How To Cook a Stress Free Thanksgiving Meal

I know how it is. You picture the Thanksgiving meal worthy of a spread in a magazine, but when Thanksgiving Thursday comes around, you are desperately thawing a frozen turkey and sending your husband out to the store for more butter. Meanwhile, your toddler is eating the fake fruit in your cornucopia centerpiece and  the dog just ran away with a pickle. . .which means a mess to clean up now and later.

I know, because I’ve been there. After so many years of graduate school, and living closer to relatives, Thanksgiving was always a holiday spent at other people’s houses. That was great, except I longed to make our own traditions.I couldn’t wait. I just knew that my Thanksgiving dinner was going to be picture perfect, calm, and a foodie’s dream.

The first year that I cooked our very own Thanksgiving dinner went pretty well. The Rev. kept the boys occupied at the church or elsewhere and I cooked and simmered and served up several new, untested dishes. They were beautiful. And. . .nobody ate them. Since then I learned a Thanksgiving dinner truth:

Stick to Traditions

I learned the hard way. While I can experiment with food much of the year, Thanksgiving needs to be predictable. If I want to put something wild and different in the stuffing, I need to do it on some average Monday night when I roast a chicken. That turkey? Just sprinkle some salt and pepper on the top and slide it into the oven, thank you very much. Dakotateen has come to look forward to my super simple and family tradition cranberry relish. Were I to substitute in some cooked, or gelled or frozen concoction I would have a teenage mutiny on my hands. The good news is, mine is super easy, and Dakotateen prepares it! (Scroll down for the recipe!)

Plan Ahead

If you stick to your family’s traditional dishes for Thanksgiving dinner, planning should be easy. Simply list your menu on a piece of paper and then a list of ingredients needed. I no longer need a list! A frozen turkey needs a few days to thaw in the refrigerator. A fresh turkey cost a bit more, but tastes much better and can be picked up the day before Thanksgiving, freeing up fridge space. Me, I roast a large, bone in, turkey breast. It takes up less space in my oven, roasts faster, and we mostly prefer white meat turkey. I also splurge a spiral sliced ham. It warms up quickly and is great left over as well.

Have a Plan of Attack

I do most of my food prep on Thanksgiving day. I have a small (really) kitchen. To do too much work ahead would take up space that I don’t have. So that means cooking day needs to be organized. Now, anyone who knows me in person just giggled a little. I’m not organized. BUT, I can fake it when I need to.

My plan of attack goes something like this:

  • Clear the counters (because I’m not organized).
  • Get the turkey breast in the oven.
  • Begin chopping onions and celery for stuffing.
  • Have a glass of wine
  • Cut up cheese and sausage for the grazing children who will come into the kitchen whining for food. (Your best offense is a good defense)
  • Set our coloring pages and craft supplies for the same children. They can make the centerpiece. Martha won’t approve, but she’s probably not invited.
  • Start preparing the stuffing. Put it in the oven.
  • When the turkey is 45 minutes from done, pop the ham in the oven.
  • Begin peeling potatoes.
  • Put the potatoes on to boil.
  • Call the teen in to make the cranberry relish and cut up pickles.
  • Prepare the green bean casserole.
  • take stuffing out of oven, check on meat and put beans in the oven.
  • Mash the potatoes.
  • Take meat out of the oven and set on the counter to rest.
  • put bread in the oven (We use canned crescent rolls and I have the kids shape them)
  • Make the gravy.
  • Have the kids set the table.
  • Slice the turkey
  • take beans and bread out of the oven
  • Set serving utensils in the serving bowls.
  • Gather the family.
  • Give thanks.
  • Dig in.
As you can see, I serve a fairly simple meal. I serve what we eat. The table is rarely picture perfect. When I was on bed rest with the twins we used paper plates and plastic cutlery. On normal years I DO pull out the china. My point is, we don’t have to fall over ourselves to make the perfect meal. We need only cook with love, and let others help us.

Cranberry Relish

  • 1 bag fresh whole cranberries
  • I navel orange, peel on, washed and quartered
  • 3/4 c. granulated sugar
Pulse the berries and the orange with peel in a food processor until it is fairly coarse. Put in a bowl, stir in sugar, refrigerate for one hour. Enjoy.
Chime in! What are your tips for a simply enjoyable Thanksgiving? You know I’d love to hear from you!

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