A Holiday Countdown

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If you are hosting the holiday meal, Thanksgiving is the best of times and the worst of times.

My mother believed that Thanksgiving was the best holiday of the year, and I agree with her wholeheartedly. Thanksgiving gives us time to pause and enjoy our family and friends. But hosting the meal can seem daunting, with so many details to take care of, so much food to get on the table and so much to clean up.

How can a host or hostess cope with Thanksgiving Day Anxiety (TDA)? Follow the example of restaurants and caterers, who feed large crowds all the time. They plan out every detail so there are no surprises.

The Guest List

The first step is to establish how many people are coming. That will tell you how many chairs you’ll need and how big the dining room table has to be.

These days, many people have dietary restrictions, so it is good to know about those as well. In the invitation, ask whether there are ingredients or foods your guests need to avoid.

If you expect a lot of children, decide where you want them to play and organize that space as carefully as the dining room.

Menu Planning

The next step is to write the menu.

If friends and family want to contribute to the meal, work out who will bring what and give people assignments so you don’t end up with three platters of green beans and no pumpkin pie.

Organize your recipes and do the math. Most recipes are written for four servings. Multiply as appropriate for the number of your guests.

Go through the ingredients lists for all dishes and write up a master ingredients list. For example, if the stuffing recipe calls for 1 cup of mushrooms and the gravy recipe needs ½ cup of mushrooms, you know you need a total of 1½ cups of mushrooms for the meal. Put that on your master ingredients list.

Once you have a master list, divide up which ingredients you want to buy at farmers markets, specialty stores (like bakeries and cheese shops) and the supermarket.

We rely on farmers markets for fresh produce. In our Southern California neighborhood, four days from Thanksgiving, we’ll shop at the Sunday Palisades farmers market for produce that can last most of a week: root vegetables like beets from Underwood Farm or yams and sweet potatoes from Yang Farms and G Farms for pluots and oranges.

For us, the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market is a good place to pick up leafy greens, berries and fresh fruit. Any farmers market the day before Thanksgiving is going to be crowded, so get there early.

If you want a specialty turkey (organic, kosher, heritage), it likely needs to be ordered in advance from your local butcher or supermarket.

Time Line

Just about as important as settling on the menu is understanding what needs to be done and when.

Put into your time line details like when you will clean the house, wash and dry the tablecloth, check and clean all the dishes, silverware and glasses you want to use and, if you don’t have enough, when you will pick up what you need to borrow from a friend.

Do you have enough chairs? If not, determine when you will pick up extra ones and from where. Also indicate when you will pick up flowers and the turkey.

If you are ordering a cake from a local baker or a ready-to-serve dinner, put that into your time line, and check when they open and close. You wouldn’t want your guests to miss enjoying your turkey because you arrived after the store was closed.

But if you are cooking all or part of the meal, your menu is a big part of the time line. Take the time to sit down — maybe with a glass of wine — and organize the dishes in terms of preparation and cooking time.

Some dishes can be prepped or made the day before. For instance, we always serve a roasted beet salad that we make on Wednesday. We also wash, dry and wrap in aluminum foil the sweet potatoes and baked potatoes that we will cook Thursday.

If you are buying a ready-to-serve meal, you still have to allow time to reheat the dinner. If you are cooking the entire meal, which we love doing even if it makes the day crazy-hectic, you need to account for every minute of the day.

Our kitchen is the size of a New York closet, which I like because I don’t have to move much when I want to go from the sink to the stove, but with two or more people, it’s packed.

Be aware of your resources. I love the six burners of our Wolf stove — they help big-time on Thanksgiving — but because there is only one oven, we have to strategize when to bake our pies because the turkey will monopolize the oven for most of the day.

We write up a schedule for the day’s cooking that looks something like this:

6 a.m.: Wash and prep the turkey.

6 a.m.: Sauté onions, Italian sausage, shiitake mushrooms, parsley and garlic for the stuffing.

6:30 a.m.: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Stuff the turkey.

7 a.m.: Put the turkey in the oven.

7:30 a.m.: Make the cranberry sauce.

And so on, going hour by hour, we back time each dish so we know when it has to be cooked so it will be on the table at 3 p.m. when we want to serve dinner.

Clean Up

Don’t forget to pre-plan cleanup to work out who will be doing what.

Since our house is small and the kitchen is open to the dining room, we clean as we go. After each course, we are joined by members of the dinner party who help bus the dishes and silverware into the kitchen. After they help clean up between courses, they reset the table with clean plates.

We have a tradition of taking a walk with our friends and family around the block after the main course, before desserts are served. A selected few remain behind to clean up the dining room and kitchen so when everyone returns, desserts are on the table with fresh plates and silverware.

Having organized the cleanup as part of the meal, the kitchen is in good shape and we can enjoy dessert.

Hosting Thanksgiving dinner for a crowd is always crazy, but planning out the day in as much detail as possible helps keep the craziness manageable and fun.


Zester Daily contributor David Latt is a television writer/producer with a passion for food. In addition to writing about food for his own site, Men Who Like to Cook, he has contributed to Mark Bittmans New York Times food blog, Bitten, One for the Table and Traveling Mom. He continues to develop for television but recently has taken his passion for food on the road and is now a contributor to Peter Greenbergs travel site and the New York Daily News online.

Photo: Thanksgiving dinner at the authors home. Credit: David Latt

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