Disclaimer: I'm a software engineer by profession with a history of large scale project management and a focus on dependency management. I'm also a food nerd so I take the holiday meal seriously; perhaps too damn seriously. Apologies ??? But seriously, just one of these tips may make your holiday meal cooking easier. See the second bulleted list for the tldr ("too long; did not read").
There's no question in my mind that cooking the Thanksgiving meal is the World War II of holiday meals. When you have other holidays there is a focus besides the food:
- Christmas has presents
- Easter has religious significance
- Passover has religious significance
- Fourth of July has patriotism and parades
But Thanksgiving is a celebration that is about the food as it is a harvest festival. And with the propensity that people have for wanting their particular, favorite side dish, that only increases the focus on cooking. And that's why, every year, I feel as if making the Thanksgiving meal is my "go to war" meal (and I don't mind that; it is my favorite meal to cook all year long).
As I write this, I'm preparing to make my 16th consecutive Thanksgiving meal for my wife and children. And, over, these many, many years, I have developed a number of techniques that make cooking the Thanksgiving meal much, much easier.
Here are my recommendations:
- Print Out Recipes in Advance
- Plan Your Heat Sources
- The Longest Cooking Time is Your Biggest Constraint
- Plan Your Timings
- Plan Who Does What
- Food Allergies and Practicality
- Buy an Alexa and Use it for Timings
- Do Prep Work on Tuesday / Wednesday
- Wash Dishes Continuously
- Set a Place for Each Thing You Are Cooking
- Check the Microwave Before You Sit Down
- Buy Extra Tupperware To Send Leftovers Away
Each of these is covered further below.
Disclaimer: I could easily have titled this article "How an Engineer Cooks Thanksgiving" or, even, "How a Very, Very Nerdy Engineer with a Background in Project Management and Dependencies Cooks Thanksgiving". Here's a picture of a cute cat to make up for the massive upcoming descent into food nerd-dom:
Print Out Recipes in Advance
If you buy into my assertion that Thanksgiving is the World War II of holiday cooking then recipes are your tactical maps. Your recipes guide your way through the holiday meal and as with maps, you want a printed copy. Yes a phone is great. A laptop or tablet is even better. But when the power goes out -or- the Internet goes offline, don't you want paper? And do you really want gravy spilled on your screen? Make a print out of every recipe you want to cook – before you start cooking.
Plan Your Heat Sources
Your primary constraint in cooking a big holiday meal is always, always, always the number of heat sources. If you think about it, most kitchens have:
- 1 oven
- 4 burners (and not all of them tend to work)
- 1 microwave
Consider the problem of the turkey and the pies. All of these require the oven and the turkey requires exclusive use of the oven for an extended period. Understanding what heat sources you have and how long each dish using them for is important. What I do is make a list of all the dishes with a plan for what heat source that each dish uses. Here's a picture of what this looked like a few years ago:
Note 1: An outdoor grill can be used to keep food warm if needed. And outdoor grills with side burner are an additional burner!
Note 2: Reviewer Ariane Woods made the cogent observation "I'll also add that smoking my turkey has been a game changer as it frees up an oven". As someone who is a recovered member of the "Cult of the Smoked Turkey", I can attest to the truth of this statement. Another option in this vein is the (insanely dangerous) deep fried turkey.
The Longest Cooking Time is Your Biggest Constraint
When I plan a big holiday meal, I always orient it around the single longest cooking time. And, for Thanksgiving, that's pretty simple – it is the turkey. So I start with:
Turkey - 4 Hours at 350 (or whatever)
I then use that to structure everything so:
For a 2 pm meal, the turkey needs to start at 10 am.
And there are related dependencies:
Gravy uses turkey drippings and takes roughly 15 minutes so that 10 am needs to become 9:45.
And, finally, pre-heating is a reality so you get:
Start preheating the oven at 9:30
Plan Your Timings
With the exception of soups, stews and desserts that need to chill, the best food is always food that is finished cooking just when you are ready to eat it. The problem here, is that given the constraints above on heat sources, you simply can't have all the dishes becoming ready at exactly the right time. And this is ok – depending on the dish. Here's an example:
- Mashed potatoes pretty much don't degrade over time so they can be made almost whenever.
- Gluten free gravy has a tendency to sometimes become close to solid after it sits for a long time so gluten free gravy is always the last thing I prepare
Plan Who Does What
I don't know any adult who would disagree with the statement that holidays are stressful. One of the ways to manage the stress is to plan out who does what in the kitchen. This way you can avoid the difficult relative who wants to help all over the place when they are actually only skilled at a few things. I call this the "No, Aunt Martha, I need you on whipped cream; that's what's on my schedule." school of thinking.
The Master Spreadsheet
This year's Thanksgiving is now up to 12 people definite, a few people that may show up and over insert large number here food dishes broken out into these categories:
I'd like to say that this doesn't require a spreadsheet to stay organized – but it does. Enjoy the Madness
Food Allergies and Practicality
If you have people in your life with food allergies such as gluten free / celiac, then, at a minimum, you need to:
- Understand the rules of what can touch what
- Always have plenty of clean food handling implements
- Know when to have clean butter (the most common contamination issue)
- Use gravity to help you – place bready things such as dinner rolls in the oven below anything that might get contaminated as crumbs don't generally fall up
Buy an Alexa and Use it for Timings
The single best thing I've done, in the past 5 years, to make cooking easier was to buy an Alexa. When you are juggling multiple dishes, the ability to say:
Alexa set a 30 minute timer named "Pecan Pie"
just makes everything so, so, so much easier. If you don't have an Alexa in your kitchen before you make a holiday meal, you re really making your life harder.
Set a Place for Each Thing You Cook
This tip is stupid simple but it actually makes a difference. When you are making a lot of different dishes (my Thanksgiving is embarrassingly large at 15 dishes; yes I could each different pie as a different dish), it is very, very helpful to "set a place" for each dish. What I mean by this is you take a half sheet of paper, label it for the dish and then place all the ingredients for that dish on that half sheet of paper. Here's a photo of how this looks:
I will admit that this uses a lot of physical space and you may see it as a pain in the neck. The advantage of this is that you will never forget to cook something because there is a physical reminder that you simply can't ignore. This means, for example, that Aunt Edna will get her beloved green bean casserole.
Check the Microwave Before You Sit Down
The very last thing we cook every year is we put a can of corn in the microwave and put it on 1 minute. We then scurry around like frenetic hobbits chanting "Foods! The Foods are coming" and sit down at the table. And we promptly forget about the damn corn. Sigh.
Buy Extra Tupperware To Send Leftovers Away
When you make as much food as I do, one of the better tricks to avoid "Fridge Capacity Crisis" is to buy a bunch of extra Tupperware and then send people home with food i.e. "Enjoyed the Mashed Potatoes, Great! Here you go!". If you are really creative, you can make up mini meal plates for each guest and and them home with all of it.