Home cooks in the South spend more time planning and cooking Thanksgiving dinner than anyone else in the country.
A recent nationwide survey of 400 households, paid for by Mrs. Cubbison’s Kitchen, a crouton and stuffing-mix manufacturer, found that people in the South start planning at least three weeks before their Thanksgiving feast and spend between two and three days in the kitchen.
While we Southerners may have a lock on planning ahead, advice can come from other places.
Here is guidance from Martha Holmberg, a food writer and cookbook author who lives in Portland, Ore. Holmberg is a former editor at the Connecticut-based Fine Cooking magazine, which recently reprinted its “Thanksgiving Cookbook: Recipes for Turkey and All the Trimmings.”
When it comes to Thanksgiving, Holmberg said, “I break it down like a military operation.”
Her weapon of choice: lists.
The first one to be decided: the guest list. “How many people are coming? That starts it all,” Holmberg said.
Here is Holmberg’s battle plan as well as a few tips based on our own experience:
Plan the table. Once the guest list is known, determine how many tables and chairs are needed. Put the extra leaf or leaves in the dining room table or pull the folding chairs and card tables out of storage. Place plates, silverware and glassware in the dining room. Gather platters, serving dishes and utensils. If they have been in storage, wash or at least rinse them. Launder and iron tablecloths and napkins. Put candles and vases in one place. Have children make place cards.
Make the turkey decisions. The major questions are what kind of turkey and how will it be cooked. A fresh turkey will have to be ordered or reserved as soon as possible. Frozen turkeys can be bought up to a week ahead but must be defrosted. Decide how you will cook the turkey. If it will be roasted in the oven, the logistics of cooking the side dishes and desserts need to be mapped out. If the turkey will be grilled, smoked or fried, gather the equipment and supplies.
Choose the rest of the menu. Once the turkey decisions are made, everything else should fall into place based on available oven space and time. If oven space is limited, consider preparing green beans in a slow cooker, making mashed potato casserole to be reheated or vegetable dishes that can be assembled in advance and served at room temperature.
5 DAYS BEFORE
Assess each menu item. What ingredients must be bought? What can be bought now and what shopping will be required a day or two before the dinner? What tasks can be done in advance? Can the pie crust be made and frozen? Can the turkey stock be made for gravy? Can the bread be toasted or cornbread baked for stuffing or dressing? Can the desserts be made a day or two before?
Buy nonperishables. Purchase flour, sugar, butter, nuts, spices, broth and hard cheeses. Buy wine and beer to serve. Stock up on sparkling water or sodas. Buy that frozen turkey.
Calculate defrost time. Figure out when the turkey needs to start being defrosted. Figure one day for every 4 pounds, or four days for the average 16-pound turkey. The safest way to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator.
A FEW DAYS BEFORE
Buy perishable items. These include vegetables, breads and dairy products. Pick or buy flowers to decorate the table.
Write an action plan. For Thanksgiving Day, write a detailed to-do list with a timeline. When does the turkey need to start cooking? What tasks must still be done — make the gravy, whip cream for desserts, toast the nuts, etc.? When do side dishes need to go into the oven or be assembled?
Have a contingency plan. If things don’t go as planned, have one dish in mind that can be dropped or simplified. Or if things go horribly wrong, know which restaurants are offering takeout or serving dinner.
Planning, Holmberg said, can take the stress out of the holiday.
“If you do it all ahead,” she said, “it minimizes you having to make all these decisions when the house is full of people.”