“How Do I Get All The Sides Finished At Once?” And Other Thanksgiving Menu Questions, Answered.


Hosting Thanksgiving this year? If you’re a newbie host, the Big Meal can be more than a little intimidating. Here are some questions you might have about pulling the menu together, and what I’ve learned from experience about everything from timing the meal to thawing the turkey. 

“When should I take the turkey out of the freezer?”

Right now! If you’re reading this on Saturday, you might think a five-day thawing period seems excessive. But I’ve learned this the hard way: turkeys take a lot longer to defrost in the refrigerator than you might think. Yes, you can defrost faster in cold water, but that method is not only a pain but is considered less safe than just plunking your bird in the fridge and letting it thaw. Plus, the cold-water method takes many hours, and you are supposed to cook the turkey right away after it thaws. Babysitting a bird’s bath in the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning just doesn’t sound fun to me. 

Using the refrigerator method, you’ll need to give your turkey at least one day for every four pounds (Butterball’s site has a cool calculator for each method) and you can keep the thawed bird in the fridge for up to four days before cooking it. 

 “How do I get everything done at the same time?”

The first year I made Thanksgiving dinner by myself, getting the timing right boggled my mind. But I’ve since discovered that it’s not as scary or complicated as it seems. My strategies:

  • Write down at what temperature and for how long each item takes to cook, and then map out a basic timeline on paper. This can help you “see” how the day will look, which dishes can reasonably be in the oven at the same time, and approximately when each will go in and come out.
  • Use a cooler to keep finished side dishes warm. This works really well and can keep your dishes warm for a surprising amount of time. 
  • Consider alternatives to the oven. Some dishes can be made in a slow cooker or on the stovetop instead, or made early in the day and easily re-heated in the microwave right before dinner is served. We don’t have a double oven, so those two oven racks are precious space!
  • Don’t be afraid to fudge temperatures a little. In most cases the turkey is the most temperature-sensitive part of the operation, but I’ve had good luck going up or down by 25 degrees or more on casseroles and other sides. 
  • Remember, not everything has to be served just-out-of-the-oven piping hot. The bird will retain a lot of heat while it’s resting, and that gives you the opportunity to pop sides back in the oven for a warm-up. But in those last few minutes, I always focus my attention on the things that are really best when served hot, like gravy, mashed potatoes, and rolls. 

“How many sides do I need to serve?

It’s up to you, of course! But I will say this: sometimes, less is more. The more sides you have to juggle, the more complicated shopping, cooking, preparing and serving the meal will be…not to mention a the bigger the clean-up job will be, and the more room you’ll need in the fridge for leftovers.

My general rule is to serve two veggie dishes (that way those of us who aren’t into green bean casserole have another option) plus the old standbys: mashed potatoes, rolls, and stuffing. Oh, and cranberry sauce! But, here’s my dirty little secret: I buy the canned stuff. Only two people in our house really care about cranberry sauce and they love the gelatinous sphere that comes out of a can, so why stress myself out making the homemade kind? I’ve got enough other stuff to do on Thanksgiving, after all.

If you’re dying to try a handful of recipes you saw on Pinterest, keep in mind you can rotate menus from year to year and don’t have to make everything THIS time. 

Bottom line: Thanksgiving is really about gratitude and family, and it should be enjoyable for everyone – including you. So prepare as much as you can, but try not to stress out too much about having a magazine-cover spread or impressing your in-laws with your mad turkey-roasting skillz.

If it’s overwhelming you, come up with ways to simplify and cut back. Even if your rolls come out of a bag, your stuffing comes out of a box, or your sauce comes out of a can, if you serve it with love, your guests will feel honored to sit at your table. 

Thanksgiving, entertaining

Sarah and I will be sharing advice and thoughts on hosting Thanksgiving right up until the big day this year, so be sure to check back for more posts over the next few days! You might also want to check these out:

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