6 Things I Wish I Knew When I Cooked My First Thanksgiving
Welcome to Thrifty. A weekly column where assistant nutrition editor and registered dietitian, Jessica Ball, keeps it real on how to grocery shop on a budget, make healthy meals for one or two, and make earth-friendly choices without overhauling your entire life.
I know it’s only the day after Halloween, but Thanksgiving is like Christmas for me. I love that it is such a food-focused holiday that gets everyone around the table (even though it may look a little different this year). Personally, I feel like Thanksgiving gets glossed over, overshadowed by other parts of the holiday season, especially by young adults who don’t have a family of their own yet. And that is a real shame.
Last year, I hosted a really big Friendsgiving to test out making a full Thanksgiving dinner myself (*sigh* ,simpler times). The turkey I made was such a hit, I replicated it at my family’s Thanksgiving meal in Michigan. There are many of us, especially those with family in a different state, who may be celebrating differently this year with recommendations to limit traveling and flying. Though I may not be able to be a full-fledged hostess this year, I will absolutely still be making a special meal, even if it’s just my small Vermont quarantine crew. I also plan to learn from some of my cooking mistakes last year. Here's what I wish I knew before diving headfirst into making my first Thanksgiving, so you can learn from my experience, regardless of what your holiday looks like this year.
I cannot stress this enough. If you haven’t planned for or cooked a Thanksgiving meal before, getting organized well in advance is crucial. When I was obsessively planning my Friendsgiving last year, my coworker gave me The Friendsgiving Handbook by Emily Stephenson (buy it: $10.36, Amazon.com). It had super helpful tips, tricks and recipe inspiration to help you have a successful meal and day.
As soon as you plan out what you will be having, share the menu plan with guests. Sending out an email or Facebook event with details in advance can let you know of any accommodations that should be made. To be sure you know of any dietary restrictions, be sure to explicitly ask when you send it. This also gives people an opportunity to plan and bring things that are complementary.
Set a budget
Thanksgiving spending can easily get a little out of control, speaking from experience. To avoid being shocked when you get to the checkout at the grocery store, set a budget in advance and try to stick to it. Turkeys, especially if they are large or a heritage variety, can be really pricey. Maybe opt for a whole chicken instead, especially if you have a smaller group. Prioritize what's important to you. Appetizers might be a big part of your meal, or you might skip them altogether. And, don't forget to ask guests to help, too. Can someone bring wine or dessert? The entire costs of the meal don't need to fall on the host.
This can pertain to items or tasks. Is your oven full and you don’t feel like making stuffing? Ask a friend to take it on. Need more cups or plates than you have on hand? Very fair thing to request. If you are like me and are a little controlling in the kitchen (hey, at least I’m honest), drinks and desserts are the thing to delegate. Having the people who are not as kitchen savvy bring drinks is a great way to keep it even and get everyone involved. With a little organization, a Friendsgiving potluck is very doable, and cheaper for everyone coming.
Utilize your slow cooker
This appliance was my saving grace on Thanksgiving last year. Simply add the ingredients and let it be until meal time. I made the world’s easiest Slow-Cooker Dinner Rolls to round out the meal with only 25 minutes of active time. You can make everything from Slow-Cooker Pumpkin Cheesecake to Slow-Cooker Hot Cider with Brandy with ease. Your oven may not be able to handle everything, so cooking dishes in the slow cooker is handy.
Let them clean
If people ask to help (which they will), let them clean. This will probably be more helpful to you than having to coach people through a cooking task, like stirring the cranberry sauce, sautéing green beans or checking on the turkey. If you are less territorial in the kitchen than I am, maybe delegating out some chopping would be helpful as well, so long as you have enough counter space and won’t be crowded.
Last but not least, this is a holiday based in gratitude, whether you are hosting or just celebrating with those in your home. It is supposed to be a celebration for everyone, you included. Simply the act of hosting—even for just your own fam—shows people that you care and it’s truly the thought that counts. Don’t overwhelm yourself with trying to do too much or making it perfect, and remember that any mistakes can be learnings for next year.