Expert Thanksgiving Tips From My Mom
Mom is the Expert
I totally admit I’m not the expert in the family when it comes to preparing and serving the annual Thanksgiving meal.
I’ve done it once, and when I did host, it was okay and there were no disasters. It was, however, no match to the warm family atmosphere my mom pulls off year after year.
Thanksgiving is traditionally a holiday spent with family and friends. I decided it would be fun (not to mention informative) for me to interview my mom about how she gets ready for all the food, fun, family, and friends who will descend on her house on the fourth Thursday of November.
So, we sat down in her family room and I gleaned a few excellent tips from her to share with you.
What do you love most about hosting Thanksgiving?
Mom: I love having all of the family together and having celebrations and just fun times
How far in advance do you invite guests?
Mom: I like to invite them, depending on who it is, about a month ahead. If it’s somebody that is not usually at our meals, I like to do it sooner than that so that they have an opportunity to think about it.
I don’t need to have answers right away, and often don’t get them, but also it sort of gives me an idea of the kind of planning that I might need to do.
If it would be somebody from out of town, for instance, I’d have to think about sleeping arrangements, and other meals besides the Thanksgiving meal, and stuff like that. Mostly my Thanksgiving guests are people who are in town.
It’s good to do ahead especially if it’s somebody you really want to come who maybe never did, they might make other plans while you’re thinking about inviting them, and then you’re disappointed. I like to get my bid in there!
What’s your typical number of people you usually host for Thanksgiving?
Mom: Oh, somewhere between twelve and eighteen I would say, usually.
That’s a lot of people!
Mom: It is!
What’s a good time range to have people come over ahead of time?
Mom: I like them to come over about two hours ahead of time, to have some time to socialize and spend some informal time together, and talk and catch up, and so forth.
Do you ever have guests bring an appetizer? Or if they offer, what do you do?
Mom: If they offer I usually say yes! And if it’s something i would normally make then i wouldn’t make that thing. So, if somebody wanted to bring a pumpkin pie (and would remember to put the sugar in it), I would say “oh, yes please!”
When you have guests that are offering to bring things. How do you keep track of what people are bringing?
Mom: I do keep track of it for a meal like Thanksgiving because one time i didn’t do the routine and one of my children commented about ‘where’s the (sweet potatoes)? You didn’t do that?’.
So, the traditional part is really important?
Mom: The traditional part seems to be very important, but, I have my own traditions.
I don’t do my mother’s traditions and it’s something that developed over years.
Why did you stop doing your mom’s traditions and develop your own traditions? How did that start?
Mom: Well, when you join families together, different families have different traditions, and if you’re hosting something and different families are involved, it’s important to include those things that are important to both sides of the family.
That’s how the [creamed] onions got started because (your grandmother) always did creamed onions. Now, she did little round onions, but I wasn’t about to peel all those pearl onions!
Like when (your Mother-in-Law) started to come and she offered to bring something, I said “Well, if you have a tradition in your family, that is important to you, bring that.”, and she brought the stuffing one time, and now the apple pie. (Her) apple pie is the tradition in our family. You know, it evolves over time.
So it’s okay for you step outside your tradition in your family?
Mom: Oh, absolutely! I think it’s important to do so.
I think sometimes people, especially when they haven’t done this very often, they feel like constrained to what they had growing up, even if they didn’t like something.
Mom: Yeah, well, my mother for instance always did frozen squash, which was okay, but it wasn’t my favorite. We don’t do squash!
When you’re planning the meal, how do you keep track of all of that?
Mom: Oh, I have a notebook and since it’s a traditional meal, it’s pretty easy to write down all the elements.
… usually I write down all the elements of the meal, what the dishes are and then right next to it I start a grocery list. And then I can tear off my grocery list.
I do it every year because every year I might need to get different things at the grocery store. I might not do exactly the same things every year. But that just sort of evolved, it wasn’t always.
Desserts have gotten to be fairly standard but I always do the pumpkin pie. And now we always do the apple pie. They tend to change as the composition of the gathering changes.but there are some things that are standard.
So you have a notebook and you start making out your dishes and then you have a list that goes with that dish, or you’re just making out a general list?
Mom: I make a menu, and then I will know what I do or don’t have on hand. If I don’t know if I have it, I will search through my cupboard and if I don’t’ have it I’ll put it on the grocery list. Or there might be things that I’ll always need like extra whipped cream or extra milk, cranberry, both kinds . . .
How long have you been keeping this notebook. When did you start doing that?
Mom: I haven’t always had a notebook, but I don’t have a good short term memory, and never had a good short term memory, and I’ve always been a list maker. And then I think one time I just started using a notebook and that worked pretty well because I could make myself notes or whatever.
Did you ever have anything go wrong and then you wanted to make sure that you don’t forget?
Mom: Oh, you bet! How about pumpkin pie with no sugar! When you have that notebook and that menu list it’s very helpful to check it when you sit down to dinner. There’s been more than once when something never got on the table.
What shopping tips can you share?
Mom: Turkey always goes on sale the week before, the frozen ones. That’s when they’re really cheap and I buy enough for the whole year. Maybe four turkeys.
Are you going to the grocery store for a one time huge shopping spree when the turkeys are on sale? Do you have any strategies?
Mom: When I go shopping for the meal it’s generally for the whole thing. It doesn’t mean the whole thing gets necessarily accomplished. I do like to do it the week ahead for anything that will keep so that I’m sure that I have it.
So, you’re definitely going to go out and get your non-perishables?
Mom: Well, maybe even things like celery, onions, potatoes . . .
Is there a better time of the day in your experience to go shopping?
Mom: I don’t know if it matters a whole lot. Not the weekend. If it’s the Giant you have to go before Thursday because the sales change. And don’t go on Monday because the shelves are empty. They might not have celery.
Do you just try to go to one place?
Mom: I just go to the Giant. When I was younger I shopped around at the different stores for better prices but a penny or two doesn’t make a hill of beans difference.
What dishes are good to ask guests to bring?
Mom: I think appetizers and desserts are great things for people to bring because they’re sort of outside the main meal.
You were saying that you have between twelve to eighteen people coming over. What kinds of things do you do to get ready for that many people coming to your house?
Mom: One thing I do is set the table really early.
Get out all of the dishes and the silverware and the glasses. I do that even three or four days early.
I usually want some flowers and that’s more of a last minute thing. I always let people sit where they want except Pop Pop and my seat, he’s fussy about that.
Make sure there’s potty paper and some clean towels, and Pop Pop always tidies the house and washes the kitchen floor so the house is presentable. Making sure that there are adequate drink things and a variety of them both alcoholic and non-alcohol. Sodas, wine, and beer.
Are there any dishes that you can make ahead of time?
Mom: Almost everything. The turkey is the same day but the stuffing is the day before, the onions are the day before, the mashed potatoes I might do the day before or the same day, the beans are frozen and they can be at the last minute. If we’re doing sweet potatoes they’re made ahead, not cooked, just made ahead.
I usually am counting on my “walk in refrigerator” outside to keep things cold.
I try to do almost everything that i can one day ahead.
Things get crazy when your company is here. I like watching them enjoying each other. That’s almost as much fun, maybe more.
Let’s talk turkey. How do you know what size turkey to buy?
Mom: Well, I usually buy pretty much the same size [every year] which is usually around between fifteen and eighteen pounds, which is big, but not gigantic. Usually I know by the time the turkeys are going on sale about how many people are going to come. It’s a good reason for inviting ahead of time.
I try to be flexible if more people are going to show up the last minute, put up another table. The amount of food doesn’t vary that much; you know if you’re cooking for twelve and fourteen show up, put another potato in the pot.
Roughly a quarter pound per person, bone in turkey. There have been times where it was mostly all gone, and if it would turn out that the turkey I have wasn’t really big enough, I would go out and pick up a turkey breast. You can just basically stick it in the oven. These days you can buy it already cooked.
What’s the secret to getting the turkey to the table at the same time as the rest of the meal?
Mom: Figuring out how big your turkey is and how many hours it says on the label it should cook. So it’ll say something like sixteen to eighteen pounds, four to four and a half hours. If it’s more like eighteen pounds you figure it’ll be more like four and a half hours. It’s always good to have your turkey done substantially before you’re supposed to eat because it’s supposed to sit for a while.
It’s good to have it about a half hour ahead. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. If it gets done earlier that’s fine. Just cover it with some towels or something. Just let it wait. It’s more important that the other food is hot because the turkey is never really hot by the time it’s carved, and you need time to make gravy. You have to do that at the last minute, so the turkey can get done early. You don’t want it to get done too early. And you don’t want it to get done late. I’ve had that happen too.
You probably just do this automatically because you’ve because you’ve been doing it for so long , but do you have a timetable that you go by?
Mom: I figure it out. We’re going to try to eat at four and so the turkey needs to be done by three or so, and so it’s eighteen pounds and it’s going to take four and a half hours, so four, three, two, one – twelve thirty it needs to go in the oven.
You kind of count backward. That’s actually a really good technique.
Mom: Then I need time to stuff it, that’s another half hour to get it stuffed. So, I have to be working on the turkey at such and so a time. Things like the onions and sweet potatoes go in the oven for however long it’s going to take to cook them.
For someone who isn’t as experienced, do you think it would be helpful to them to write down a timeline?
Mom: I think it would. I do a lot of that just in my head. How long would it take the potatoes cook? It’s supposed to take 40 minutes. How long is that before four? So, that’s at three-fifteen or three-ten. It’ll keep warm for a while. Get your cold stuff out and dished up, like cranberry and all that stuff. Get your desserts ready to serve.
You make sure that’s ready before?
Mom: Yeah, I probably work on desserts in the morning and get them lined up on the kitchen counter someplace. Make sure the dishes are available, the coffee cups are available, cream and sugar are either poured or available, silverware for dessert.
Do you plan out your serving dishes?
Mom: Yes, absolutely!
I go in my cupboard and I see what I have, and then I say, “I’m doing kind of fancy today so I’m going to have this cut glass bowl for the mashed potatoes. And then I put it out and I put a little label in it.
You write “mashed potatoes” on a piece of paper and you put it in there?
Mom: And I get out the serving spoon that’s supposed to go with it and I put it in the bowl. I put it out on the counter where I’m going to serve it. I get it set up. And you can do that a couple of days ahead, depending on whether your space is going to be available or not. You could put it on the side or whatever, it depends on your kitchen. Sometimes I’ll pile it up in a corner.
What are some other things you need to make your table beautiful and functional?
Mom: Candles, candle holders. I have seasonal salt and pepper things so I put out my cute little salt and pepper things. Whenever I’m having a dinner party I always set the table at least a day ahead because then it’s out of the way and I don’t have to worry about it. We don’t use the dining room table. If you use your dining room table that’s a bigger problem. And that takes a little time to do. I might make sure I have the chairs up that I’m going to need so we’re not futzing around with that kind of stuff at the last minute. I hate to fuss with that stuff at the last minute.
Have Fun and Experiment
Do you ever delegate tasks to other people?
Mom: I do! “Pop-Pop go get all the chairs.” I don’t feel like I have to do it all. For us, it’s a family endeavor. I do most of the cooking myself. Pop-Pop might help with peeling potatoes or some prep things, [my granddaughter] has helped with stuffing for several years. I start the stuffing a couple of days ahead too. It doesn’t have stuff in it that’s going to spoil.
Do you have a strategy with all the dishes that gets piled up?
Mom: Between dinner and dessert you’ve got to get all the dishes off the table and I prefer it if they just get stacked and people don’t try to wash dishes. It’s so much easier to wash dishes later, and then I get it done the way I want it done and they get clean.
Any pointers or tips for somebody who doesn’t have the years of experience behind them like you do?
Mom: if it’s not a traditional meal, I more or less plan the meal in my head before I write anything down and I might get online and do recipe searches or look for recipes that I’ve saved. Just think about whether you want to do something different, and if it’s a group you feel safe with and you want to do an experiment, you could try a new dish on them and it either works or it doesn’t!
“. . . it’s not about doing it perfectly. It doesn’t have to be perfect.”
It’s okay to go outside your comfort zone?
Mom: I think so!
After the meal, you have all these leftovers. What do you do with them?
Mom: I try to send a lot of them home with my friends and family, therefore, the takeout boxes.
You get takeout boxes?
Mom: Well, I have a store of take out boxes. I get them at BJ’s or Costco. But if you don’t have that kind of storage space, paper plates work, plastic containers work, foil works. Wrap it up in foil, whatever works!
Do you keep some for yourself?
Mom: I don’t keep a lot of it anymore because it’s just the two of us, but back in the day I didn’t send so much food home. Leftovers would feed you for a couple of days. I use baggies or plastic containers. If it’s a lot left over I might put it in the freezer.
“The green beans always take longer than you think they’re going to. I don’t know why, but they do!”
What else do you have to share?
Mom: You have to have fun yourself. If it’s stressing you out, first of all, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Everybody makes mistakes, and if you make a mistake like you forget to put the sugar in the pumpkin pie, you just say “Oh, silly me! That’s pretty funny!”
I like to have as much done as possible ahead of time so that I can enjoy the day myself. We are lucky in that we don’t have a family who is cynical. That’s not what it’s about, it’s not about doing it perfectly. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
The one advantage I have is that I have two full-size ovens. So, if you have to do the turkey and the rest of the meal in one day then your turkey is going to have to be done early enough to get the rest of the stuff in the oven to cook or heat up. And if that’s the case then try to do smaller gatherings or have people bring more stuff.
If you’re cooking the turkey then you probably can’t do a whole bunch of stuff in the oven, so other people can bring it. You can use warming trays or you can use microwave hot pads to put stuff on to keep it warm, or a hot tray. There are other options to keeping stuff warm.
Thanks for reading all the way to the bottom! It was great fun interviewing my mom for Thanksgiving tips!
What Thanksgiving prep tips do you have to share? Leave a comment below!