In order to host Thanksgiving dinner, you need a quarterback and a game plan. This analogy works for the obvious reason—after all, football has been a part of this holiday since 1869—but also because success can look different based on your lineup (family’s unique kitchen, budget and traditions).
We turned to three veterans of the hosting game to share their tips and tricks to help you get ready for primetime on Nov. 28:
Adrienne Pasquariello is a mother of five and grandmother of 11, who has been cooking Thanksgiving dinner for her family for 50 years.
Jamey Alexander not only makes Thanksgiving dinner for his own family, but hundreds of others as head chef of Buffalo Soul Catering.
Amy Phillips has likewise been treating her family to restaurant-quality dishes after years of experience as a professional caterer.
The starting lineup
Your menu is the first priority because it impacts so many other aspects of planning, like the shopping list and dishes that could be outsourced to other guests.
“What are dishes that are important to my family and me? If I don’t serve something, who is going to miss it and will it be an uproar?” asked Phillips.
For some families, this is your turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, corn, green bean casserole and dinner rolls. Others serve glazed ham, dressing, macaroni and cheese, collared greens and cornbread.
But the main dishes typically stay consistent year-over-year, which gives you the opportunity to experiment with cocktails, appetizers or sides.
“I will pick up magazines like Food & Wine and Bon Appétit to follow the trends for more ancillary items. Because if you try it and like it, that’s great. But if you don’t like it, you never need to do it again,” noted Phillips.
Once the menu is set, you can determine how much food needs to be purchased to ensure you have enough for your group.
Pasquariello has quite literally written the playbook for this. After every Thanksgiving, she details how many people attended and how much food was bought for the main courses on an index card.
“Everyone thinks they’ll remember, but it’s easy to forget with so much going on. A simple note eliminates a lot of doubt,” said Pasquariello.
With years of experience, Pasquariello is confident with these numbers:
- Turkey: 1 lb. per guest
- Mashed Potatoes: 1 potato per guest
- Gravy: 2 oz. per guest
- Vegetables: 1/4 lb. per guest
- Cranberry sauce: 1 oz. per guest
From here, you have a rough estimate and can go up or down depending on the dish. If you are expecting 15 guests, you should purchase an 18-20 lb. turkey because it’s a fan favorite and to-go friendly. But you can usually go lower with vegetables and cranberry sauce because those aren’t as consistently popular among all guests.
Beat the clock
“The most important thing is making sure everything is hot and presentable, while cooking with love,” said Alexander.
Thanksgiving Day is really a week of preparation culminating to a single dining experience. With a strong regimen, you can be calm and ready for the bright lights.
- Sunday: Clean the house
- Monday: Grocery shop
- Tuesday: Start prepping your sides
- Wednesday: Continue to prep, but also set your table
- Thursday: GAME DAY!
A strong secondary
“I’m always very specific when people ask what they can bring. It eliminates repeat dishes and ensures everything is covered, like a chocolate dessert or something without nuts. Plus, when someone makes a dish, it gives them something to look forward to during the meal” added Phillips.
But sometimes a help can in fact be a hindrance when kitchen space is at a premium.
Encourage guests to bring a dish that is already prepared and doesn’t require the oven or the fridge because it’s safe to assume those are already full. Warming plates or coolers help preserve dishes until it’s time to serve.
A clean route
“My kitchen is narrow so I don’t like a lot of people in there,” admitted Pasquariello.
This was a sentiment shared among most of the veterans. When you’re managing 6-8 dishes at once, wandering guests can knock you off your game.
“You want to keep everyone occupied and away from the kitchen. This can be done by positioning the bar area in another room, ideally with a TV. And a strong cohost can also take coats and direct traffic flow elsewhere,” noted Phillips.
You don’t want appetizers to overshadow the main course.
“I stick with simple cheese and crackers, because you don’t want people to get full. You worked too hard on the turkey,” warned Pasquariello.
Slicing the turkey can be tricky too.
“Everyone wants to start on the breast. But you do want to break the bird down to get the most out of it. It also helps to know where joints and ligaments are, so you’re not just hacking at white meat,” said Phillips.
Recognizing the MVP
If turkey is the star of your show, you should do everything to help it shine. Phillips says there are three strong products for this: a good baster to prevent your turkey from drying out, a digital-read thermometer to ensure the bird is safe to eat and a sharp chef’s knife to improve your plate presentation.
A smooth handoff
When it comes to training a replacement, patience is key.
"My cooking is 95 percent eyeballing it. There’s no measured recipes with tablespoons or teaspoons. It’s just from watching my mother,” said Alexander. “So you have to let people learn on their own terms. You can’t jump down their throats, especially when a lot of it’s about technique and having a delicate touch.
Go pro & brine your turkey
“Brining is the key, but a lot of people are afraid of it, like it’s some crazy technique. But it’s just a foolproof way to ensure your turkey won’t get dried out. Salt and sugar do their magic to make sure it absorbs and holds onto the juice,” said Phillips.
If you’re in the market for a new brining recipe, here is Phillips’ favorite for an 18-20 lb. turkey:
- 2 gallons water
- 2 cups kosher salt
- 1 cup light brown sugar
- 1/4 cup whole black peppercorns
- 4 bay leaves
Pour all dry ingredients and one gallon of water into a large pot. Stir together over medium heat until all the seasonings are dissolved. Place in refrigerator to cool down.
Next, line a 5-gallon container with a large brining or oven-roasting bag. Place turkey in bag, then pour in the cooled brine and remaining gallon of water. Refrigerate 24 hours, flipping turkey once.
Before roasting the turkey, remove from brine, and pat dry all over with paper towels. If you have time, let the turkey sit uncovered in your refrigerator for at least an hour to air dry further. This will help the skin crisp while cooking!
Story topics: Food + Drink