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Thanksgiving: preparation is best bitten off one small chunk at a time

Thanksgiving feasts are usually devoured in one hour. But the preparation is best bitten off one chunk at a time over several weeks.

To save yourself the frazzle of trying to pull it all together next Thursday morning, we got advice from some experts, such as the home economists who run the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line and the book "Saving Dinner for the Holidays," by Leanne Ely (Ballantine Books).

We also visited with Julie Badger Jensen of Holladay, author of the new book "Essential Mormon Celebrations" (Deseret Book). Her home is usually packed with up to 45 relatives on Thanksgiving. Tables and chairs are set up in every nook, and the meal is served buffet style.

In addition to Thanksgiving, Jensen's book offers a menu and recipes for each of the events that people usually celebrate throughout the year, including a "Merry Christmas Dinner," "Simple New Year's Day Brunch," "Football Fever Fest," a "Valentine Dinner for Two," "April Showers," "Cinco de Mayo," "Fourth of July Barbecue" and "Halloween." The book is a sequel to last year's "The Essential Mormon Cookbook."

"I hope that this book will help people to make their life simpler, because life is very complicated for most people," said Jensen.

Well, here's your Thanksgiving to-do list. If you haven't done the "Two Weeks in Advance" items, you'd better get started.

TWO WEEKS IN ADVANCE:

Invite your guests and determine who is coming: With extended families, one of the biggest challenges is pinning down who's celebrating with the other set of in-laws. Some families make it simple by alternating each year.

"Just call and say, 'We'd love to have you come for Thanksgiving this year, we'd like to know your plans,' " said Julie Badger Jensen, author of "Essential Mormon Celebrations."

Finalize your menu: Decide which items you'll prepare and which you'll assign to others. "Mashed potatoes are something I like to assign out, so you aren't peeling and boiling and mashing at the last minute," Jensen said. "We often ask people to bring a vegetable dish and leave it up to them what they want to do. We try to make sure we have a variety of yellow and green vegetables."

Give assignments: Assign major components (such as mashed potatoes) to someone who is dependable and prompt. Pies could be brought by someone who is often late, because they won't be needed until the main course is finished. Periphery items, such as cheese balls and crackers, won't be missed as much if there's a no-show.

Clean out your fridge and freezer to make room for Thanksgiving ingredients.

Make sure you have all your recipes together. Don't wait until you need a recipe to start looking for it.

Make a shopping list (consult your recipes and menu) and buy nonperishable items.

Decide on a fresh or frozen turkey. Order your fresh turkey now. Plan on about 1 1/2 pounds of turkey per person for generous servings and leftovers.

Plan the entertainment — books, games, music or holiday movies. Assign guests to bring some things to keep young children busy.

Do any "deep" cleaning, such as carpets and windows.

ONE WEEK IN ADVANCE:

Buy your frozen turkey and place in the refrigerator to thaw. Allow one day of thawing time for every 4-5 pounds of turkey. (If you buy your turkey earlier, you'll tie up valuable freezer space.)

Prepare and freeze do-ahead items. Rolls can be mixed, kneaded and formed on a baking sheet and frozen. (Allow five to six hours of thawing and rising time before baking.) The turkey dressing can also be made ahead and frozen. (Thaw in the refrigerator the day before.)

Plan the table or tables. Check linens to see if they need cleaning or pressing. Iron them now and fold or hang them up to avoid wrinkles.

Make centerpieces, place cards or favors. Children or grandchildren can help, said Jensen, who likes gathering seasonal items, such as pumpkin, squash, gourds, Indian corn, berries and foliage for centerpieces.

Double-check your serving pieces and utensils against the menu. If you need to find where you left your trifle bowl last year, or borrow Aunt Elsie's gravy boat, now's the time.

Clean and polish china and silverware.

TWO DAYS IN ADVANCE:

Buy perishables such as vegetables and whipping cream to avoid the day-before lines at the supermarket.

Restock logs in the fireplace.

Make sure there's film for the camera or recharge digital-camera batteries.

Decide which serving dishes you'll use for which foods, and identify them with an attached sticky note or a 3-by-5 card, advises Leanne Ely, author of "Saving Dinner for the Holidays." If several people are helping in the kitchen Thanksgiving morning, they can easily tell in which dish they should put the mashed potatoes or the fruit salad.

ONE DAY IN ADVANCE:

Pick up your fresh turkey.

Make desserts and refrigerate.

Do any prep work for your meal (chopping veggies, preparing salads, etc.) Place them in zippered plastic bags and refrigerate. DO NOT do the potatoes or sweet potatoes or they'll discolor, writes Ely.

Place any frozen make-ahead items in the refrigerator to thaw.

Do last-minute housecleaning and dusting.

Check the bathrooms for clean guest towels, hand soap and extra toilet paper.

Put up any extra tables and chairs.

Set the tables after dinner.

THANKSGIVING DAY:

Stuff the turkey and put in the oven. Generally, in a 325-degree oven, allow around 4-4 1/2 hours for a 10-18 pound stuffed turkey; 4 1/2-5 hours for an 18-22 pound stuffed turkey. Check the instructions that come with your turkey for specific times.

Turn on your favorite holiday music.

Prepare and cook side dishes.

Add finishing touches — such as butter, salt and pepper — to the table.

Fill the punch bowl or get ice water or other drinks ready.

Put out the hors d'oeuvres.

Take the turkey out of oven and place on serving platter for carving. Let stand at least 15 minutes before serving. Meanwhile, use the drippings to make gravy.

AFTER DINNER:

Clean up! Store leftovers in separate containers within two hours after cooking (and eat within two days). Divide them up in zippered plastic bags for guests to take home.


E-mail: vphillips@desnews.com