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Organizing Tom Turkey

When recently asked how to have an organized Thanksgiving dinner, I must admit my first thought was “get invited to someone else’s home!” Thought number two was “call a caterer”. For many of us, though, those are not viable options. Thanksgiving dinner, though involved, can be managed — like most other things — with some planning and organizing. But you must start now!

  • First, determine your guest list. Will you have only immediate family, or will you also invite friends and/or neighbors? Invite everyone as soon as possible, before they make other plans.
  • Do an inventory of your kitchen. Do you have enough plates/cutlery/glasses to accommodate your crowd? If not, now is the time to scout out rental places or purchase paper goods. Even if you are a gourmet cook, check your once-a-year Thanksgiving ingredients, like special spices for the bird or the pumpkin pie. Also, if you plan to serve spirits, check your liquor cabinet to see if you have everything you need. Now is also a good time to think about room for seating and arrange to rent or borrow extra tables and chairs. Check serving platters, too.
  • Next, plan out your menu, ideally several weeks before Thanksgiving. Unless you’re a vegetarian, turkey is probably a given. Figure on 1/2 to 3/4 lb. per serving; for turkeys under 12 lbs, figure on 3/4 to one pound per serving. (Increase this somewhat if you like lots of leftover turkey). Determine side dishes (mashed vs. sweet or both? Something green? Stuffing? Cranberry sauce? etc.) I’m a big fan of dishes that look complicated but are actually incredibly easy to prepare. According to Anthony Dias Blue and Kathryn K. Blue, authors of the cookbook Thanksgiving Dinner, accommodate a larger or smaller crowd by adjusting the size of the turkey and making a larger or smaller number of side dishes rather than trying to adjust the recipe for each side dish. This concept allows you to cook accompaniments in their normal quantities (8 or 12 servings) and show the bounty and variety of your kitchen. And the Blues must have some organizer blood — they, like I, say be a list maker: lists of guests, groceries, the menu, things to buy, rent, borrow and cook.
  • Do as much of your preparation ahead of time. Determine what things can be made ahead of time and frozen. A week in advance, do your major grocery shopping. Do you want a fresh or frozen turkey? If you buy a frozen bird, make sure you allow enough time for thawing. Refrigerator thawing takes between three and seven days (approximately one day of thawing for every four pounds of bird). (Safety note: Never thaw your turkey at room temperature–this can result in bacteria growth and contamination.) If you prefer a fresh bird, order it in advance, but arrange to pick it up the day before Thanksgiving to avoid having it take up space in your refrigerator all week.
  • Don’t feel that you need to cook everything yourself. Options include delegation (to make your preparations less stressful, consider preparing the turkey yourself, and asking each guest to bring a side dish (just make sure to coordinate so you don’t wind up with four bowls of carrots!); the local gourmet shop; or consider a trade with a friend (you make two pies, she makes two vegetable casseroles and you swap–twice the variety in half the time!)
  • If the thought of baking apple or pumpkin pies adds to your stress level, consider purchasing pies or asking someone to bring dessert. For a quicker, less stressful dessert, try apple crisp (no crust required), make your own sundaes, or fresh fruit.
  • You can even let your children get into the spirit of the holiday by making table decorations (toilet tissue rolls make great bodies for “Pilgrims”; gumdrops on toothpicks make colorful tail feathers on apple “turkeys”; for other holiday centerpiece craft ideas consult the November issue of Family Fun magazine, or browse through an arts and crafts book at your local bookstore. These are great projects for a week or two before the holiday. Don’t attempt to start art projects when the kids come home from school early the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. If you have very young children, try to arrange for a friend or babysitter to watch them the day before Thanksgiving so you can do your last minute preparations unencumbered.
  • If you can, consider setting the table the night before. It’s one less thing to do before the masses arrive.
  • On Thanksgiving morning, plan to get up early to season your turkey and put it in the oven. Please review and follow the sanitary handling instructions that are on the turkey wrapper and never, ever, stuff the bird until right before you put it in the oven. Cooking time ranges from 3 hours (10 pound bird) to 5 hours (30 pound bird) for an unstuffed turkey. If you fill the cavity with stuffing, you will need to increase your cooking time. Remember, after it’s cooked, you need to let the turkey “sit” for a while before you carve it. If you have never carved before, a pre- Thanksgiving visit to a good bookstore to get a book on turkey carving, with pictures, can help steady your nerves and your carving arm.

If you have prepared most of your other food during the preceding few days, pour yourself a cup of coffee or a steaming mug of hot apple cider and take a few minutes to reflect on the things for which you are thankful. Then curl up on the couch with your family to watch the parade.

Wishing you all a joyous, organized Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving. Happy Turkey Day!