How to make Thanksgiving cleanup suck less

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My family has pretty much every dish covered for Thanksgiving dinner. Out of a need to feel responsible, I have assigned myself two critical jobs every Thanksgiving: baking two pumpkin pies strictly adherent to the Libby’s canned pumpkin recipe, and cleaning. Since we’ve already covered the pie recipe, let’s shift focus to cleaning.

This is my 17th Thanksgiving on primary cleaning duty, and frankly I’m good at it. If I were a pitcher, I’d feel like my fastball was in the mid-90s. That doesn’t mean I haven’t made missteps. One that sticks out: During a “Twanksgiving” (between Thanksgiving and New Year’s) party that my roommate Bill and I threw in my 20s, we managed to smoke out our kitchen and spill garbage all over the kitchen floor. Then the guests arrived.

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But all these years and mistakes have resulted in a reservoir of tactics that I now impart to you to help you slay the dragon that is cleaning up after a hosted family dinner.

I’ll start with supplies. First, stock up on microfiber towels. They don’t have to be fancy; the ones you can find in the auto section are perfectly fine. You’ll want to use these for the random drips and spills, but more importantly: Place several around the perimeter of your carving board. Big turkeys put out a lot of juices, and I can’t count how many times I’ve ended up scurrying for paper towels. Plus it keeps the board from slipping.

The second is contractor bags, or really heavy-duty garbage bags designed to hold construction debris. There are two reasons for this. First, you’re going to have stuff that pokes through your primary kitchen garbage bags (foil, bones), so any added protection mitigates risk of bag tears. Secondly, you want to contain the smell of your garbage as much as possible, especially since in many municipalities, garbage day may not be until several days after Thanksgiving. What I like to do is double bag: Put the kitchen garbage in a “normal” bag, then go around that with a contractor bag. The more you conceal the smell and protect the waste, the less opportunities critters will have to feast on it when you take out the trash. Apologies to the neighborhood squirrel population.

The third and final supply is the least expensive: paper or plastic grocery bags. Put the turkey carcass in three or four plastic shopping bags (or two paper bags) before putting it in your garbage. This creates a protective cocoon for the bones. Paper bags provide an even better defense against the jagged corners of foil pans or can lids, but remember to double bag whatever you throw out, per the note above.

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All these supplies are handy, but what about the actual cleaning? If I were on a panel discussion or in some ritzy think tank about Thanksgiving cleanup (to make it clear: I am available), these would be my offerings.

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Empty everything before the party. An empty washing machine lets you pop in those used microfiber towels after they’re soiled. An empty garbage can means less risk of food scrap Jenga when the meal is done. And since there is nothing more deflating than a full counter of dishes after the meal and an hour wait for the earlier dishwasher cycle to finish, make sure you start with an empty dishwasher before dinner time. Ideally, wash your prep bowls and spoons and get them out before guests arrive. After the meal, save the dishwasher for plates and cups. They’re really easy to load and you can get through them fast. You want volume first; some dishwashers can typically hold about 20 on the bottom, and 10-15 cups on the top rack. After these are done you can move on to the more bulkily-shaped serving dishes.

Hand wash your silverware after dinner. On the subject of deflating waits, nobody wants to delay dessert due to a lack of forks. If your dinner is like mine, we don’t have enough silverware to make it through dinner and dessert. So after the meal, just clean the silverware in your sink, put your dinner plates and cups through the dishwasher, and leave everything else for later (unless you followed the dishwasher tips above).

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Deglazing is a form of cleaning. That baked-on brown stuff in the pan is flavor, but it’s also grime—especially when it’s late and I want to catch the second half of the Saints game. For any stovetop-safe pans (your turkey roaster or any frying pans), crank the burner heat, get the pans warm, and then deglaze with two cups of water. Avoid doing this with Pyrex, please.

Call me weird, but I like the “before and after” of seeing a colossal mess transformed into a stack of neat, clean dishes. It accelerates the journey back to normalcy after a house full of people and food, and I feel a sense of accomplishment. Hopefully these strategies reduce your stress level and give you more time for taking down those pumpkin pies or talking to your family.

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About the author

Nick Leggin

Nick Leggin is a technology professional, writer, potato chip enthusiast, and former game show contestant.