I’m hosting Thanksgiving for 10 people this year, including 3 out-of-town guests who will be staying with us for a few days. Four of the guests are children. Because I have attended sumptuous and attractively presented Thanksgiving meals at the homes of my guests, I feel pressure to put on a good show here. I have a small kitchen and don’t like to share it with “helpers,” yet I also feel exhausted at the thought of making a full-on Thanksgiving feast on my own.
So my question is, what kind of dishes should I choose that I could farm out tasks on to a nearby table so as to avoid sharing my kitchen counter? Are there some pre-made accoutrements I could buy that would really impress? Should I consider getting the turkey out of my kitchen altogether by grilling it or buying a deep fryer? Also, what should I drink to be able to handle getting all this work done with company hanging around, but still stay sober enough not to mess up the meal?
Good for you! Hosting a holiday for a lot of people—and a holiday centered around the meal, which you will prepare—can be daunting, but is a wonderful gift to give your friends and family. I think I can help you get through this.
There will be a lot of great Thanksgiving guides coming out this month on the web—full-proof recipe ideas, beautiful kid-friendly decorations, and critically important sample task-lists so that you can get each dish in and out of your oven while maintaining your sanity. Keep an eye out for these guides as they arrive. Simply type “Thanksgiving menu” or “Thanksgiving planning” or “Thanksgiving schedule” into a search engine and you will be overwhelmed with information. Doing so just now gave me a stockpile of holiday prep reading.
To address your questions specifically, let’s take them one at a time.
What kind of dishes should I choose that I could farm out tasks on to a nearby table so as to avoid sharing my kitchen counter?
My recommendation: place every kind of hors d’oeurvres, beverage, and bucket of ice outside of your kitchen. Luring people out of your work space with food is your best hope. Make a killer dip that people can’t stop eating, like Ina Garten’s Pan-Fried Onion Dip. Every time I make this, a crowd congregates around it. Bonus: it is terrific spread on bread for post-Thanksgiving turkey sandwiches.
You ask about farming out tasks. Here’s the truth: once the guests arrive, don’t delegate any task that is in any way mission critical or is time sensitive. Ask someone to cut up citrus slices for the bar (far away from you.) Have someone make sure the dip is always full (outside the kitchen.) Give someone a job stirring something, as long as it isn’t in your way at the stove (preferably, make this stirring possible at the dining room table, or if your weather is fair, on an outdoor patio.)
Your best bet for making sure everyone is fed with a meal presented on-time is actually to have as much of the work done before people arrive as possible, and to ask guests to bring dishes (that they make in their own kitchens.) Essentially, don’t bank on giving anyone any jobs, so as to not get frustrated when they either a) don’t do them, or b) manage to come into the kitchen, anyway.
That’s actually my most critical advice: no matter what you do, no matter how well you plan, no matter how uninviting you make your kitchen on that day, plan on everyone crowding you in your kitchen, anyway. It’s what people do. You’ll be a lot happier if you aren’t fighting it, even if you get frustrated bumping into people while trying to lift huge pans of roasted poultry without injury or spillage.
As for the kids, give the children decorating jobs, with a craft table of paper, crayons, scotch tape, etc. Put a sample hand-tracing turkey out for inspiration. Tell them no decorations are allowed in the kitchen for safety’s sake. Put a bowl of whatever their favorite, “can’t have it except on special occasions” snack is on the table. When they get bored, send them to run around in a rec room or outside, if possible.
Are there some pre-made accoutrements I could buy that would really impress?
Two words: cheese plate. Set out a beautiful platter, place a hard cheese, a soft cheese, a goat cheese, a blue cheese, and any other cheese you love. Sprinkle some lovely nuts around the cheeses (barring nut allergies among guests, of course), and add some fruit like grapes or sliced pear and apple (dipped in water with lemon juice so that they not brown.) Add a small ramekin of fig or apricot preserves, or even a bit of good local honey, to guild the lily. Complete the plate with an accompanying basket of crackers, sliced breads, etc.
Want the kids to have a task? Have them make labels for all the cheeses that morning, and attach them to toothpicks. When the time comes to make up the plate, they can show off their work.
Should I consider getting the turkey out of my kitchen altogether by grilling it or buying a deep fryer?
Always consider any alternative for getting a major item out of the kitchen prep area, and possibly in the hands of a cooking partner (i.e., a spouse, visiting relative, etc.) I don’t recommend buying equipment if you think it is going to be a one-trick pony, but if you’ve been thinking about splurging on a fryer or a special rotisserie attachment for your grill, anyway, this may be the time.
That said, if you do purchase a fryer or decide to grill a turkey, don’t make Thanksgiving your first time trying out the new modality. Even though many of us prefer the sides to the bird on the big day, if the bird is a no-go, it’s going to put a significant damper on your cheeriness.
My best advice is to cook the bird a little on the early side, cover it, and let it sit outside the oven (on trivets outside the kitchen, if you prefer—my family’s cooked turkey often lived on the washing machine while it awaited carving.) The extra time resting may actually result in a juicier bird (there are several theories behind how/why/if juices redistribute during resting, but suffice it to say, as long as you haven’t grossly overcooked your bird, or you don’t leave it luke warm for hours, resting won’t hurt anything.)
What should I drink to be able to handle getting all this work done with company hanging around, but still stay sober enough not to mess up the meal?
Oh, my goodness, there are so many choices here. I would throw this question back to you, actually, and to all readers to answer individual. What do you like? What leaves you feeling steady and not overly-tipsy and/or dehydrated? Answer those questions, and you know what to sip while you stir. You are trying to achieve a delicate balance of caffeine, hydration from water, and alcohol—consider having drinks of each ilk on rotation.
I hear you about how challenging it can be to have people in your kitchen space, especially with such an important meal to make. Be patient with yourself, plan on lots of intruders—maybe think of a funny mantra you can say to yourself, when they really get into your way, to take you out of your frustration—and remember that simply being the host is enough. The meal will likely fade from folks’ memory—I know, that can seem depressing given all the work, but it’s true—but your generosity and sense of humor will be remembered.
Break a (turkey) leg, and let me know how it turns out!