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Six Thanksgiving Shortcuts to Save Your Sanity

For some people, Thanksgiving is about much more than giving thanks, eating turkey, watching football, or upholding family traditions—it’s also about running around the house in a frenzied panic, trying to set the table, tidy the bathroom, and cook five side dishes at once, all while keeping a twitching, bloodshot eye on the turkey. These people are called hosts, and they stress out and exhaust themselves every year just to make sure their loved ones have a pleasant, satisfying Thanksgiving meal.

But why should the brave soldiers who accept the terrifying challenge of hosting such an anticipated and pressure-filled event not get to enjoy the holiday as well? If you’re the host this year, try incorporating a few helpful shortcuts into your routine; before you know it, you’ll be throwing off your apron and joining the crowd in the living room.

1. Grocery shop in advance.
Having both a finalized head count and menu at least a week before the big day is crucial. That way you know how much food to prepare and what to get at the grocery store. Be sure to buy the non-perishable items before holiday shopping madness begins. (Don’t forget to make room in the fridge!) The last place you want to be on Thanksgiving morning is in the grocery aisle, fighting the other procrastinators for the last can of pumpkin. First check the cabinets to see what you already have; there’s no need to stock up on cinnamon and dried herbs if you already have some in your pantry. If your pantry items are more than a year old, however, it might be time to chuck them. The only things you shouldn’t buy too far ahead are salad greens, fresh herbs, and other ingredients that might go bad quickly.

2. Hand out assignments.
As nice as it is to prepare a big feast for friends and family, sometimes it’s just not in the budget, money- or time-wise. There’s no shame in asking for a little help—it’s called Thanksgiving, not Thankstaking, which means that everyone should be happy to pitch in. Plus, it gives guests a chance to share their favorite dishes and try new ones as well. Alternately, you could ask each person to bring a specific item, rather than risk a tableful of multiple sweet potato casseroles or your aunt’s gag-inducing Jello-mayonnaise “salad.” Along with handing out menu assignments, offer a few recipes to give your guests a place to start.

Duties can extend beyond side dishes, too. Ask some members of the dining party to help out in the kitchen on the day of, either as a chef sidekick (even cooking novices can chop veggies), or as the person who organizes ingredients or cleans dirty dishes.

3. Prepare the house the night before.
Don’t leave cleaning tasks to the day of—there’s already enough to worry about. Tidy up the bathroom and common areas the night before. Launder all towels and linens, including the tablecloth and napkins for Thanksgiving. After they’re laundered, put them on the table; then break out the plates, glasses, and utensils you’re planning to use, as well. Setting the table the night before buys you that much more free time the next day.

4. Prepare as much food as you can the night—or days—before.
There are big shortcuts you can take, like cleaning the salad greens or chopping up all the necessary veggies beforehand. (The French call it mise en place.) And then there are even bigger, more impactful shortcuts, such as preparing entire dishes a day or two beforehand. Stuffings and casseroles actually taste better when they’re made a few days in advance because their flavors have more time to blend. Gravy, turkey stock, cranberry sauce, pies, and dips don’t need to be made the day of, either. Mashed potatoes are a little iffier; people often report mixed results from reheating them; but if you use a slow cooker and add cream and butter the day of, it should work out okay.

Take anything made in advance out of the fridge on Thanksgiving morning and let it get to room temperature. The turkey needs to sit out about twenty minutes prior to its carving anyway, and that’s when you can throw the side dishes in the oven or microwave.

5. Don’t be afraid to go store-bought.
Everyone assumes homemade is always best, but some things are worth buying pre-made. With store-bought cranberry sauce, desserts, and dinner rolls, guests might not even be able to tell the difference. Not all packaged products are created equal, so it’s important to distinguish between winners and duds. For dinner rolls, my coworker Rebecca prefers Sister Schubert’s Wheat Yeast Rolls with Honey Butter. Every Day with Rachael Ray recommends both Sara Lee Oven Fresh Pumpkin Pie and Mrs. Smith’s Hearty Pumpkin Pie. And when it comes to cranberry sauce, the San Francisco Chronicle likes the Safeway and R.W. Knudson brands, whereas the bloggers at opt for Trader Joe’s version.

It’s easy to add homemade touches to these dishes—sprinkle orange zest on the cranberry sauce, spice up the pies with some cinnamon and nutmeg, or whip up some herbed butter for the rolls. Gussy-up boxed instant mashed potatoes with fresh herbs, or add dried fruit and fresh vegetables to premade stuffing.

6. Buy two smaller turkeys instead, then bag them.
Setting a giant, glistening roasted turkey on the table adds an especially momentous touch to the occasion, but cooking smaller turkeys tends to yield more-tender, evenly cooked meat. It’s possible you don’t even need a giant turkey if you’re not serving more than a handful of people. Estimate that you’ll need about one pound of turkey per person, and buy accordingly.

Oven bags are time-savers as well. You can skip hours of basting by using plastic roasting bags. Once you’ve put the bird in the bag, rub it down with a stick of butter, add herbs and other seasonings, and then close the bag and stick it in the oven for a few hours. Check out this popular recipe for further instructions.

It’s easy to avoid spending Thanksgiving in a perpetual state of stress if you go into the day with a plan of attack—especially if the foundation of your plan is doing as much as possible ahead of time. That way, once the big day rolls around, you can spend less time sweating in the kitchen and more time enjoying the company of your loved ones, preferably with a cocktail in hand and your feet on the table. Doesn’t that sound like something to be thankful for?