5 lessons I’ve learned from 27 years of hosting Thanksgiving

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As a passionate home cook, Thanksgiving is my holy grail, my marathon, my Everest. The ability to pull it off well is a source of pride, and no moments of my year are as purely pleasurable as the brief silence around the table when everyone tucks into their plates, just before the gradual exclamations of rapturous delight. And while there is always something a little bit new or different every year, the basics stay the same, and I’ve gotten a lot of it down to a science.

But science doesn’t mean clenched perfectionism.

With all due respect to Martha, you don’t need 24 matching turkey-shaped bowls for the soup to taste good. You don’t have to grow your own cranberries. You don’t even have to make your own pie crust (or pie, for that matter). Good food, prepared with love—or purchased with love—and served with a smile is all anyone needs for the holiday to be sublime… to each at the level of his or her own ability.

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The most important thing about Thanksgiving is right there in the name: Be thankful. If you are with your people—your family, your closest friends, the people you love—then you’re doing it right, and the rest is just details. Even if you burn the turkey, there are still side dishes.

But if it’s at all possible, set yourself up for success with some simple advice and simpler recipes. After 27 years of hosting Thanksgiving, here are the top five lessons I’ve learned in order to make the day so much better for me and my guests.

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Think ahead

This is a meal that has many elements that freeze perfectly well, so think about it as a marathon and not a sprint. Cranberry sauce, gravy, stuffing, sweet potatoes, rolls, and many desserts all do fine for up to a month in the freezer. If you have the space, tackle these one at a time in the weeks leading up to the big day, and then you can reheat them all together in a 350-degree oven while the turkey is resting. These same items are fine in the fridge for up to three or four days if you don’t have room in the freezer.

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Can you set the table and organize the buffet in advance? If you have that luxury, do it as far out as feasible. I usually have mine set up, or mostly set up, by Tuesday. I make a Time and Action plan for the week starting Monday with anything that needs to be done in advance, with all of Thursday broken down into 15-minute increments. It gets taped up in my kitchen, and every time I check something off, I set a timer to remind me to do the next thing. Being this insanely organized means that at 2:30 on Thursday, my Time and Action says “take a nap.” Which I do.

Know thyself and thy audience

Do you regularly make your own puff pastry, serve towering flaming baked Alaskas, and finish your sauces with homemade demi-glace? Then find any challenging menu that inspires you and have at it. But if you burn the toast four days out of 10, this isn’t the time to try anything complicated. Keep things simple, and don’t be afraid to ask for help with the hard stuff or fiddly bits. People love to participate, so let guests bring something to take some of the pressure off you. If you’ve never made pie crust, buy a good-quality frozen one. Check out the prepared foods sections of grocery stores for side dishes and do a tasting the week before. If Whole Foods is making a killer stuffing, there’s no shame in serving it. Does gravy make you nervous? Add five or six whole peeled shallots to the roasting pan along with your bird, and simply blend them into the de-fatted pan juices to thicken it easily without all that tricky flour business.

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Consider who’s coming to your feast and what they need from the day. You might be a major foodie, but is Aunt Marge? There’s no point in fussing over individual pumpkin soufflés cooked in hollowed-out roasted quinces and topped with vanilla-bean tuiles if the rest of your guests prefer green bean casserole and sweet potatoes with marshmallows. Even if those things aren’t your jam, if the family loves them, serve them without apology or shame. You can improve them by using the best ingredients you can get. Or you can revel in the kitschy quality of making the recipes the old-school way.

Thanksgiving is also a great time to connect with your family members who cook. You might be amazed how many great tips they can give you.

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Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock (Getty Images)

Don’t overdo the appetizers and pre-dinner snacks

You’re going to spend at least two days or more cooking this meal. Let your guests be hungry when they get to the table. Keep your pre-dinner nibbles to small bowls of nuts or olives or pretzels or the like. You want your guests to have something to nosh on with their pre-dinner drinks, but if they fill up on 15 kinds of hors d’oeuvres you’ll all be sad when you all get to the table and no one can manage seconds. (This is good advice for any dinner party: Either plan heavy hors d’oeuvres and a light supper, or vice versa.) If you must do soup, despite the fact that all good Thanksgiving soups are guaranteed to be filling, plan on little espresso cups or dainty tea cups during the cocktail hour and not bowls at the table. Serving a soup course adds a level of stress to getting the buffet out that no one needs. I only make soup because if I don’t make soup my family pouts, and the leftovers are great all weekend.

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If you know that some of your company can get a bit too in their cups if left to their own devices, maybe try to limit the pre-dinner boozing as well.

Do not count calories, skimp on ingredients, or whine and pout about how bad the food is for you

We are all very sensitive to healthy eating these days, and more than a few of us are dealing with the need to lose a couple of pounds. Or a couple of dozen. This is not the day to do it. Thanksgiving is, at its very core, a celebration of food and the memories that food invokes. You do yourself, your host, and the day a disservice if you think of it as anything else, or deprive yourself of the sheer joy of this meal. If you’re the cook, don’t alter recipes with low-fat/low-salt/low-taste versions of things unless you have a guest with medically prescribed dietary restrictions. If you’re really concerned, fill your plate any way you like, but either don’t go back for seconds, or on your second round, stick to the less gloopy veggies and turkey and the cranberry sauce.

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Any nutritionist worth their salt will tell you that one meal cannot derail your overall progress, especially if you get back to your program the next day and maybe add a workout that week. And any counselor will tell you that the surest way to be cranky is to deprive yourself while people all around you are celebrating. Give yourself a break—you’ll be amazed how, if you give yourself permission to have everything you want, it’s really easy not to overdo it.

Be neither the Thanksgiving Dictator nor That Annoying Guest

If people want to help in the kitchen, let them. And don’t criticize the quality of their small dice or the way they wash the pots. If someone offers to bring a dish, let them bring what they love to make. Who cares if you have two kinds of sweet potatoes, or both cornbread and regular stuffing? On Thanksgiving, more is more and abundance rules. Besides, you have three more days of the weekend, and you’ll need quality leftovers.

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If you are the guest offering to bring something, be clear about what you are capable of. Make sure to ask how many people you are expected to feed. Do not bring anything that needs assembly or cooking onsite. If your dish is meant to be served warm, bring it warm in an insulated container or in your slow cooker so that you can plug it in somewhere unobtrusive till it’s time to serve.

Speaking of serving, my best pro tip for holidays and dinner parties alike is to bring your offering on a serving platter that doubles as a hostess gift. Nothing is more annoying at the end of a party than having to stop and make sure everyone’s servingware gets cleaned so they can take it home. Ditto Tupperware.

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And finally, but most importantly, don’t forget to be thankful. The times we’re living in are scary and sad, and we all deserve a day to focus on the good. Close your eyes, be joyful, and in all sincerity and humility, thank the universe for your life.

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