I love big family get togethers and two of my very favorite are coming up: Thanksgiving and Christmas Dinner! We tend to have a few celebrations, with larger family gatherings as well as smaller special meals (just the four of us) to celebrate the occasion. Often, with the larger family gatherings, the meal consist of a huge assortment of everyone’s favorites – and Mama and I pride ourselves in making enough for everyone to carry home at least one plate (or two!) per person to enjoy later.
But meals like this can be very stressful for the cook unless you plan ahead of time to make them easier and as pre-prepped as possible. With that in mind, I’ve written a post with the tips and tricks I use to make my Thanksgiving just as enjoyable as it is for the folks who aren’t cooking the meal :).
First things first, I like to step back and see how I have complicated matters for my own self (You may not do this, but I sure do!) and then untangle any unnecessary work I’ve inadvertently added.
Questions to ask yourself:
How can I make my life easier?
If you find yourself going to three different grocery stores for one ingredient and still not finding it, maybe it’s time to replace that item on the menu with another one 🙂 The world won’t end if you don’t have x, y, or z on the table. Keep it in perspective and remember that the meal is about giving thanks and enjoying the company of those we are most thankful for, not who worked the hardest and made the most unpronounceable dish. Read my story of Going North to see how I learned to stop creating problems for myself.
What can I do ahead of time?
I like to make as much of my meal as possible ahead of time so that I can spend as much time as possible with my family instead of in the kitchen. Look over your menu to see what can be made earlier. Many times, casseroles can be assembled a day or even two days ahead and placed, covered, in the fridge to be baked just before the meal. Entrees can be prepped and cooked in slow cookers the morning of the meal, then served whenever you’re ready. Congealed salads and other cold dishes can be made the day ahead of time and there are some desserts that can be made as many as three days before – I even have one that can be made a month before! Do as much work before the big meal as you can. This also cuts down on dishwashing and cleaning the day of as well. Click here to visit my big old list of Thanksgiving and Christmas Dinner recipes.
How can I cut down on cleanup?
Some folks bring out their best china for Thanksgiving and Christmas and that is perfectly fine. Still others bring out their best Chinette plates and that works well, too. Whichever camp you are in, the first rule of thumb is not to feel guilty :).
I often feel that if I’m going to go to the trouble of making a nice meal we are going to eat it on nice plates. However, my family takes a different approach when there are fifteen or more of us gathered and we go for the large, oval disposable plates. I even assemble casseroles, sides, and desserts in disposable aluminum pans for my Christmas Day dinner because I buy them by the case and I make dinner for about 12 people on my own – so I assemble a lot of it two or three days ahead of time. I cover each dish and write what it is in sharpie on the lid so I know if I need to cook it and how long. Paper napkins, disposable cups, all of these things can help you spend less time on the cleanup and more time with your family and guests – giving thanks for the true wealth in your life! Again, if you prefer china and crystal on your Thanksgiving table, that is fine, too! You can still cut down on cleanup by making as many dishes ahead of time as you possibly can and washing and putting away those dishes as soon as you are done. Go for what works best for you.
My personal timeline:
Links to all recipes mentioned are at the bottom of this post.
- 1 week ahead of time: Shop for the meal. Any frozen meat should be purchased and placed in the refrigerator to thaw. Make cornbread for cornbread dressing, crumble and freeze in gallon bags. Make Granny Jordan’s Frozen salads (if serving) and put those in the freezer as well.
- 3 days ahead of time – Make refrigerator coconut cake. My daddy has to have this 🙂
- 2 days ahead of time – assemble casseroles and salads, cover, and refrigerate: English Pea Pimento, Cheesy Hash Brown, Fire and Ice Salad, Buttermilk Congealed Salad, Holiday Fruit Salad, and Cranberry Relish
- 1 Day ahead of time – Set up buffet tables. Get out serving utensils, etc. Before going to bed, put turkey on to cook overnight (this is how I cook mine but you may want to wait until morning, depending on your recipe). Make Pies. Make Deviled Eggs. Have kids set the tables.
- Morning of Meal – Make and bake rolls. Cook Cornbread Dressing in slow cooker. Finish cooking meat and slice. Make Mac and Cheese, Sweet Potato Cream Brulee, green beans, and tea – lots of tea!
Use Your Slow Cooker!
The slow cooker (sometimes referred to as a Crock Pot) is my best friend in the kitchen. To make the cook’s job easier, I recommend making both of these dishes in the slow cooker:
- Slow Cooked Turkey Breast – Perfect for smaller gatherings or when you just don’t need 25 pounds of turkey 🙂
- Slow Cooker Cornbread Dressing – Always moist and delicious, this is my grandmother’s recipe for absolutely perfect dressing every time. To save on prep, I bake my cornbread a week or two ahead of time, crumble it up, put it in a zipper seal bag, and store it in the refrigerator until I’m ready to assemble my dressing.
Dessert is a breeze when made ahead of time
The following desserts can be made 2 or more days before the holiday and wait happily n your fridge or freezer until you call for them 🙂
- Daddy’s Coconut Cake – Make this decadent cake three days ahead of time and put in your fridge. It just gets better and better every day.
- Granny Jordan’s Frozen Cranberry Banana Salads – Granny always had these on hand and they were her signature side dish for Thanksgiving. Make them up to a month ahead of time and store in the freezer.
- Butterfinger Cake – Each piece of this cake is a bit of chocolate and caramel heaven on a plate. A real crowd pleaser
- Holiday Fruit Salad – This is the salad my Grandmother Lucille always made for us. I’ll be making it this year.
*The links to each of these recipes can be found on my big Thanksgiving Menu post.*
No matter what you are making, remember to take a moment, pause, and be grateful. At the end of the day, it’s not the food on the table that matters so much as the folks sitting around it.