Thanksgiving is just dinner: 5 tips for a relaxed turkey day

This post is adapted from something I wrote years ago for a now long abandoned blog, but in spirit of a busy holiday season in which the best way to maintain one’s sanity is to cut a few corners, I am unapologetically recycling much of it.

For all the fuss I make about Halloween and Christmas, Thanksgiving may actually be my favorite holiday. A day of eating, drinking and lounging? What’s not to like? Still, the first time I was planning to host a crowd for Thanksgiving I was nervous. I called my mom and asked for advice. She told me something that has helped me every year since,

“Thanksgiving isn’t hard.”

And it isn’t.

Multitudes of sitcoms and movies have reinforced a myth that Thanksgiving dinner is inevitably a disaster. Pair that with hosts who may rarely entertain (or even cook) on other days of the year plus the pressure of potentially judgmental relatives and it’s easy to see how people could get freaked out.

If you are feeling the pressure of hosting Thanksgiving take a deep breath and say it with me,

“It’s just dinner.”

Actually, roasting a turkey, like most cooking that occurs over several hours, is pretty forgiving. If you relax and follow the recipes you should be fine, but here are some tips to reduce your stress and increase your chances of a successful Thanksgiving meal:

  • Plan for a cocktail hour (or at least a snack time). Hungry, impatient guests will only make you anxious. Put out some food that your guests can pick at. Choose things that won’t add to your stress. Cheese and crackers or bowls of nuts are fine. Serve some wine. If everyone is relaxed and being fed a little you won’t feel as rushed to get the meal to the table.
  • Simplify the food. Traditional Thanksgiving meals are made up of basic homey foods. There is no need to attempt the gourmet recipe you saw on the cover of a food magazine.
  • Don’t do anything you don’t want to do. I personally don’t like gravy, and I don’t like making it since it generally needs to be done at the last minute (see my final tip below). After a few holidays I noticed that my friends don’t use a lot of gravy either, so I stopped making it. I buy a jar of gravy. I warm it and add some extra seasoning. It’s fine, and I save my homemade efforts for stuff I enjoy. Maybe you love gravy. Fine. The point is that only making things you love will be more rewarding and therefore less stressful.
  • Ask for help. Whether you ask people to bring something or just ask them to mash some potatoes most guests are happy to help. Of course, if people in your kitchen add to your stress make sure they have something to keep their attention in the other room. If cocktails and snacks aren’t enough to keep them away, enlist someone to lead a party game. Be sure to have cards or a simple group game like Apples-to-Apples ready to go just in case.
  • Avoid things that have to be prepared at the last minute. Front loading your schedule is a good way to make your day less stressful AND give you a chance to actually spend time with your guests. It’s not too late to tweak your menu a bit to make this possible. And lest you think that simple, make-ahead items are boring, consider making one of my Thanksgiving crowd pleasers: Brandied cranberries.

But if you are still nervous about preparing the meal keep your sense of humor and maybe have some delivery menus nearby. Or just go out. Thanksgiving should be about giving thanks for what you have, if skill as a host or hostess is not one of those things that’s okay.

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You can also find Kim Z. Dale on Twitter and Google+ and like Listing Toward Forty on Facebook.

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