Last updated on February 9th, 2015
Culturally, we Americans put a lot of pressure on ourselves for Thanksgiving, creating a whole cottage industry of one-upmanship and panic (Butterball helpline? really? As a nation, we should be roasting more chickens and then we’d have no fear of doing a larger version) surrounding the big day. Let’s not even get into the questions of tradition. The hundreds of column inches and pixels dedicated to helping home cooks bring multiple hot dishes to the table at once is mind-boggling and terrifying, as is (I suppose) the idea of large-scale entertaining for most of the population.
However, one of the talents I’ve honed from my years in public relations/event planning is how to properly prepare for a big event, whether it’s opening a museum, feeding 50 finicky critics, organizing a runway show, or just having 15 people over to your house for a meal.
Orchestrating Thanksgiving is much less complex than corralling fashion photographers, but there’s a whole slew of agendas and lists I use to keep my world in order in the weeks leading up to any big dinner party, whether it be the Super Bowl, a meal cooked from the Alinea cookbook, or Thanksgiving. Here’s how it goes down:
Once my dinner menu is finalized, I make a list of every recipe I’ll be using, noting all ingredients (remember, in my world, all butter is unsalted and all eggs are large) and respective quantities of each, along with brief notes on cooking times and temperatures. It’s not necessary to rewrite the entire set of directions here—the key things to note are the logistical considerations. How long it will take to make the dish? At what temperature should the oven be set? Can the dish be made in advance and reheated?
The pile of recipes/cookbooks I’m using for the day are separated from my bookshelves and binders so they can be referenced quickly. If the mashed potatoes recipe comes from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, for example, there’s a Post-It flag stuck to that page so I can immediately turn to it when needed.
I divide the ingredient list into a separate shopping list organized by category: produce, dairy, dry goods, meat, etc. I’ll leave out any items that are already well-stocked in my pantry—and yes, I know there’s no turkey on my list because it’s coming from PA with my family. Hey, I’m not above delegating responsibilities when I can trust my guests with quality ingredients.
Notice how the lists are becoming more and more manageable?
After the ingredients have been condensed and reorganized, the timeline can take shape. I make a five-day plan, listing the components of each recipe that can be completed as early as the Sunday before Thanksgiving. By doing about an hour’s worth of work each night (pre-baking, chopping ingredients so they can be dumped right into pans), I’m also saving myself a lot of day-of dishwashing aggravation.
The timeline ends with a time-stamped, half-hourly breakdown of what needs to happen on Thursday. I make sure to add reminders to set the table and get the bar in order before guests arrive—if you’re the kind of person who’ll forget to shower before dinner, add that too.
I leave an hour’s resting time for the turkey on the off chance that it’s not done in four hours as planned. Last year, my bird hit its temperature mark ahead of schedule and did end up resting for the full hour with no adverse effects, so don’t fear the extra time on the countertop. Ideally, your bird should rest for a half hour before carving anyway.
Those documents, once more, for easy download:
Any other questions or advice from the peanut gallery? Post your thoughts in the comments or drop me an email. I’d love to hear your planning tips!