Hosting your first Thanksgiving? Don’t panic – just follow this plan

Grab a glass of wine and relax with this super-simple plan for making it through your first Thanksgiving, including how to make other people do the heavy lifting

So you’ve decided to host your first Thanksgiving meal.

Maybe you’re living far away from where you grew up and you want to have a little taste of home. Maybe you’re planning a Friendsgiving and have been put in charge of most of the cooking. Or maybe the Thanksgiving turkey torch has finally been passed from your great aunt Eunice to you and on Thursday, all of the members of your extended family will descend upon your dining table.

Do not panic.

Hosting a Thanksgiving meal is involved, but it doesn’t have to be hard. Beyond turkey, stuffing, gravy and cranberry sauce, the primary ingredient required is organization. Once you figure it out, the hard part is over.

Here is your game plan.

First, pour yourself a cup of wine and watch this:

Mary Risley gets it right. Even if you don’t share her feelings about turkey (it doesn’t always taste like cardboard), her basic message about not worrying too much about perfection and focusing instead on having fun is a very good one.

But there is one trick that will make your Thanksgiving vastly less stressful and much more enjoyable: don’t cook everything.

Now, I am certainly not suggesting you serve an incomplete meal, nor am I suggesting you have your Thanksgiving catered. You should absolutely make the aforementioned basics. But then, a few days before, if you make some phone calls asking guests to make an appetizer, side dish or dessert to share, you’ll lighten your load significantly.

Ask friends to bring:

  • Two or three appetizers (a cheese or two and crackers, vegetables and dip, meatballs on toothpicks, bacon-wrapped dates, etc).
  • Two or three vegetable sides: (green beans, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, creamed onions)
  • A few desserts: pumpkin pie, apple pie, pecan pie, ice cream.

Now take another sip of that wine and let’s make a grocery list.

What you need to buy

Champagne or sparkling wine/prosecco (the latter two are typically cheaper). Serve this to start; one bottle for every four people. If you have any non-drinkers, get sparkling apple cider or sparkling lemonade for them.

Pinot noir (which goes well with turkey). One bottle for every two people.

For the turkey

  • 1 turkey (one pound per person – this includes bone weight. Obviously, subtract vegetarians). If you are expecting a small group (fewer than six), consider cooking a turkey breast or, better yet, one or two whole chickens.
  • 2 cups chicken or turkey broth
  • 1 cup unsalted butter for basting (optional)

This is by far the easiest, most straightforward turkey roasting method. I also love coating the skin with dried rosemary.

Turkey with herbs. Photograph: Gabi Moscowitz

Stuffing ingredients (serves eight – multiply as needed)

  • 1 loaf of white or whole wheat bread
  • unsalted butter
  • 1 large onion
  • 1 head celery
  • fresh parsley
  • 24oz turkey stock (or use chicken stock if that’s what you have)
  • 2 teaspoons poultry seasoning
  • salt and freshly milled black pepper

Here’s the recipe. It’s very simple so feel free to add your personal touches. I love it with persimmons and cooked, crumbled bacon. Chopped pecans, dried cranberries, and cooked, crumbled sausage are also very good additions.

One note: the recipe suggests cooking the stuffing in the bird as an option. I generally skip this part. The flavor imparted is usually not so amazing that it’s worth it. It’s also messy and annoying to execute. Cook the stuffing in a buttered or oiled baking dish at 375F (190C) for about 25 minutes, and serve it in the dish you cooked it in.

Cranberry sauce ingredients

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 4 cups fresh or frozen cranberries

Here’s the recipe. I strongly suggest adding the zest and juice of one fresh orange.

Gravy ingredients

  • ¼ cup flour
  • ¼ cup butter
  • Turkey stock

Here’s the recipe.

Other things to buy

  • Dinner rolls
  • Salted butter for the rolls
  • Heavy cream (to whip and top the dessert)
  • Coffee, tea or a digestif to serve with desert
  • Aluminum baking trays/roasting pan, if needed
  • A meat thermometer. It will take all the guesswork out of turkey-cooking. They’re relatively cheap and are generally available at regular grocery stores

Got the stuff? OK, great. Let’s get to cooking.

First, roast the turkey. You’ll want to do this early in the day. The general rule for cooking turkeys is 13 minutes per pound, so if you are cooking a 20lb bird, plan for a little over four hours of roasting. You’ll want to have the turkey out of the oven about an hour before your guests arrive (so it can rest and so the oven can be made available to people who have items that need to be warmed up).

While the turkey is roasting, make the cranberry sauce and prep the stuffing for the oven. Keep the cranberry sauce in its pot on the stovetop and pack the stuffing into a baking dish (or two, depending on how much you are making). Whip the cream for dessert and keep in in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use it.

Whew! Now for the homestretch!

When the turkey is finished, let it rest on a carving board for at least 20 minutes before you carve into it. Use this time to bake the stuffing.

At this point, your guests are likely showing up. Have them set out their appetizers and stick any side dishes they brought that need to be warmed up, along with the rolls (on an ungreased cookie sheet), into the oven with the stuffing until everything is nice and hot, about 20 minutes. Transfer the hot rolls into a basket lined with a clean dishtowel or napkin.

Just before you carve the turkey, make the gravy and transfer it to a bowl or gravy boat.

Gather a small crew to help you bring everything to the table, and invite everyone to be seated.

Finally, raise a glass and give thanks!

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