Hosting Thanksgiving dinner can be stressful even for seasoned experts. It’s a complex task that takes planning both in and out of the kitchen: how many guests will you have, do they have dietary restrictions, do they have other gatherings to attend, and do you have enough space at your table?
Avoid common cooking mistakes to prevent a Thanksgiving day disaster. But remember: mistakes do happen. Whether you dropped the turkey or forgot to cook the rolls, Thanksgiving is mainly about spending time with loved ones. Stop worrying and enjoy the indulgence!
Related Reading: A Beginner’s Guide to Tackling Thanksgiving Dinner
Mistake #1: Not Planning Ahead
This is absolutely the most important advice of all. Thanksgiving day can be hectic, especially depending on the family or friends joining you. Do yourself a favor and double or triple check that you have all your ingredients ready for the big day. Take out a pen and paper and plan out each of your dishes, and be sure to pick those with varying prep times—you’ll be thanking yourself later when all you have to do is pull the cranberry sauce out of the fridge to serve.
Smart Planner Magnetic Refrigerator Dry Erase Board, $9.95 on Amazon
This magnetic planner will help you keep track of last-minute details and timing.
Related Reading: 11 Kitchen Gadgets That Make Thanksgiving Dinner Easier
Planning ahead extends to many of the other areas below, but a couple more specific things to call out here: Pick some Thanksgiving recipes you can make ahead and freeze, and be sure you start defrosting your turkey with plenty of time to thaw.
Mistake #2: Forgetting the Appetizers
When trying to roast the perfect turkey while also cooking up your variety of side dishes, it can be easy to forget those starter snacks. Reduce the pressure on yourself to get food on the table as soon as your guests arrive and allow them to snack on some easy-to-prepare hors d’oeuvres while you focus on the main event. Pick something light and easy such as stuffed peppers or squash bites.
Mistake #3: Making Dinner Too Late
Thanksgiving feasts are typically served as a dinner. Between running around to prepare, mingling, and waiting for guests to arrive, sometimes meal time gets pushed off into the later hours. Careful of serving too late and tempting your party to miss out on quality time and give in to tryptophan-induced slumber immediately post-dinner.
Related Reading: How to Host a Thanksgiving Brunch
Mistake #4: Serving All Hot Dishes
This goes hand-in-hand with planning ahead—if all of your dishes are to be served hot, you likely won’t have enough burners or oven space to allow them all to be kept hot before serving. Do yourself a favor and serve a room temperature dish such as kale salad or prepare a make-ahead dish such as roasted acorn squash with wild rice stuffing.
Mistake #5: Buying the Wrong Turkey
Luckily, the internet has resources aplenty for this difficult decision. The typical recommendation is to account for 1.5 pounds of turkey per person at your table. You may also prefer a heritage or pasture-raised bird, and while it will cost you, it’s possible to order one online.
Whole Turkey, $120 at Porter Road
This antibiotic-free, pasture-raised turkey will feed up to 12 people.
Mistake #6: Stuffing the Turkey with Stuffing
Of all the Thanksgiving disasters that could happen, getting your guests sick would be one of the worst. Though it’s possible to do, the USDA recommends cooking stuffing outside of the bird. Make sure you’re covering your bases and opt for cooking your stuffing in a casserole. Try our apple and sage stuffing recipe or sausage-current stuffing recipe.
Amazon Fresh Grocery Delivery
Get your groceries delivered for the big day.
Mistake #7: Not Brining the Bird
In the hustle and bustle of planning for the big day, this is a vital step that’s easily overlooked. Brining is key to avoiding a dry and flavorless turkey. Plan ahead for which type of brining you want for your meal: a wet brine for a more juicy and tender meat, or a dry brine for a crispier skin and more turkey flavor (and the bonus of not having to deal with large amounts of liquid). If you do want a wet brine, though, here are some pointers:
Mistake #8: Not Cooking the Turkey Enough (or Overcooking It!)
Get a meat thermometer! Even if you’ve cooked 50 turkeys in your lifetime, it’s worth double checking that the meat is 170°F in the inner thigh of the bird. Make sure the juices run clear, as well. Follow our guide to an easy roast turkey for tips.
Thermapen Mk4, $99 at ThermoWorks
Take your turkey's temperature to be sure it's done.
Mistake #9: Carving the Turkey Incorrectly
Once you serve your perfectly roasted bird, the work isn’t over. You don’t want a turkey butchered the wrong way to depreciate your hours of preparing a perfectly cooked bird. Have no shame in using a carving guide or outsourcing this task to your uncle’s expertise. But before you carve, let it rest! Transfer the turkey from the roasting pan to a platter and let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes while you make your gravy.
Classic 2-Piece Hollow-Ground Carving Set, $99.95 on Amazon
Carve your turkey in style with this cutlery set.
Mistake #10: Throwing Out the Pan Drippings
You can (and should) make a batch of gravy ahead of time, but you should also definitely be planning to use your turkey drippings for more gravy on the big day. It’s simple and takes about 15 minutes, but don’t throw out one of the most important ingredients: the pan drippings!
Mistake #11: Not Setting the Table Ahead of Time
If you have energetic kids in attendance at your event, this might be a good task to keep them occupied, or you can do it in the morning, if not the night before. The important thing is, don’t let the food get cold (or burn) while you run around setting silverware at the last minute. We recommend making a seating chart as part of your planning and setting the table the night before—especially if you have any guests you might want to keep separated.
Related Reading: The Proper Way to Set a Formal Table for Thanksgiving
Mistake #12: Not Accepting Help
Hosting is no easy task. You’ll be running around all day ensuring that all of your guests are comfortable, happy, and well-fed. If you get offers to contribute dishes or clean up after the main event, don’t be shy about accepting. After all, it’s your holiday, too. Confirm contributions with guests a few days before the feast, so you can properly plan ahead. If grandma’s stuffing needs some oven space in the morning, you’ll want to make sure you’re able to accommodate.
Mistake #13: Getting Too Ambitious
We recommend saving the inventive dishes for your role as contributor to a feast, not host. No need to create more work for yourself by planning complicated and creative dishes to impress your guests—they’re there for the tradition, and your company! If you do want to include a memorable dish that’s a little out-of-the-box, practice the recipe a few times before the day comes. You’ll be able to work out the nuances of the dish before it’s shared with all your loved ones. Similarly, don’t feel like you need to tackle a dozen dishes plus five pies all from scratch; in addition to letting guests bring some things, explore your store-bought options, like Trader Joe’s Thanksgiving desserts.
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