Whether this is your first thanksgiving or your twentieth, thanksgiving planning can make or break your holiday.  I hosted my first thanksgiving at 19 years old in my college apartment and fed not only a rag-tag bunch of college kids but also a handful of their parents.  My mom of course came out to Texas to help but the planing and shopping trip was all me before mom even got to town. I wish I had saved my shopping lists. This was a college household, my list was long and included everything up to and including the turkey sized roasting pan. Thankfully mom had also agreed to pay for all the new kitchen items and the food I would need to make dinner for thirteen or so people.

I stared by taking stock of the equipment I was lacking: the roaster, a massive mixing bowl for making dressing, gravy boats, serving bowls, a cloth tablecloth with napkins, and even a ladle.  My mom as the event sponsor urged me to get good stuff not priceless but high quality, so off to Sur La Table I went, mom’s credit card in my purse. I came home with everything on my list including the exact same roasting pan that my mom had bought thirty years before and I had grown up seeing every Thanksgiving of my life. I am happy to report that seventeen years later I still have almost every item I bought that year. The moral of this story is write a list of equipment you will need then splurge a on a few high quality additions to your kitchen arsenal that will help make cooking and serving easy. Once you have these new items you will be amazed how well they will serve you for many holidays to come.  I would rather have a great kitchen tool then an over decorated table, in fact that first thanksgiving I asked a frat boy who was joining us for dinner to bring flowers and those flowers and a few candles were the only décor I bothered with.

Next its food shopping time, it’s going to be a marathon.  Your list is going to be the key. I start with a menu of all the things I want to serve, even stuff I will ask others to bring. My menu this year is below.  Next I start building a shopping list based on the menu. That may look something like the second tab below. My first Thanksgiving my list was a lot of post-it notes filled out while having many, many phone conversations with my mother. I remember one thing she kept reminding me, just buy extra butter and stock because almost every Thanksgiving disaster can be fixed with those items. Try to shop on Friday or Monday before the holiday to avoid the weekend rush. And don’t forget your list.


Sausage stuffing


Mashed Potatoes

Sweet Potatoes

Kugle (a first for me)

Dinner Rolls & Butter

Peas and Onions

Cranberry Sauce

Pumpkin Pie

Apple Pie

Baked Brie – Appetizer

Olives, Pickles and Nuts – Appetizer


Wine & Champagne

Miscellaneous Butter, Chicken Stock, Eggs,Potatoes, Peas and Onions, 2 Packages Cranberry, 2 Mrs Smith’s Pumpkin Pies, Whipping Cream

Turkey 18-20lbs Brined

Sausage Stuffing 2 loves potato bread (to dry), 2 sage bulk sausage, celery, onion, dry sage

Sweet Potatoes Canned Yams, OJ Concentrate, Mini Marshmallows (for my stepdaughter)

Kugle Egg Noodles, Sour Cream, Cream Cheese, Raisins, Apples, Pecans

Dinner Rolls Yeast

Apple Pie – Arlen will bring

Baked Brie – Appetizer Brie, Apricot Jam

Olives, Pickles and Nuts – Appetizer Olives, Nuts

So the big topic at many Thanksgivings is who will bring what. I have a system for this too. I assign items I don’t like to make to others first, then I start requesting people bring dishes that are unique to their family’s tradition, and last for the non-cooks ask them to bring: flowers, wine, or even ice.  So that means in our family my mother-in-law will bake the apple pie, my aunt will bring Waldorf salad, and the recently divorced family friend will bring the wine.  If you read my list carefully you will see that I am buying a Mrs. Smith’s pumpkin pies, and here is why. At my first Thanksgiving a friend’s mother baked one pumpkin pie and I had one Mrs. Smith’s and everyone like the frozen one better, even her son. Yep it’s a win-win for me frozen pie that everyone likes better than homemade. (I am not really a baker in case you were wondering.)  Another easy shortcut I will do sometimes is to buy Reddiwhip rather than whip the cream myself; it’s so easy, and read the ingredients it is real whipped cream.  Coolwhip on the other hand is nasty.

Do what you can ahead of time. Bake pies, set the table, and make cranberry sauce all in the days leading up to Thursday. On turkey day get your turkey in on time, nothing worse than telling people dinner is at 3pm and they turkey being in the oven until 5pm, that is 2 hours of eating appetizers and making uncomfortable conversation with Crazy Aunt Martha.  If the bird is ready early just pull it out it needs time to rest and don’t worry it’s not going to get cold. My other suggestion is don’t be afraid to ask for help, this is a family holiday, they are supposed to help. My uncle becomes a gravy stirring expert, my stepdaughters flawlessly pour water without spilling a drop, my mom is always up for pulling hot rolls out of the oven, and even a non-cook can pop open a bottle of wine.  Same thing goes for after dinner get help, and be ok with them loading the dishwasher wrong or putting leftovers away in strange ways. Getting help is delegation and that means accepting someone else interpretation of doing the job.

Most of all enjoy your family; this isn’t a competition your dinner needs to taste good to your family not the food critic at the New York Times. Mistakes will happen, items will get forgotten at the store and last minute adjustments will need to be made. Roll with the punches.  When in doubt flip on the parade, the dog show or a football game and take a timeout: sip a glass or wine, hug the kids or chat with grandpa because this is what memories are made from not the perfectly decorated table.

Happy Thanksgiving

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