15 Tricks for Keeping Your Sanity If You’re Hosting Thanksgiving

All that cooking and cleaning you have to do can make you feel not so thankful. Here's how to stay calm during Thanksgiving hosting.

Keep your cool this Thanksgiving

iStock/gordana jovanovic

Few holidays inspire as much nervous anticipation as Thanksgiving. In-laws and cooking? The stakes are high, and something could go wrong at any moment. Fortunately, with a little food science and common sense, you can avoid the pitfalls that sitcom writers love to rely on. Check out these 15 tips to make your holiday that much easier. For tips on having a stress-free Thanksgiving, get our FREE guide filled with easy recipes, kid-friendly crafts and games, inspiring traditions, and more ideas for the best holiday yet.

Keep it simple

iStock/bhofack2

Unless you’re a culinary master, trying to pull out all the stops and create every possible dish that might show up in a Hollywood-perfect Thanksgiving feast is a recipe for disaster. Turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy, and a simple vegetable dish such as string beans is already a feast. If nervous about cooking for guests, pick dishes that you’re comfortable making. If you’re trying something new, give it a practice run a few days before. Check out these proven Thanksgiving recipes from home cooks.

Go potluck

iStock/gordana jovanovic

Even if you are a culinary whiz, divvying up courses is a great way of bringing a group of people together, and an opportunity to pass along culinary traditions to younger generations. If you have young kids, you can also use it as an opportunity to give them confidence in the kitchen. Making mashed potatoes? Hand the recipe over to your kids and offer to be their assistant chef.

Content continues below ad

Use mise-en-place

iStock/Squaredpixels

French for “everything in its place,” mise-en-place is the practice of prepping all the ingredients and measuring them out in advance. Making a stuffing? Dice up the celery and veggies the day before, and store them in a plastic container or plastic bag in the fridge. Using breadcrumbs? Spices? Measure them out into another bag or small container. If you’re baking your stuffing separate from the bird—recommended for food-safety reasons—you can even stash the mise-en-place parts inside the baking pan and store the whole thing in the fridge. Then, on Thanksgiving day itself, just pull the pan out of the fridge and mix-and-go. (Tuck a copy of the recipe into the pan when you’re prepping, too!) Repeat this for all your dishes, and you’ve already cut the big day’s work by more than half.

Use the microwave

iStock/Maximkostenko

I know, heresy, but the microwave does a great job for cooking certain types of foods such as potatoes, asparagus, and string beans. Cooking starchy foods like potatoes is all about heating the starch granules up to around 180 to 190°F for the starches to melt and then gelatinize, and popping a potato in the microwave gets it up to around 212°F, the boiling point of water—well above the temperatures need to cook that potato. Figure about a minute to two per potato, checking as they cook. For veggies like asparagus and string beans, throw them in a microwave-safe bowl, add a few teaspoons of water, cover with plastic wrap, and microwave until the water starts to steam, four or five minutes. If you want to go fancier, you can always toss the veggies into a pan and sauté them in butter or olive oil and add spices. (On the other hand, here are things you should never really microwave.)

Cook turkey breasts separate from the legs

iStock/4kodiak

Cooking a whole turkey is a challenge for a simple reason: turkeys don’t cook uniformly. Turkey breast meat will be finished cooking before the darker, leg meat because the ratio of the types of proteins in the meats differ, and different proteins cook at different temperatures. If you don’t mind giving up the tradition of standing at the head of the table and carving the turkey, try cooking turkey breasts and turkey legs separately. Experiment with cooking the turkey legs in a slow cooker in olive oil—they’ll come out moist and delicious after six hours—and roasting the turkey breast in the oven, just like any other type of roast. (Believing these turkey cooking myths can ruin your Thanksgiving.)

Content continues below ad

Use a thermometer

iStock/&#169 Bo Insogna

Meats are done cooking once they reach a certain temperature. Medium-rare steak is done when it hits 135–140°F, whether that takes 10 or 30 minutes. Same thing with turkey. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service advises cooking turkeys until the thermometer reads 165°F; this is the “instant kill” temperature for any bacteria that might be present. With care and proper hold times, you actually can safely cook turkey to lower temperatures to avoid potential dryness, but hold time becomes critical for proper pasteurization. Regardless, use a good digital probe thermometer to let you know when the turkey has reached temperature.

Cheat on your dessert

iStock/gsk2013

A good bakery can turn out a great pumpkin pie for practically the same amount of money that you’d pay for the ingredients yourself. If you’re really into baking, or feel that the homemade touch is important, try making something else. Chocolate is always a winner, so why not chocolate mousse? Buy a pumpkin pie for those that prefer it.

Use square or rectangular pans

iStock/Svetlanais

If there’s one thing that rings true about Thanksgiving it’s this: the kitchen gets crowded. If you are the hostess with the mostess and have several different dishes to prepare/keep warm in the oven, opt for square or rectangular pans to fit more at a time. You’ll thank yourself later when both your stuffing, sweet potatoes, vegetable casserole, and biscuits all need some time in the oven.

Content continues below ad

Chill wine quickly

Sometimes guests arrive too early, sometimes you’re so crazed it slips your mind, sometimes you just need a drink yourself after all the cleaning and cooking. In order to cool your bottle fast, try wrapping it in a damp cloth or towel and placing it in the freezer for about 10-15 minutes.

Set your menu a month in advance

iStock/Studio-Annika

I know that sounds early, and can make you feel like you’re overthinking, but an entire month will flash before your eyes on top of everything else you have going on. In order to ensure you’ll have everything you need and enough time to prepare, write out what you want and need for your menu come Thanksgiving. Divide your list into perishables and non-perishables so you know what you can buy and stock up on immediately.

Put your cookbooks away

iStock/Maartje van Caspel

Seriously, if you’re following a recipe this Thanksgiving it’s so much easier to print out and tape your recipe on a kitchen cabinet than to have a giant cookbook take up your counter space. It’ll also create an easier visual than to keep bending over and checking the pages with your food-stained fingers.

Content continues below ad

Set the table the night before

iStock/Boris_Kuznets

It might sound like common sense, but how many times have you actually set your table the night before? Taking one thing of that Thanksgiving “to-do” list can relieve more stress than you can imagine. Do it the night before that way you have one less thing to worry about come the morning. Check out this guide to the ultimate Thanksgiving table setting.

Brine your turkey in a cooler

iStock/jomzuya

If there is one thing that takes up the most space in your fridge on Thanksgiving, it’s the turkey. You can brine your turkey by putting it in a cooler with a lot of ice, and this will create more room for anything that has to go in the refrigerator. In fact, you can simply use a cooler as an extra fridge for other items. Do whatever helps create the most space and organization for you on the food-packed holiday.

Serve a buffet-style meal

iStock/stockstudioX

Yes, it is a very nice idea to have all the food gathered on the table, to pass it around, and carve and serve the turkey right in front of everyone. But you just spent hours cooking a beautiful meal for everyone in the kitchen—you don’t need to hand it to them too. Set up a buffet on a counter so everyone can put what they want on their plate without all of the “excuse me’s” and “pleases.”

Content continues below ad

Line garbage cans

iStock/22kay22

Double or triple lining your garbage cans can save you a lot of time when it comes to clean up duty. Once a bag is filled to the brim and taken out, a new one will already be set up and waiting for you. Little things like this make the day run smoother.

View as Slideshow

Become more interesting every week!

Get our Read Up newsletter

how we use your e-mail
We will use your email address to send you this newsletter. For more information please read our privacy policy.