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There’s more to pulling off a successful holiday meal than getting the turkey roasted, carved and on the table. In addition to the basics (invite, cook and serve), creative touches and clever planning set the framework for a crowd-pleasing meal that will look effortless (or at least seem that way).
DO choose recipes that can be made in advance, frozen and reheated, such as butternut squash soup. To shave off even more of the time you spend in the kitchen, start prepping a day or two before the holiday. Trim green beans, wash and spin salad greens, chop celery and cube bread for stuffing. (Stow ingredients in sealable plastic bags and stack them in the fridge until needed.) Peel potatoes and refrigerate them right in the pot you’ll cook them in, covered in water so they don’t brown. The pot can go straight from the fridge to the stove when it’s time to cook.
DO serve a few dishes that do not need to be piping hot, like these brown sugar-glazed beets. Cold salads made from grains, wild rice or roasted vegetables are also great options — and everyone appreciates a simple leafy green salad amid all that holiday excess.
DO map out your schedule well in advance. When making so many dishes that will be served simultaneously, even the most experienced cooks need a game plan.
DO read all your recipes thoroughly before shopping — both the ingredients list and the instructions. Many people skip this step, only to discover that they need kitchen twine/parchment paper/extra cream, etc., and don’t have it on hand.
DO think about tableware. Designate a serving dish (plus utensils) for each recipe you’re making; count out plates and flatware. If you’re short on anything, get creative! Wooden cutting boards make lovely, rustic-looking platters; tumblers can double as mod wineglasses; teacups look great holding desserts like mousse or sorbet.
DO create a seating plan that’s sure to spark conversation. Separate couples and, if possible, seat each guest next to someone she knows and someone she doesn’t.
DO serve a signature cocktail. Not only does it make the occasion more festive, but it also saves you from having to invest in stocking a full bar. Plus, punches or drinks that can be made in batches are low-maintenance and easy for guests to serve themselves.
DO delegate. Guests can open wine, fill water glasses and bring dishes to the table. Put someone in charge of the music, too. A group effort sets everyone at ease and helps get the party started. (This is a good time to break out the signature cocktail!)
DO buy a digital meat thermometer. Those little pop-out things that come embedded in turkeys can be unreliable. To see that your bird is properly cooked, insert the thermometer in the thickest part of the inner thigh (without touching the bone). It should read 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
DO relax and enjoy yourself — this is a party, after all. Nothing makes guests more uncomfortable than a visibly distressed hostess. And who cares if the turkey is a little cold? Many people prefer it that way!
DON’T do yourself in by taking on more than you can handle. Your guests would rather have a few delicious dishes than several mediocre ones. Cover all the bases (turkey, stuffing, potatoes, something green and pie), add another dish or two and you’re set.
DON’T stray too far from the classics. If you’re dead-set on serving turkey osso buco, that’s fine, but toss a turkey breast in the oven to please holiday purists.
DON’T forget to start thawing the turkey on time if you’ve bought a frozen one. According to the USDA, turkey should be thawed in the refrigerator, and you should allow 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds of bird. Yes, that translates to 4 to 5 days for a 16- to 20-pound turkey. So plan accordingly.
DON’T be afraid to say yes (or no!) if guests ask whether they should bring something. Might you need ice? Crusty bread? A nice red wine? If you guide them, you won’t be stuck with something you don’t need, and your guests will be thrilled to contribute to the meal. Everyone wins.
DON’T serve helpings of self-deprecation along with the mashed potatoes. You may be your harshest critic, but you shouldn’t start making apologies before guests take their first bite. Bask in your accomplishments — even if the stuffing is a little dry. That’s what gravy is for.
DON’T be shy about taking shortcuts. A couple of store-bought items — dips and spreads, turkey brining mix, frozen piecrust or a dessert from a local bakery — can add a lot to your meal while saving valuable time.
DON’T wing it when it comes to carving the bird; hone your skills with this step-by-step guide instead.
DON’T serve drinks or wine in giant glasses. With smaller glasses, guests are more likely to drink less, which makes for a safer, smarter holiday.
DON’T keep everyone at the table once the meal is finished. After all that eating, guests need a breather to keep the party going. Set up a small dessert table and let people casually help themselves. They’ll likely congregate in a few places — some might stay at the dining table to chat, others might retreat to the den to watch football and a few might even volunteer to help clean up in the kitchen!
DON’T send guests home empty-handed. Buy to-go containers and pack them with tasty leftovers to hand out as a parting gift.