When it comes to Thanksgiving, I like to tackle my dinner preparation with the same planning and organization that I use in my everyday work life. Surviving this holiday is possible if it’s divided into manageable segments, just like any major work project!
On many occasions, guests have remarked on my relaxed demeanor and seemingly effortless style in the handling of the holiday and all the food. I smile, shrug and think … Oh, if you were only here for my first Thanksgiving as a hostess!
That happened during my third year of marriage. While I loved this holiday that my husband’s parents so wonderfully put together each year, I had serious doubts about my own ability of combining Italian and American Thanksgiving traditions in one meal.
Although my first Thanksgiving was a success, the process could have been improved.
I realized that putting together a holiday meal could be a lot easier if I used some of my on-the-job skills, including proper documentation, early preparation, planning and team work.
Over the years, I have developed and tweaked master plans for various holiday dinners.
After I consented to hosting my husband’s family for dinner (I was young and naïve), I started asking for recipes from family members that I could copy for myself. Unfortunately, THERE WERE NO RECIPES! It appeared the instructions on how to make these amazing dishes existed in someone else’s head. Like a tribal herd of nomads, the family passed down the lasagna recipe verbally for generations.
I never anticipated how challenging it would be to sit at a kitchen table and have someone explain a recipe. My mother-in-law would say one thing, then my father-in-law would jump in to contradict her. They were visual people – they knew a meal was good-to-go by the way it looked.
Back then, I made a note to self – the tradition of verbal recipes ends here. I now hold the distinct honor of being the first IBM (Italian by Marriage) in the family to put the gravy recipe to print. While it is three-pages long, it gives you every detail and EXACT measurements. Even my dear sister, who has trouble boiling water on high for pasta, can make her husband happy with this gravy recipe. I am happy to share it with anyone – in or out of the family.
I decided the Friday after my first Thanksgiving as hostess, I was going to create a master plan – one that could be handed down in writing for generations to come.
Early Preparation and Planning
No major work project is accomplished overnight. So why do we think a huge undertaking like Thanksgiving dinner can be thrown together at the last minute? It takes a certain amount of preparation to earn the title “hostess with the mostest.” After my first year as hostess, I realized that I could have started planning for the dinner on November 1st — so now, that’s exactly what I do. Here’s a rundown of my week-by-week planning leading up to the big day:
First week in November:
- I empty out my china closet and wash all of my crystal – including the chandelier over the dining room table. Never again would I be cleaning that chandelier at 11:00 pm the night before Thanksgiving!
- That weekend, I make a colossal pan of gravy – most of which is frozen and pulled out of the freezer the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving to make the lasagna.
- I make a collections of lists: items to be served, items to be bought ahead of time and items to be purchased the Monday night before Thanksgiving, Yes, I said “night.” Like most people, I hate to waste time. By accident, I discovered that if you go to the grocery store at 7:00 pm the Monday of Thanksgiving week, the crowd is lighter, employees are more focused and the truck has been unloaded.
Second weekend in November:
- I have two major goals: iron all the linens for Thanksgiving dinner and carefully store them, so that no one “accidentally” grabs a linen napkin as a towel – yes it has happened!
- My usual weekend trip to the grocery store now includes the purchase of what I call the “dry” items: spices, canned/jarred goods, lasagna noodles and nuts. Dismiss the thought that you may catch them cheaper if you wait another week for a sale. Create a special section in your pantry for Thanksgiving items and avoid the scavenger hunt scenario on Thanksgiving morning.
Weekend before Thanksgiving:
- My two goals for this weekend are: Clean out both refrigerators to create anticipated storage space and take a trip to the Italian bakery for cookies. With all kinds of room in the spare fridge, cookies can be stored there. They stay delicious and fresh as if I had bought them the day before and I avoid the hysteria of the bakery, not to mention the parking lot. The challenge is not breaking into that box before the special day!
During Thanksgiving week, I start organizing dinner. With some moderate planning and a little work after dinner on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, it pays huge dividends on Thanksgiving Day.
No man (or woman) is an island. This statement applies to the workplace, but it also rings true when it comes to serving Thanksgiving dinner.
My own reference for Thanksgiving dinner came from years of going to my Aunt Peggy’s for the typical Irish-style celebration: turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, peas and carrots, cranberry sauce, squash, ambrosia salad, bread stuffing, and pumpkin and minced pies. Every family brought a dish that they excelled at making. You always knew what your dish was going to be: once you did ambrosia salad well, that was your contribution for life.
In contrast, my husband’s family viewed Thanksgiving dinner as a culinary marathon that you ran solo. Of course, there was always a designated pastry and wine person, but that was it – you owned the rest of the whole, big, long meal from shopping to serving.
I eventually realized that, with a bit of teamwork, the holiday can run much more efficiently. Next time I cooked Thanksgiving dinner, I encouraged my other family members to bring something significant – like the lasagna or the antipasto OR BOTH!
If I were given the choice of going back in time to what amounted to certifiably unorganized chaos or dealing with this holiday in manageable segments, I will opt for the segments every time. Make no mistake — this type of organization is the gift that keeps giving both at home and the office.