A Hassle-Free Thanksgiving for the Complete Beginner

You can do it! We have faith -- and an easy-to-follow, easy-to-prepare menu. The best advice to the complete novice? Practice. This may sound silly, but if you can, get a turkey several weekends before Thanksgiving, invite over friends and family who will love you know matter what, and cook up that bird. You will feel much better when the Big Day comes.

Failing that, give yourself plenty of time, get plenty of help, and just relax. The biggest disasters always make the best stories. Not that that will happen to you ...

Three Things to Know Before You Start

1. To pull off a dinner this big, you will need to have a well thought-out plan. Decide when you want to serve dinner and work backwards from there. Figure out how much time each dish needs for preparation and in what order you need to cook it. For this menu, we have done the work for you (see Your Battle Plan below).

2. Clean as you go so you'll stay organized. Start by filling the sink with hot soapy water and scrape and wash as you use pots, pans, spoons, etc. Also, as you unwrap items, throw away the packaging immediately to avoid clutter as you cook.

3. You will need help. Give each family member a responsibility with food preparation, setting the table and cleaning.


Your Battle Plan:

Write out a shopping list.

Figure out how many days the turkey will take to thaw, and put it in the refrigerator. If you are unsure of how much time it will take, ask the butcher or meat market manager.

Three Days before Serving:
Make the cranberry relish. It will taste better if it has a few days to sit.

The Day before Serving:
Make the pecan pie first. While that bakes, prepare the pumpkin pie. When the pecan pie is done, turn the heat up and put in the pumpkin pie. Make the stuffing and the onion casserole up to the point of baking and refrigerate.

Four Hours before Serving:
Put the turkey in the preheated oven. (This countdown presumes 3 1/2 hours of roasting time and 1/2 hour of rest time for the turkey. Adjust times accordingly for a smaller or larger bird.) When the turkey has about an hour of cooking time left, put the casserole and stuffing in the oven.

One Hour before Serving:
Start the potatoes. While the potatoes boil, prepare the carrots and peas (these will get their finishing touches after you make the gravy).

30 Minutes before Serving:
Check that the turkey is cooked properly and has reached an internal temperature of 180 degrees. Take the turkey out to rest. Make the gravy, and keep it warm on the stove. Finish off the peas and carrots. Carve the turkey and then serve. You did it!


Turkey Tips

  • It is essential to time the turkey to be out of the oven at least a half-hour before serving; roasted meats need to stop cooking before they're carved.
  • If this is your first time roasting a bird, it's best not to stuff the turkey. Your bird will take less time to cook and will have a better chance of being properly cooked. Make the stuffing in another pan. The recipe in this menu is easy and comes together in about 30 minutes -- after that it's just baking time, which it can do alongside the turkey. You can make it the day before, refrigerate it, and then bake it for the last hour of turkey time.
  • When purchasing your whole, ready-to-cook turkey, a good rule of thumb is to buy one pound per person.
  • If you buy a frozen turkey over 18 pounds, you will need at least five days for it to thaw out properly in your refrigerator. A very large turkey needs at least a week.
  • Never thaw poultry at room temperature. A trip to the ER is not a fun way to spend Thanksgiving night.
  • Before unwrapping, read the manufacturer's directions as to temperature and cooking time for the weight of the turkey. These directions are usually the best -- follow them.
  • After reading the directions, unwrap and wash the bird inside and out with cold water. Place it in a roasting pan and liberally season the cavity with salt, pepper and poultry seasoning. Sprinkle some on the outside, too, and baste with a little fat of your choice (butter is good). Bake as recommended.
  • If you place the turkey in the pan the night before and put it in the fridge, it will save you a few minutes on turkey day.

Final Thoughts

  • Don't be a hero. Ask for help, buy prepared items, enlist catering help --whatever it takes to get it done. Remember, Martha has a veritable army of people to help her pull out all the stops. Most people just enjoy a comfortable, relaxed meal.
  • Unless you are expecting a hoard, one dessert is usually plenty. Thanksgiving desserts tend to be easy to make and travel well, so it is also a great thing to ask someone else to bring.
  • For truly hassle-free pies, buy frozen, ready-to-use pie shells and bake the pies the night before, so you can focus on other things the day of the event. And, for a simple dessert topping, an aerosol can of whipped cream is easy. If you prefer ice cream, that's easy too -- and delicious!
  • Good luck!


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