For my mother, Thanksgiving was the best holiday of the year and I agree with her whole heartedly.
But hosting the meal can seem daunting. So many details to take care of, so much food to get on the table and so much to clean up.
How do restaurants and caterers deal with the stress of putting on big events?
They plan out every detail so there are no surprises.
The Guest List
Start with the guest list. Most importantly you'll need to know how many people are coming. That will tell you how many chairs you'll need and how big the dinning room table has to be.
These days, many people have dietary restrictions, so it is good to know that as well. Along with the invitation, ask if there are ingredients or foods your guests need to avoid.
If you expect a lot of children, decide where you want them to play and organize that space as carefully as the dinning room.
Write up the menu.
If friends and family want to contribute to the meal, work out who will bring what. Give people assignments so you don't end up with three platters of green beans and no pumpkin pie.
Organize your recipes and do the math. Most recipes are written for 4 servings. Given the number of your guests, make the appropriate multiplication.
Go through the ingredient lists for all dishes and write up a master ingredients list. For example, if the stuffing recipe calls for 1 cup of mushrooms and the gravy recipe needs 1/2 cup of mushrooms, you know you need a total of 1 1/2 cups of mushrooms for the meal. Put that on your ingredients list.
Once you have a master list, divide up which ingredients you want to buy at farmers markets, specialty stores (like bakeries and cheese shops) and the supermarket.
We rely on farmers markets for fresh produce. In our neighborhood, four days from Thanksgiving, we'll shop at the Sunday Palisades farmers market for produce that can last most of a week: root vegetables like beets from Underwood Farm or yams and sweet potatoes from Yang Farms and G Farms for pluots and oranges.
For us, the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market is a good place to pick up leafy greens, berries and fresh fruit. Any farmers market the day before Thanksgiving is going to be crowded, so get there early before the crowds.
If you want a specialty turkey (organic, kosher, heritage), it would be good to order your bird now from your local butcher or supermarket.
Just about as important as settling on the menu is understanding what needs to be done and when.
Do you have enough chairs? If not, when you will pick up extra ones and from where.
Also indicate when you will pick up flowers and the turkey.
If you are ordering a cake from a local baker or a ready-to-serve dinner, put that into your time line, and check when they open and close. You wouldn't want your guests to miss enjoying your turkey because you arrived after the store was closed.
To figure out the time line for your menu, sit down at the dining room table with a pad of paper, a pen and a glass of wine or cup of tea and organize the dishes in terms of preparation and cooking time.
Some dishes can be prepped or made the day before. For instance, we always serve a roasted beet salad that we make on Wednesday. We also wash, dry and wrap in aluminum foil the sweet potatoes and baked potatoes that we will cook Thursday.
If you are buying a ready-to-serve meal, you still have to allow time to reheat the dinner. If you are cooking the entire meal, which we love doing even if it makes the day crazy-hectic, you need to account for every minute of the day.
Our kitchen is the size of a New York closet, which I like because I don't have to move much when I want to go from the sink to the stove, but when there are two or more people in that small space, it can get kind of hectic.
Planning out the day in as detailed as possible, helps keep the craziness manageable and fun.
We write up a schedule for the day that looks something like this:
6:00am wash and prep the turkey
6:15am saute onions, Italian sausage, shiitake mushrooms, parsley and garlic for the stuffing
6:30am preheat the oven to 350F degrees
7:00am put the turkey in the oven
7:30am make the cranberry sauce
And so on, going hour by hour, we backtime each dish so we know when it has to be cooked so it will be on the table at 3:00pm when we want to serve dinner.
Don't forget to preplan clean up.
Work out who will be doing clean up during the meal. As courses are finished, serving platters and plates need to be cleared.
We have a tradition of taking a walk with our friends and family walk around the block after the entrees, before desserts are served. A selected few remain behind to clean up the dining room and kitchen so when everyone returns, desserts are on the table with fresh plates and silverware.
Having organized clean up as part of the meal, the kitchen is in good shape and we can enjoy dessert. With a little bit of planning, Thanksgiving is a lot more fun.