How to do Thanksgiving “from scratch” without wanting to die

Last year’s Thanksgiving was my British in-laws’ first Thanksgiving, so naturally it had to be perfect. Like Monica Geller perfect. But what is one non-full-time-Thanksgiving-planner to do? My answer was to take the whole week off from work and get everything ready ahead of time, so Thanksgiving day would be chill as fuck. 

It worked, my fully from-scratch dinner was on the table by 2, plus appetizers and veggie plates had been out, and I even went to the gym in the morning. But we can’t all take the whole week off (including me, my evil plans were foiled this year and someone else on my team got it), so I need to adjust my schedule to work while I work. To be honest, the majority of last year’s week off was spent cleaning, not cooking, and since I’m only hosting my parents this year (and who cares what they think right?) and in my own apartment which is pretty small and generally clean-ish anyway, plus no overnight guests, the bulk of my efforts will be on the meal. 

look at that sexy bird

1. Carefully Consider Your Menu

My number one recommendation for keeping your from-scratch Thanksgiving within the limits of your sanity is seriously paring down your menu. I have regularly fallen victim to the siren song of ALLTHEFOOD and made way too many different things, ending up with an un-eatable amount of leftovers and also a mountain of regret. Last year’s menu was ON POINT as far as wanting to (and having the stomach capacity to) eat all the options available, but I still probably made too much as far as volume. I did my shopping for this year earlier today and I don’t know if you can comprehend how hard it was for me to buy only one bag of bread cubes for the stuffing. (It was so hard you guys). The best way to keep your menu under control is obviously Pinterest. Last year, I made a board sometime in September for all the things I thought looked delicious, and then re-pinned anything I was actually going to make to a separate “Final Menu” board. I found this to be the best way to keep visual track of what I was making. Some of my pins were placeholders for other recipes (for example, the Stuffing in a Bundt Pan recipe was more of an imagery inspiration, and I would use our standard stuffing recipe instead of the one in that pin). Considering portions, think about making mini pies if you or your family are diet-conscious. Or you’re like me and want to have four-five different kinds of pie. That way, you have options, but not so many options that you end up with gratuitous leftovers or filled to your eyes with pie. You can get the same mini pie pans as me here. The link is to a six-pack, which is a good number. I ordered four last year and honestly, we still had leftover pie. Don’t listen to your family’s complaints about how it’s not enough pie. They don’t know wtf they’re talking about. 

Another word of menu caution, think very seriously about what you and your family will actually eat. When I was going over the menu for this year with my mom she insisted there are not enough vegetable options. LADY, I DON’T SEE YOU EATING THE SALAD AT THANKSGIVING EITHER. In my extensive food-eating experience, unless they’re tasty AF, or you are hosting vegans or vegetarians, your vegetable afterthoughts are going straight in the trash. I am not even bothering wasting precious table space or energy on them anymore. Thanksgiving is decadent enough without throwing in stuff you feel obligated to make. If you look into your heart, you know if you’re going to want three times as much mashed potato as turkey, and you should listen to your heart on these matters. Plus, once the thing you really like is gone, that’s when the leftover train stops and it’s the express train to trash can town, which is extremely depressing. One way I have discovered to combat this particular issue is to make an actually interesting veggie dish, rather than just boring AF steamed broccoli; for example, a ratatouille style eggplant/squash casserole type thing which gets you your veggies plus some yummy seasoning and a smidge of cheese. TLDR: don’t waste food because you thought you SHOULD make broccoli because you’re #adulting but know nobody will eat that shit when staring down the barrel of mashed potatoes and biscuits. 

Pictured: mostly mashed potato and no fucking broccoli

2. Figure Out What Can Be Made Ahead, Then Do It

Make-ahead food is the saving grace of any party thrower. We have all heard stories of and/or experienced the situation of the cook spending the whole party in the kitchen frantically prepping and finishing up dishes. Sure, you might have people telling you how grateful they are for all your work, or how yummy all the food is, but being the kitchen martyr is not worth it just to guilt-trip a couple of your relatives (this is serious news coming from me because I love a good guilt-trip). Making stuff ahead really does let you enjoy your party. It’s not a myth propagated by Crock Pot Illuminati Inc. Do you remember when I told you I went TO THE GYM ON THANKSGIVING? If you wait until the last minute, you will not have the opportunity to impress your relatives with your commitment to fitness because you’ll be so busy impressing them with your commitment to procratistination. 

Here are some things you can absolutely make ahead:

  1.  Pies
  2. Cranberry sauce
  3. Biscuits (I like to make them up to the point right before they go into the oven and then freeze them, that way you still bake them the day-of so they are hot and fresh)
  4. Mashed potatoes
  5. Stuffing
  6. Creamed corn (although I still personally like to do this the day-of since the recipe I use is a slow-cooker dump recipe and is insanely simple, literally only taking enough energy to have the foresight to turn your slow-cooker on early enough)
  7. Soup
  8. Stuffed mushrooms
  9. Dip
  10. Pretty much everything, let’s be honest, there’s a reason people love Thanksgiving leftovers so much, that stuff keeps in the fridge like nobody’s business.

When making ahead, it is important to consider your turkey. The turkey is the one thing you probably shouldn’t make-ahead, because part of the fun of Thanksgiving is cutting into the whole bird for dinner. If you make-ahead your turkey, you’ll probably want to reheat it in slices, which is kind of a bummer in my opinion. But, it would work if you are really that committed to making stuff ahead of time. That being said, if you are using the method I use for turkey cooking, your oven will be out of commission all day for putting in anything to reheat. 

Your turkey does need about half an hour to rest before you cut into it, so if you plan properly you can reheat your made-ahead food in the oven once the turkey comes out, but I am an advocate for the slow-cooker reheat if you can swing it. My parents have a triple slow cooker which I strongly recommend getting if you throw a lot of food-based parties. If you do not have a triple slow cooker, please tell me you at least have a regular single-pot slow cooker or rice cooker you can set to “warm.” If you don’t have any of these things and refuse to get them, you might be able to get some Sterno and chaffing dishes, but I find that to be way too involved. If you are going to use the oven to reheat stuff while your turkey is resting, take it out of the fridge when the turkey has about an hour to go, so it can come to room temperature. Reheating from room temperature will take way less time than from the cold refrigerator. The oven is best for anything you think might get soggy in a slow cooker, like your veggie dish. 

Cranberry sauce I don’t have to worry about on Thursday because I made it on Sunday

3. Make a List for the Love of God

I am a MAJOR fan of lists. I am making a list right now! I made a list up in step two! LOVE lists, love making lists, bought a freaking iPad Pro and Apple Pencil so I could make handwritten lists on my iPad so I would never have to throw away or lose my lists. 

If you are not a fan of lists, I don’t pretend to understand you, but please trust me when I say the only way to not go insane while making your from-scratch Thanksgiving is to make at least one list. If you are only making one list (NOT counting the menu because come on of course you need to make a menu), I suggest that you make a list of when you are going to make each dish ahead of time. Like I said, making-ahead is your saving grace, so its importance is not to be underestimated. Your make-ahead schedule might look something like this:

Saturday before Thanksgiving: go grocery shopping, make cranberry sauce

Sunday before Thanksgiving: make biscuits, freeze before putting in oven

Monday: make pecan pie, pumpkin pie, and mashed potatoes

Tuesday: make stuffing, slice and arrange vegetables for vegetable dish

Wednesday: prep appetizers, brine turkey, make apple pie 

Thursday: arrange flowers, put turkey in oven, make creamed corn, reheat appetizers, reheat all other foods, eat all the food

Yours will be different unless you decide to make the exact same meal as me (which of course is a perfectly decent idea and you can actually do it since I gave you the link to my pinterest board with everything on it and I wouldn’t be creeped out at all because I honestly believe it is a perfectly balanced menu). I personally like to give myself a little more specific information, such as time I expect to spend on a certain task, that way I can anticipate when I should specifically work on it. This schedule should be do-able for you after work, unless you work crazy long hours, in which case I am very sorry and you might want to invite yourself to someone else’s Thanksgiving because you need a break. 

Another list I can’t recommend enough is the grocery list. This may seem obvious, but there are some people with such hubris that they truly believe they can just get everything they need for Thanksgiving without a list. I prefer looking at your recipes, making a list of everything that you need (I like to include measurements too if I’m feeling particularly list-y), then go through your kitchen and make adjustments based on stuff you already have. Remember, even if you have just enough sugar for your cranberry sauce and pies, you should probably get more because who likes to have no sugar on hand? Same goes for salt for your brine, you don’t want to use all your salt and then be out of salt. So account for necessary stock replacements as well as things you just don’t have, like orange peels. 

Part of the list I made on my phone to keep me on track

4. Do Your Dishes Early and Often

If you do not have a functional dishwasher, call your overworked friend and invite yourselves to someone else’s house for Thanksgiving because y’all this is not your year. 

If you are not in the no-dishwasher camp, I cannot stress enough how important it is to start your Thanksgiving dinner with an empty dishwasher ready to accept all your dinner dishes. If you make any dishes the morning of, unless we’re talking a couple mugs or a cereal bowl, run your dishwasher and empty it before dinner. One of the beautiful things about making so many things ahead of time is that you have the opportunity to make sure all your pots and pans from cooking the food are already washed, so all that you will have to wash on Thanksgiving are the serving bowls and your actual plates/bowls/utensils that you use to eat the meal. If you have a lot of pots/pans/cookware to use without having to wash your dirty dishes first (unlike me, who will be very likely using the same pot to make my stuffing as I use for the mashed potatoes) please avoid the impulse to leave everything in the sink. Unless you are very mentally strong, you will get to Thanksgiving morning and lose your fucking mind over how little space you have to work because every surface of your kitchen is covered in dirty dishes. You will call your family and tell them not to come. You will burn your apartment building to the ground and laugh as you walk away from the carnage. Please just do your dishes as you make them, for the safety of your neighbors. 

5. Seriously Consider How Much You Are Committed to “From-Scratch”

There are some things I don’t see the point in short-cutting, because I believe the from-scratch version is either easy enough that getting it pre-made is pointless, or there is a major taste difference. Making cranberry sauce, for example, takes less than half an hour and costs basically the same as getting it canned, and has a much brighter flavor, plus is often a little more of a gravy consistency rather than a jell-o consistency, which I personally find preferable so that I can slather it all over all my food. Biscuits are another thing that my mother has consistently begged I reconsider in favor of the canned biscuits. I think the biscuit recipe I use does have some of the flaky layers that make the Pillsbury canned biscuits so popular, but also has more of a melt-in-your-mouth vibe which I strongly prefer. That said, I buy the turkey gravy in a jar because I made from-scratch gravy once and didn’t find that it was any better (or maybe thought it was worse) and it wasn’t worth the extra effort, especially since it involves work after the turkey comes out and by the time the turkey is out I want to be at the table pigging out. I also buy pre-chopped celery and onions for the stuffing because I’m lazy and have enough shit to deal with without worrying about chopping onions into teeny tiny pieces. I also get pre-made pie crusts because I don’t see enough of a difference between homemade and pre-made to worry about it. 

So, if you really love canned cranberry sauce and biscuits, go for it. If you can’t live without homemade gravy, more power to you. 

The real key to not going insane at Thanksgiving is giving yourself a break, and considering what is really important (mashed potatoes, obviously).

Let me know if you use any of my tips for your own Thanksgiving meal, and share with your friends who are throwing parties and might need some help figuring it all out. 

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