By Emily Malloy
Thanksgiving is nearly upon us. It is a day of gathering with the sole focus of being thankful for the graces and blessings that have been given. The center of the attention of the day, aside from parades with massive character balloons and highly anticipated football games, is the food! (In our home, we find great joy in watching dear Snoopy create a feast with jelly beans and buttered toast). Ironically, what we most look forward to in the day also brings the greatest stress if you are hosting!
Spoiler alert: it does not have to be this way.
A handful of tips and tricks to simplify the preparations can bring ease to the day so that you can remain in a posture of gratitude.
(1) Create a game plan ahead of time. Do not be ashamed to make it a potluck.
We are one week out from Thanksgiving. At this time, finalize the dishes you will be preparing as the host and what gaps in the meal your guests will be bringing. Delegating some of the food responsibilities of the day helps not only your wallet but also your stress level. It will enable less work in the kitchen and more time to be attentive to your guests. Moreover, it provides an opportunity for your guests to give and be a part of the preparations. Some folks feel guilty showing up for a meal without helping and this prevents that by sharing the joy of ownership in the day. After this delegation has taken place, make a plan for when you will be purchasing everything.
NOTE: Many turkeys are frozen at the time of purchase and, depending upon their size, will need several days to thaw in the refrigerator. The rule is one day for every 4 to 5 pounds, so a typically sized 16-pound turkey will need about 4 + days to fully thaw.
As you make your purchasing lists, double-check that you have all of the kitchen tools and items you will need on the big day: roasting pan, aluminum foil, plastic wrap, meat thermometer, and containers to send leftovers home with guests!
Check for recipes that can be made ahead of time (a large number of side dishes and desserts can be made ahead of time), refrigerated or frozen, and reheated on Thanksgiving!
Biggest menu destressing tip: simplify what you can. We can weigh ourselves down with the stress of making too many side dishes to ensure there is enough food. It is easier to make larger batches of recipes than it is to make more varieties of recipes. Most guests desire more servings of Grammy's nostalgic potatoes au gratin recipe than six various vegetables, trust me.
If you cannot make certain dishes ahead of time, see what you steps can be prepared to ease the burden, i.e. chopping vegetables and storing them in the fridge or making the pie dough.
If eating during the day is a problem, preplan and make any other meals that day to lessen the kitchen chaos! Perhaps make a strata the night before to be ready to bake for brunch or pre-make sandwiches to grab at lunchtime.
Sorting out the menu at the last minute and cooking all of the dishes on the same day is one of the greatest Thanksgiving stress inducers!
(2) Slowly begin tidying your house a few days ahead of time.
I will vulnerably share that this is my greatest source of stress. In the past, I have always made the mistake of leaving the cleaning to the very last minute; after all, won't it just become dirty shortly after I tidy? Yes. And no. Clutter will always pile up, particularly in a home with small children, but this type of tidying up takes little time and can be outsourced as a helpful chore to the kids of the house! But, the cleaning of the bathrooms and floors can be done before Thanksgiving and will mostly hold throughout the week and only need minor cleaning on the day (it's much easier to wipe toothpaste out of a clean sink than it is to a neglected one). Taking a section of the house one day at a time helps, too. Cleaning bathrooms one day, addressing the neglected laundry pile on another, and mopping the smudges on the floor from thrown food on a different day can spread out the necessary work and make it much more manageable. Also, this is a great task to delegate among the family, depending upon your children's ages.
Secondly, the first tip of preparing some of the dishes ahead of time minimizes the kitchen mess that accumulates on Thanksgiving. It also frees some baking or cooking ware that might need to be used for more than one dish.
As a mom with many small children who hosts a lot, I plan for some fun attention-inducing activities the day before an event. When coloring books or Lego kits are on sale, I will stock up and save them "for a rainy day" because I know my kids will be engrossed for hours and only make one more focused mess to clean of crayon papers or discarded Lego boxes, instead of various other messes that will need to be addressed. Also, when they are entertained, I am freed up to complete other tasks.
(3) Decide the table set up and organize it accordingly.
Will it be a buffet or a traditional sit-down? There is truly no "right way" to serve the food on Thanksgiving day, so this comes down to preference. If you are having a more formal sit down, set your dining room table the night before. If you don't often use your dining room table, it can be set out many days in advance, but if it's where you normally gather for your daily dinner, the night before works great. If you are having a buffet style, set out the serving station with plates and cutlery as soon as you can spare the serving ware!
A little about the table: Providing a pretty table setting is wonderful fun, however, it should neither break the bank nor be a source of stress. We can work ourselves into a frenzy wishing for a Pinterest-worthy tablescape but make ourselves (and our homes) miserable in the process. The quickest way to ensure a posture of gratitude is to stop seeing our lives and homes as they exist as a series of images on a social media grid. Once we free ourselves from these burdensome chains, we become more gracious hosts, which is the point of the day, instead of being consumed with the stress of details.
Creating a lovely tablescape is easy as simply placing a low arrangement of flowers or a row of little sugar pumpkins. Dress your table with your grandmother's beloved tablecloth or a fresh, long piece of kraft paper, and provide each guest with a pen to adorn the paper with their greatest blessings of the year. Let's make a promise this year to not let the backdrop of the Thanksgiving meal burden us anymore and instead create a backdrop of comfort and gratitude by way of our outlook to better receive our guests!
(4) Let's talk turkey and other things!
This is, without a doubt, the main event of the day and a big ol' nerve-bundling job for many. Creating a timeline by working backward from the intended sitdown time is helpful to settle the nerves, while also giving extra time for any incidentals that arise. Take note of the size of your turkey, and whether it is going to be dressed (this post has a handy chart showing cook times according to the turkey and a great no-baste recipe, too). Whenever your timeline is sorted, write it down or set alarms on your phone to remind you. One year, I was asked to cook a turkey to bring to a Friendsgiving, so I cooked and carved the turkey very early in the day, and placed it in a crockpot along with leftover juices in the pan. It was a delicious way of ensuring a moist dish while keeping it warm!
Take note as to whether your refrigerated pie needs to be room temperature or warm to serve! Reheat any precooked items and cover them with foil to keep warm. Also, ask any guests whether their contributions need to be warmed up!
(5) Maintain a rightly ordered perspective
It is so easy to get caught up in the logistics of the day that we forget why it is we gather. We recall the story of Martha and Mary and realize this is a millennia-long problem. If we learn anything from the chaos of 2020, it is that these moments of gathering are precious. It is a day that stands out from the rest and requires the right attention and perspective, as Jesus pointed out to Martha. Choosing the better part of being present to those in front of us (and facilitating this by easing our burden on the day) will make the day a joy.
If you know that you are a nervous hostess, find ways to take attention away from the kitchen by creating a beverage and small appetizer section in another place in the house where folks will commune as you finish up your tasks. Or greet them at the door with their markers or crayons to decorate the kraft paper tablecloth!
Lastly, make the day truly focused on each other: put out a basket at the door where folks can place their devices (and then they are easily accessible if they receive a call). So often, gatherings can feel less personal because we are inattentive to those around us as a result of our phones. Having them at hand can be a temptation to scroll instead of engaging in meaningful conversation. Sometimes we are halfway scrolling down a news article before we even realize we pulled out our phone in the pause of a moment. It may seem strange, but I think your guests would truly appreciate the notion of true attentiveness. Place a wooden box with a sign that says "place your burdens here" next to a jar of markers that they can grab and write down their blessings.
The reason for the day is gratitude, and gathering is an immensely important part of that, so we must make our homes havens by choosing the better part by lessening the burdens of preparations and casting aside all else that distracts us. Give your guests the gift of presence this Thanksgiving by trying something radically different in unplugging.
Psychological research has shown that the particular focus on gratitude that takes place during Thanksgiving measurably lifts the spirits of people and helps in a happier, healthier general outlook. Let us focus on what truly matters most during this day of thanks; it is not what is on the table, but who is around the table. But, there are steps that can be taken to ensure that what is on the table is an act of love out of gratitude for those who gather.