Wednesday, November 3, 2010

10 Steps to a Saner, Thriftier, Somewhat Healthier Thanksgiving

Are you tired of Thanksgivings when your entire family comes to visit, but you don’t have time to talk to any of them? Do you dream of serving fresh, home-prepared food instead of Stove Top and Potato Buds on Turkey Day? Come this holiday, do you wanna save a coupla bucks?

Sweet. We gotcha covered.

By following these steps and devoting an hour or two to planning ahead, you can cook up a wholesome, economically sound Thanksgiving feast without going completely insane. You’ll have time to actually interact with your loved ones, and no one will leave the house hungry.

Of course, if you’re not up for these strategies (and yo, it’s understood), A) do whatever works for you, or B) try a potluck. Roast some poultry and have each guest bring a side, a dessert, or some booze. No muss, no fuss, and no one can blame you if the green bean casserole came out a little weird this year.

In the meantime, behold! And if you have anything to add, fire away in the comment section.

Step #1: Start shopping now.
Supermarkets begin offering Thanksgiving bargains weeks before the actual holiday. So, if you know you need an item – say, unsalted butter or canned sweet potatoes – buy them on sale a.s.a.p. You’ll save cash AND get to check something off your list.

NOTE: Obviously, this doesn’t apply to perishable goods. If you know you’re making applesauce, wait until the week-of to pick up the fruit. Otherwise, Rot City.

Step #2: Get a headcount.
Is it just the immediate fam this year, or are your 16 second cousins from South Carolina stopping by for some big, juicy bird? Having an approximate attendance will help you plan and budget accordingly.

Step #3: Prep your recipes.
Once you have a headcount, research and start amassing the appropriate recipes based on number of attendees, dietary restrictions, taste preferences, and budget. (It’s easier than it sounds, since Thanksgiving tends to focus on a few traditional dishes.) Cut and paste them into a Word Document, so they’re easily searchable and referenced. My favorites include:
Don’t worry about appetizers, as people are going to stuff themselves at dinner. If you do opt for hors d’oeuvres, choose something light, like crudite and bean dip.

Ask guests to bring wine and desserts. Of course, you can prep a pie or two the night before, but letting family pitch in will A) make them feel validated/as if they contributed, B) ease your stress level, and C) save you a buck or two.

Step #4: Create a grocery list.
Now that you have all the recipes, make a big ol’ grocery list of their ingredients. (This is super easy if you’ve already compiled the recipes in a Word Document.)

Helpful hint: If two dishes call for the same ingredient, combine the quantities so you don’t overbuy. For example, if your mashed potatoes need 4 tablespoons of butter, and your stuffing needs 6 tablespoons of butter, combine them into a single line, reading “10 tablespoons of butter.” Shopping will be way less complicated.

Step #5: Check off what you already have.
Odds are, a few list items are already floating around your pantry. Olive oil? Check. Salt? Check. Sixteen-pound game bird? Che- … oh, wait.

Step #6: Spread the remaining shopping out over the next few weeks.
To reiterate, supermarkets tend to spread sales out in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. Buy a little of your list each week, during your regular grocery shopping, using online circulars to check for deals. You’ll have to make a final trip, of course, but you’ll have already banked a bunch of money, and reduced your list by leaps and bounds.

Step #7: Create a schedule.
Okay. This one is where it gets a little nuts, but trust me – creating a schedule really, really helps. Why? It does four things:
  1. Manages your time. Worried about what you’re supposed to be doing, and when? No longer. Also, you actually get to socialize.
  2. Coordinates the stovetop and oven. If you’ve ever tried to cram stuffing, turkey, and sweet potatoes into the oven simultaneously, only to have nothing cook all the way through, you know what I’m talking about.
  3. Ensures you remember everything. Have you ever blanked on the biscuits? Forgotten the beans in the fridge? This visual cue will stop it from happening.
  4. Gets all the food to the table at the same time. Never again will your turkey be ready two hours after the mashed potatoes.
To make this magical document: Take each recipe, and working backwards from the time you’re serving dinner, assign each prep step a time slot. For example, if the stuffing needs to be served at 4pm, it should go in the oven at 3pm, be assembled about a half-hour earlier, at 2:30pm.

This is tough to explain, so here’s mine from last year. (Click to enlarge.)

Click to enlarge
I usually stick my schedule to the fridge, along with the recipes I’m making that day. This way, it’s convenient, accessible, and I won’t spill gravy on it.

Step #8: Enlist a Sous Chef, a Dish Doer, and a Table Setter.
Unless you’re Ina Garten, Superman, or SuperInaGartenMan (whom, I assure you, exists), you’re gonna need some help in the kitchen. Your Sous Chef can take care of potato mashing while you’re making the gravy. The Dish Doer will wash kitchen gear throughout the day, guaranteeing the appropriate equipment (whisk, measuring cup, etc.) is always clean. And heck, you know all about the Table Setter.

Fun fact: One person can cover the three jobs, if he/she is particularly talented. Last year, my sister’s boyfriend basically made Thanksgiving possible.

Step #9: Do as much as you can the night before.
The Night Before Thanksgiving 2009, my schedule read like this:
  • Make brine
  • Dunk turkey
  • Make applesauce
  • Make cranberry sauce
  • Make cornbread
  • Dice all gravy ingredients
  • Peel and cut carrots
  • Wash and cut green beans
  • Prep all remaining ingredients
It looks complicated, but only took a few hours, and allowed me tons of time to hang out on Thanksgiving Day. With a similar strategy, you’ll reduce potential stressors and eliminate last-minute trips to the grocery store for cranberry sauce.

Step #10: Stick to the gameplan.
Adhere to the schedule, and Thanksgiving Day will be a walk in the turkey park. (Yes, the turkey park.) You'll not only have plenty of quality time with family and friends, but they'll applaud your efforts for decades to come.

BONUS Step #11: Start drinking, but wait until AFTER you’re finished chopping.
Don’t ask me how I know this.

Readers, what think you? Does this seem crazy, or does a little time invested up front seem like a good trade-off for the day-of? What would you add or take away? The comment section, she is open.


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Limecloud said...

I love your schedule- I do the same thing for big parties (but I usually start earlier in the week and include cleaning the house- important to think about when you only have so many hours after you get home from work and before your too pooped to do anything). I also do the word doc of recipes and shopping list- it also makes it easier to make modifications to the recipe (i.e- doubling or substituting an ingredient). Great advice!

LibertyJBE said...

This is awesome! My sister decided to cook thanksgiving dinner for the first time this year, and I know this will help her (and me) stay on track!

Autumn said...

I haven't had to cook a full thanksgiving yet, but this would be really helpful for parties

A bit I learned from my MIL. . . put snacks/munchies/drinks away from the kitchen less you get an audience that doesn't help, just stands in the way

a said...

our family usually brings together about 30-40 people for the holidays (just with my boo, 2 parents, and 4 siblings we're 8).
My cousin who has the biggest house hosts, and does the bird, the antipasto, the pasta, and the soup. My mom, sis and me together make some of the antipasto items (like rice balls), some of the sides (like sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, broccoli rabe), and another cousing will usually brin cookies, pies, etc - and everyone else brings drinks, other bits, etc...
The host still has a ton of work to do, but we definitely share the burden

a said...

as an addendum - we don't do grocery lists or recipes or schedules because we've been eating more or less the same things for most of my 28 years and probably well before that....

Rebecca said...

It's not a crazy idea--it's crazy good! Avoiding all the stress and bumbling around last minute would be well worth the time taken to organize and plan. I'm definitely going to jack this idea. Thanks!

Daphne said...

Whenever Holidays are coming, I make sure to look for sale or cheap finds at the grocery store. You can buy more than what you expected!

esther said...

I love Thanksgiving!! Thanks for the tips :D

chacha1 said...

I always schedule. I don't know how anyone does any kind of dinner party without a schedule. Of course, I always cheat, too - I do NOT cook a turkey. I buy a smoked one.

And so would you if you had a small, thirty-year-old gas oven that takes 20 minutes to reach 350 degrees.

Anonymous said...

How does a turkey cook in 2 hours? Are you sure about this? I put mine in around 0900 in the morning for a 4:00 p.m. dinner