When I was a child, I loved Thanksgiving. My sisters, cousins, and I would play ball outside most of the day, only stopping occasionally for a bathroom run, and a trip past the kitchen to smell the delicious turkey that had been cooking since early that morning. The work that was going into that dinner under preparation never even entered my mind.
All I knew was that I couldn’t wait to help eat it. Now, after quite a few years of being the one doing the preparing, I can see why experts say that Thanksgiving, and Christmas, are two of the most stressful holidays of the year. And, as the years go by, the size of the family usually increases, and so does the stress. If your Thanksgiving dinner is beginning to overwhelm you, here are some tips to help you avoid at least some of the stress.
1. Prepare as much food ahead of time as possible.
A pie doesn’t have to come straight from the oven to the table to be yummy. Bake your Thanksgiving pies several weeks ahead of time and freeze them. Set them out to thaw early on Thanksgiving Day, and they should be ready to eat in plenty of time for dinner. Roast your turkey ahead of time.
I do mine the day before Thanksgiving. After it cools, I slice it into serving size portions and line the pieces up in a large baking pan. After topping the pan with foil, I refrigerate it until the next day and heat it in the oven for a few minutes just before putting it onto a platter ready to go on the table. No more wondering if the turkey will be done in time for dinner— no more waiting forever for Dad to carve the turkey—and no more roasting pan mess to clean up after the meal.
Use ready made buns and package mixes for mashed potatoes and gravy. More time saved and much less stress for the cook. If you think that mixes aren’t as good as home-made, you should test a few of them out in the weeks before the big day. I have found wonderful instant mashed potatoes with a garlic taste, and turkey gravy that tastes much better than any I have ever made from scratch. Unless you have an old family recipe for dressing that has been passed down for generations, you might want to try a mix for that, too.
2. Take steps to avoid conflict.
It is a rare family that doesn’t have at least a couple of members who don’t get along with each other. Call each of them ahead of time and ask them, as a personal favor to you, if they wouldn’t try to put their differences aside for the day. Seat them as far away from each other as possible, and clue your husband or another adult in on the problem and ask them to go out of their way to engage one or the other of the two in conversation so that there is very little opportunity for old conflicts to arise. Should a serious confrontation come up in spite of your precautions, don’t hesitate to ask both parties to leave.
3. Put your guests to work.
Frequently, guests ask, “Is there anything I can bring?” Why not take advantage of their offer? Say, “Yes. I’d love it if you could bring an apple pie.” (Or a package of rolls, or a can of olives, or some cheese sticks.) Give them each at least one thing to bring, and it will not only make life easier for you, but will give them more of a feeling of being a part of the celebration.
4. Use kid power.
Select some of the kids to set the table and to be sure there are enough chairs for all the guests. You’d be surprised how inventive kids can be. You may even end up with original tags at every place at the table. (Give them some recognition during the meal by announcing how much you appreciate the help they were to you in getting everything ready.)
Ask one of the older children to welcome guests by taking coats, directing them to the living room or wherever others are gathering, and offering a drink, etc. This will save you having to leave the kitchen countless times and run into another room to visit, while wondering if the potatoes are burning, or whether the cat is on the counter licking the deviled eggs while you are gone.
5. Provide some pre-dinner activities for your guests.
Nothing is more frustrating than having 3 or 4 toddlers underfoot while you are trying to get a large dinner on the table. Set up an area for smaller children with some books, crayons, modeling clay, games, etc. and ask an older child or two to keep them entertained until dinnertime. Reward them if you have to, but at least, acknowledge to the whole group at dinnertime, the help they have been with the smaller children.
Outdoor games for older children if the weather permits, or a good children’s movie if it doesn’t would be useful. Men seem to gravitate to the TV, especially when there are games to watch, as there always are on Thanksgiving day, but a board game or two for adults with a card table set up to play them on might be a good idea for those who don’t care for sports.
6. Provide an after-dinner activity for your guests.
In our family, the Dads often took the kids for a long hike or bike ride. On a few occasions, they went to a local bowling ally or a movie. I like the idea of something vigorous to work off all those extra calories, but each family will have its own ideas.
7. Never refuse clean-up help.
Cleaning up after a big family dinner can actually be fun. It gives those involved a chance to really visit with those family members they may not have seen for a long time.. With 3 or 4 women working together, the dishes can be cleaned up in a short time and, by the time the rest of the guests return from their after-dinner activity, hungry again, leftovers can be handed out on paper plates.
Follow the tips listed above and I can almost guarantee that the cook in your house will consider this one of the least stressful family Thanksgiving dinners she has ever prepared.