Thanksgiving Game Plan

Thanksgiving is my Super Bowl. It’s how I define my success as a cook, entertainer, builder of traditions in my family. I can never compete at Christmas – I just don’t have it in my DNA, but oh Thanksgiving, oh, I can bring it and enjoy it and still look good doing it. Here are a few of my tried and true tricks for making it through the week with your sanity, your waistline and your relationships still in tact.

  1. Stay home for Thanksgiving: In our little family, we have made it a tradition to stay in our own home for Thanksgiving every year that we’ve been together. I know this isn’t possible for everyone, but we snatch up this little holiday as a 4 day staycation in [insert whatever town we are living in] and we fill it with a million of our own traditions. We prefer to travel to see family during times that aren’t so expensive/busy and we have found we enjoy those trips even more. We have filled our home over the years with friends and sometimes family who come through, but through it all we’ve stayed home, and kept it sacred. I love to cook, so I get to control the menu, and he who controls the meal controls the leftovers. Bonus.
  2. But, invite buffers: We host our dear friend Anna every year for Thanksgiving. Not only is she a master storyteller, epic kid-entertainer, ultimate go-with-the-flow girl and night owl (which gives Zac a late night movie watching companion when I turn into a pumpkin at 10 pm), but she gives us a reason to make the holiday special. In short, because Anna is here, we put on pants. We use the fancy silverware. We dress it up.
  3. Keep the rest of the day’s meals simple: Our traditions are eating pigs-in-a-blanket which we prep the night before and wake up and bake early and munch on throughout the day, and a huge veggie tray. Last year, Zac’s sister outdid her self with this veggie turkey tray that we fell in love with and will make every year. We keep it very simple, avoid cheeses and breads, and nibble throughout the day on these crowd pleasers.  We watch the Wizard of Oz sometime on Thanksgiving every year because it’s my mother-in-law’s favorite and it reminds us of her, and makes the perfect backdrop to the day (after all, there’s no place like home, right? Even when we don’t appreciate it?)
  4. Don’t cook on Thanksgiving (other than your turkey): We eat our meal at around 4 pm.  I cook everything in advance of the day, using a game plan that is as detailed as “thaw corn” and “peel potatoes” – I mix in the tasks throughout my week, doing a few things each day during naps and while I prep dinner, and other than the turkey, the gravy and the roasting veggies which take 5 minutes to prep (I cut them earlier in the week), I don’t cook on Thanksgiving. Weird, huh? The day flies by with checking on the turkey and making the gravy, watching toddlers and spending time with friends who have joined. The kitchen can be really lonely on a holiday unless you’re surrounded by your aunts and sisters, so I don’t want to spend the day in there alone and this is my answer.
  5. Cook a soup the night before: The night before Thanksgiving used to be for dive bars and hook-ups with exes. Oh, how times have changed. Now, I make a filling but healthy soup the night before, in the Instant Pot of course. It feeds a crowd and doesn’t mess up the kitchen the night before the big day. We roll the piggies for the next morning (great toddler activity) and get to bed early.
  6. Leftovers: Be strategic about leftovers. Over the years, I’ve found that I really only want the “second meal” once or twice, and then I want it all gone. What I want is leftover turkey. We make two turkeys (one is smoked) so we have plenty for Turkey Pho and Turkey tettrazzini, which is our family’s leftover jam (recipe to come), but we don’t make 20 million pounds of sides because they rarely get eaten. This year’s Cooking Light issue has great ideas for using leftover ingredients (instead of leftover cooked items) – check it out for genius uses for carrots, butter, apples, sweet potato, sourdough, shallots and half and half.  I will make plenty of turkey and roasted vegetables, but as for the rest, I don’t max out. Friday morning it’s back to the gym and onward through the holiday calorie season gauntlet.
  7. Get outside: Not being stuck in the kitchen all day on Thanskgiving means we can always make time to get outside and be active. Run a 5K Turkey Trot, throw a football, take a family walk, or hell, do all 3. Move your body, you will feel better. I know Americans make a sport of eating on Thanksgiving, but you can be active, eat an amazing meal and you’ll probably sleep better and feel a little more human the next day.
  8. Skip dessert: Coco Chanel said it best – “before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one accessory off.” I say, take one accessory off. Thanksgiving just doesn’t need dessert – it’s a gluttonous meal and most people will eat dessert if it’s around, but do we really need it? I realize this is controversial, but in our family, we skip dessert. Dessert can shine on another day, and it cuts the work in half. Ice cream is always in the freezer if someone has a sweet tooth.
  9. Incorporate kids: Every year, the kids help me make the place card settings. It’s their way of putting their stamp on the table, is minimal and costs barely anything, and gives my table a homemade feeling. Two years ago, we used their handprints as turkeys and then embellished them with feathers. This year, my mom will do watercolors with Marilyn the day before as placecard holders. You could have your kids color on craft paper, make napkin rings, or collect leaves  – it’s a great and useful tradition.
  10. Finally, don’t forget to reflect: The tradition of giving thanks is ever-present at Thanksgiving tables. Don’t forget to reflect upon your year, count your blessings, and share them. Whether or not your Thanksgiving is spent in sunny Florida eating stone crab, or in snowy Ohio surrounded by relatives, and whether your year has been incredibly wonderful or incredibly tough, Thanksgiving is a time for renewed hope, and sincere gratitude for that which we do have.

This Thanksgiving, I encourage you to be intentional — reflect upon the aspects of the day that you love, try to disconnect from traditions that leave you feeling drained (I’m looking at you crazy holiday travel), and start traditions that will keep your kids coming home for years to come, bringing friends, and making memories that are seared on their brains forever.

Thanksgiving Crudite Platter Recipe

Assorted raw vegetables: bell peppers, sugar snap peas, carrots, celery, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.

Ranch dressing

Sour cream

Peppercorns (for eyes)

Round Tray

Arrange cut crudites in a fan pattern as the “feathers” of the turkey, keeping colors together, and building from the outside to the ceter of the platter. Adjust platter size based on the amount of people you are serving, keeping in mind that you can always use up extra raw veggies in a day-after Thanksgiving chopped salad. Using one of the bell peppers, cut off the side so that the pepper becomes the waddle of the turkey.  Fill a small bowl with ranch dressing, plussed up with sour cream to make it extra thick and rich for Thanksgiving.  Cut two carrot feet and a nose and arrange with your red pepper waddle, and drop in two peppercorns as eyes. Voila!

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