If you struggle to keep up with it all, the following 10 tips may help ease the burden of Thanksgiving stress:
1. Every family or group has its own Thanksgiving "culture." Know what that is before you have it at your home. You never really know a family until you share a Thanksgiving meal with them. Only then can you accurately sense their unspoken yet mutual understanding of the way things work. If you're accompanying your significant other for your first "family" Thanksgiving, it's important to take your cues from them, especially if it's very different from what you're used to. If you're a newlywed with a couple of holidays under your belt, you should still think twice about having Thanksgiving for the extended family. If you host, know what the family traditions and habits are and stick closely to them your first time around so you don't inadvertently offend anyone. (Even if you have to bite your tongue and not talk about politics and religion for a single day.)
Small details that may seem unimportant to you can take on enormous significance for a family invested in certain rituals. If Aunt Barb always bakes the pumpkin pie and you bring one, you risk hurting her feelings. If you're preparing traditional family recipes, you may disappoint if your mashed potatoes are too coarse, your meatballs for the soup are too large, or you've left the marshmallows out of the sweet potato casserole. If you deviate and add chestnuts to the stuffing, Uncle George -- who hates sweets -- won't eat it.
Be aware of these preferences and respect them, even if you know you can improve upon Cousin Susie's green bean casserole or make better homemade rolls than those refrigerator crescent things. To you, it's food. To others, it's tradition.
2. Check with all guests for dietary restrictions. When invited to dinner, very few of us will immediately proclaim what we can and cannot eat since we don't want to appear rude. So as the host, it's in your best interest to contact your Thanksgiving guests well in advance to ask if they have any dietary restrictions you should be aware of. If they do, don't panic. Just because someone is vegan or vegetarian doesn't mean you have to scrap the turkey for Tofurkey for all. Your goal should be to have one or two dishes they can eat, not change your entire menu. Many people with dietary concerns will truly appreciate that you've gone to such trouble. Plan on at least one item with no cheese, dairy or eggs (for those who are lactose intolerant or vegan), no wheat products (for those who follow a gluten-free diet), no meat or poultry products (this would include gelatin for most vegetarians), and no sugar (for diabetics or low-carb eaters) -- not all in the same dish of course. And if someone has a nut allergy, warn them of anything that's come in contact with nuts, nut butters or nut oils.
Sometimes by reading labels and ingredients and making simple substitutions, you can satisfy everyone. For a vegan, choose dinner rolls that don't contain butter or dairy -- just yeast, flour, salt and oil. Prepare a salad that contains only vegetables -- no chunks of cheese or bacon crumbles. If you're used to slapping a pat of butter on fresh vegetables, try a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil instead for a dish palatable to both vegans and full-fledged omnivores.
3. Ask others for help with the meal. This may seem blasphemous to Martha Stewart wannabes or those looking to release their inner Food Network star. But delivering every dish piping hot and perfectly prepared at the same time is not unlike landing a dozen planes on the same runway in under 6 minutes. Not all of us have the skills of an air traffic controller and an oven the size of O'Hare, Kennedy or LAX. As you plan for Thanksgiving, consider asking guests to bring a make-ahead item. Portable options that can be served cold, room temperature, or easily reheated include cranberry sauce, rolls and breads, desserts and pies, and casseroles -- and there's also wine, beer, soft drinks or apple cider. There's no shame in getting by with a little help from your friends (and relatives.) Who wouldn't prefer to spend more time with you than see you sequestered in the kitchen, refusing all human contact in order to get everything ready and perfect?
4. Thanksgiving is easier if you have the right kitchen tools. If you're only cooking a large turkey once a year, it's hard to justify buying a large roasting pan (or find room to store it the other 364 days.) But using a flimsy disposable aluminum turkey pan and turkey lifter only add to the stress. Single-use pans are unsafe and can cause burns, not to mention a ruined meal. Invest in a heavy duty pan with handles and a separate roasting rack and you'll save time and money in the long run. You'll find it safer and easier to take the pan of the oven, lift the turkey, and transfer it to a platter. Plus a solid-bottomed roaster will enable you to make better gravy -- you can place it directly on a stovetop burner and deglaze right in the same pan.
Likewise, buy yourself a digital thermometer -- don't rely on the pop-up button in the turkey. The thermometer will accurately gauge when the turkey is done and it'll reduce your worries about over- or undercooking. Fancier ones allow you to leave the temperature probe in while cooking and start beeping when the preset temperature is reached.
If you're striving for creamy mashed potatoes, you'll also need a good hand-held or tabletop mixer; mashing and whipping by hand will never match the smooth consistency of an electric mixer.
5. Count on everything taking much longer than you think. You'll probably need twice as much time to accomplish half of what you expect. Build in extra blocks of time and always pad in case of problems. If you tell everyone that dinner is a 4, set your own deadline at 3 or 3:30 instead -- it's easier to slow down food preparation than speed up. You can always turn down the oven or hold hot foots, but you can't make them cook any faster without ruining them.
The "everything takes longer" advice is especially true of defrosting the turkey. Don't time it so that it finishes defrosting Thanksgiving morning. Aim to have the turkey fully defrosted by Wednesday. A frozen turkey that's thawed can be safely held for a day in your refrigerator and if it takes longer to defrost than you'd planned, you've just bought yourself an extra 24 hours.
6. Make room for incoming. That includes guests, foods, dishes, coats, and beverages. It may seem counterintuitive, but you'll want to have less food in your refrigerator in the days preceding Thanksgiving. You're going to need the extra space whether it's for defrosting or brining your turkey, storing cold dishes, chilling beverages, or keeping the many ingredients you'll need for meal preparation -- not to mention all the Thanksgiving leftovers. If you have a porch, balcony, unheated garage, fire escape or deck, use that as overflow for cold items, provided that outdoor temperatures stay cold but above freezing and you have safe storage (large coolers, enclosed shelving, secure containers) that animals can't get into.
Remove excess coats and items from a closet nearest the front door, or have a bedroom ready where you can lay coats on the bed. Make sure there's a seat for everyone, not only at the dinner table but while relaxing before and after the meal.
7. Take a tip from the retail world -- start the day after Halloween. They have everything in place for the holidays as early as possible. You should too. If it's boxed, canned, packaged, dry, or stays fresh for a month, buy it early -- no later than the first or second week of November. If you wait until the weekend before Thanksgiving, you run the risk of going without. (Already missing at my market: canned french onion soup and King Arthur flour. In short supply: canned pumpkin, cranberry sauce, fresh cranberries.)
As for the turkey, order a fresh one early or buy the right-sized frozen one well in advance. If you wait too long, you'll end up with one either the size of a Cornish game hen or an SUV. Do not leave shopping until Thanksgiving week; make that mistake once and you'll never do it again.
8. Don't lose track of yourself. You take priority. If you're doing Thanksgiving, you'll probably get up ridiculously early and start your "holiday" earlier than you'd start your workday. But while you would dress for work, chances are you'll just throw on a t-shirt and jeans and plan on getting ready later on. That's fine as long as you leave time for yourself. Don't put your needs last and shortchange yourself by hastily getting dressed just before guests come. Have someone else step in while you take care of yourself. There are easy tasks they can handle such as setting the table (just make sure you lay out a place setting for them to follow) or making room for coats in the closet or bedroom. You are a key element to everyone's enjoyment of the day, so take the time to enjoy yourself and get out of the kitchen. After the meal, if you get offers from others willing to wash the dishes, put away food or clean up, just say yes. You're not taking advantage of them; it's their way of giving thanks.
9. Include a simple yet special way of remembering the day. When my daughters were younger, both came home from school with unique ideas that have become a family tradition.
One was a "Family Book of Thanks" made out of half sheets of paper and a yellow card stock cover; yarn threaded through two punched holes bound it together. Inside we each wrote what we were thankful for. If you're not hosting Thanksgiving, you can make one, pass it around so that guests can record their thoughts, and give it to the hostess/host of the dinner as a memorable thank you.
The other idea was a "Garland of Gratitude" composed of yellow, orange and red leaves cut out of construction paper and glued along a length of yarn; on each leaf we wrote down the people/items/situations that we were grateful for. This garland has been added to over the years and is put up every Thanksgiving in our home.
Both are a tangible reminder that what stays with us over the years are the warm feelings shared between family and friends, not the fancy foods or sumptuousness of the festivities.
10. The only thing Thanksgiving has in common with "perfect" is the letter T, and neither revolves around U. Keep this in mind: you are not going to make or break the year in a single day, and nobody is expecting everything to be perfect. If Thanksgiving were an error-free holiday that always turned out Norman Rockwell-perfect, there wouldn't be a turkey hotline, Thanksgiving-themed paper products, precooked Thanksgiving "heat and serve" dinners delivered by mail, or restaurants serving turkey and all the trimmings on Thanksgiving Day. The turkey can be dry and overcooked, you can use paper napkins instead of linen, you can buy a pie instead of baking one and still not ruin anything if everyone is having a good time and enjoying each other's company. In fact, chances are good nobody would notice any of the above.
If you can put aside the unrealistic desire to have it all picture perfect -- and focus on being fully present for a day with those you love best instead of distracted by too many details and too much stress -- that's something to be truly thankful for. Instead of a mindlessly stressful Thanksgiving, try for a mindfully relaxing one, and make love -- not perfection -- the centerpiece of your celebration.