and tricks to make your Thanksgiving extra special….at least the food part!  You are on your own when it comes to dealing with your in-laws, but well-fed relatives are usually less confrontational, right?

Great things to make ahead of time and when to make them:

Way ahead: only things that can be frozen or canned like jams, jellies, apple butter, quick breads that freeze well, and homemade stock….I have herb scones in the freezer right now!  Some pies freeze well, too.  I am not a huge fan of freezing things, but sometimes it must be done.

2-3 days ahead:  cranberry sauce, cookies, prep work like compound butters (see my last post!), soups, and brining.

1 day ahead: mashed potatoes (see tip about reheating later!), stuffing, carrot soufflé or sweet potato souffle, pies, cakes, casseroles, dips, and you can even do your turkey ahead (but would rather you not!).  Also, set the table, but only if you don’t have kids; )

Thanksgiving day:  make the turkey (or duck, or goose, or ham, or turducken?), gravy, rolls or breads (unless frozen in advance), and vegetables (unless in a casserole), salads, cut fruit and veggies for crudités, and reheat everything.

Cooking tips

Mashed potatoes:  Use Yukon Gold potatoes (also called Butter Potatoes) for the richest, best mashed potatoes.

Start them in cold, well salted water then bring to a boil.  Do not cut them super small, as they will become water logged.  If you do not salt your water, no amount of salt added later will make the potatoes taste good.

For the love of everything holy, do NOT over whip them!  They will become gluey, and then there is not much you can do.  This happened to me last year, and I am still bitter about it.  Use a hand masher or ricer, and you should be fine.

Use plenty of butter and cream.  I like to steep herbs and garlic in the warm cream and butter mixture, which I later remove before adding to the potatoes.  This is not the time for skim milk.  Sour cream is fine, though!

If making potatoes ahead, add a little extra cream and butter on top before reheating.  This will prevent a skin from forming on top and make the potatoes perfect!

Thanksgiving Potatos in the Pot


Herb infused cream and butter.
Herb infused cream and butter.
Mashed Potatoes with Herb Infused Cream
Mashed potatoes ready to be stored in the fridge for tomorrow. The cream and butter on top will prevent a crust from forming.

Stuffing or Dressing:  Make your own!  It is not hard.  Just sauté veggies in butter, add herbs, stale or toasted bread cubes, stock, and voila.

Thanksgiving Dinner Stuffing ingredients being sauted

Thanksgiving dinner stuffing complete

To make ahead and reheat, just pour a small amount of stock and dot with butter on top and reheat slowly in the oven.

DO NOT stuff the bird with the stuffing.  By the time the stuffing is cooked through and safe to eat, your bird will be way over cooked.

Stuffing muffins are one of my favorite ways to serve stuffing.  Everyone gets a pre-portioned stuffing ball with some crispy top and soft center!

Thanksgiving Dinner Stuffing Muffins


Use a meat thermometer or digital probe thermometer that alerts you when your Turkey is cooked through.  Insert thermometer into the center of the Breast meat- careful not to touch a bone!  Do not rely on pop-up thermometers that come with some birds.

ONLY stuff a turkey with aromatics such as herbs, lemon, onion, garlic, oranges, apples, etc…  Do not stuff with dressing, as I said before.  Your bird will cook faster and be moist and delicious.

DO use a high heat first method, such as Alton Brown’s Turkey Recipe.

Also, slather your bird under the skin with a compound butter (see my previous blog entry.  A little canola oil on top, salt and pepper will make a nice crispy brown skin.

Feel free to brine your bird if you have the space in the fridge and time, but if you want to save on that, buy a pre-brined or a Kosher Turkey.  Anyone who keeps kosher knows that these turkeys are already brined for you and are the tastiest birds around!

When reheating your turkey (because it is almost impossible to serve a hot turkey and hot side dishes at the same time unless you have 5 ovens), slice turkey, and lay it in a large baking pan in one layer.  Add a little stock over all the turkey, cover and heat in the oven on a fairly low temperature until warmed through.  The turkey will be very moist from the stock!

Pie crust

Feel free to make them from scratch, and more power to you if you do.  However, there is no shame in buying premade crusts, especially if you are doing the bulk of the cooking.  It saves a lot of time and effort, and let’s face it, pie is still fantastic either way.  Never seen anyone turn down a pie, because the crust was store bought.  I like the ones you unroll and place in your own pie tin.

Use pie shields instead of messing with foil to prevent your crusts from burning. Another tip is to bake pies at a slightly lower temperature for a longer amount of time.  I really like baking pies at 375 degrees, because the crusts don’t burn easily that way.

Lastly, because I have to go make some pie-

Pumpkin pies-  Every pumpkin pie has some form of milk product, but which is the best?  It is really a matter of personal preference, but I have conducted an exhaustive search to find which I like best over the past few years.  I have tried heavy cream, half and half, condensed milk, and evaporated milk.  IMHO evaporated milk is the best tasting, because the pumpkin really shines through and there is a lighter consistency to the filling.  The heavier creams (and I am usually such a fan!) muddle the flavors of the spices and pumpkin for me.  My second favorite would be the condensed milk, which leads to a richer, denser consistency that is also great!

Thanksgiving Dinner Pumpkin Pie

General tips for Thanksgiving Dinner:

1. Be careful and aware of the food allergies your guests might have.  If your recipe has nuts in it, please disclose that information!  If you sneak oysters into your stuffing, make sure nobody has a shellfish allergy and so on…

2.  Keeping a list of what needs to be done, reheated, and when you plan on doing those things is very helpful.  I generally write a menu, a to-do list, and a schedule of when I will make and heat things.  It helps tremendously.

3.  Clean as you go.  ‘Nuf said.

4.  Do some of the work ahead of time, if possible.

5.  Enlist your children or family members to do easier jobs like setting the table, peeling potatoes, cutting the ends of the green beans, etc…

Thanksgiving Dinner Children Helping

Thanksgiving Dinner Children Love to Help!

6.  Experiment with one or two recipes that might be out of the box creative, but keep most things fairly traditional.  That curried, pretzel crusted turkey from the cover of Bon Appetite might not please everyone in your family.  People want the food that brings back memories of Thanksgivings past and the comforting flavors of childhood.

7.  No need to go over the top with decorations.  The food is beautiful enough, and centerpieces usually get moved aside.

8.  Do have activities ready for the children to work on while waiting for the meal.

What tips and tricks do you know?  Please leave me a comment with helpful hints or recipes that make your Thanksgiving special!  Hope this was helpful.

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