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Thanksgiving Dinner Tips for Novice Cooks: Best Advice for a First Time Holiday Cook is Relax & Have Fun

Published by Art Baites

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It takes more than good cooking skills to pull off a Thanksgiving dinner, especially for a crowd. But whether one is hosting a small gathering or an army of family members and friends, organization and planning are the keys to a successful holiday dinner.

Where to Start when Planning a Thanksgiving Dinner

Planning a holiday dinner takes a lot of thought. How many people are going to be invited? Is there enough room in the home for guests to move about comfortably? Is the dining table large enough? Are there enough chairs? Does the host have enough dinnerware, silverware, beverage glasses? Is anyone on a special diet?

Possible solutions to the questions above:

  • Use a card table or picnic table for kids, or round up folding tables and chairs from relatives. People that live in warmer climates might consider eating outdoors on a patio or deck if space is a problem.
  • Use strong disposable dinnerware and bowls. Invest in holiday paper napkins, paper tablecloths, plastic utensils and beverage cups. It’s relatively easy to co=ordinate and decorate with holiday-themed disposable tableware.
  • Don’t forget candles if those are to be used (but not on the kids’ table), or a small centerpiece.
  • Get the specifics well in advance on anyone who is on a special diet or has a food allergy. Work out any special provisions (within reason) or problems ahead of time.

Planning a Thanksgiving Menu Takes Math Skills

Preparing a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner for twelve people is not the same as cooking dinner for a family of four. Packaged items like instant potatoes make it easy for a new cook; just look on the box for multiple serving directions. Cooking from scratch might create a few problems unless one has a recipe that states the number of servings. Beware when doubling or tripling a recipe to serve a large group: Some foods just don’t do well when cooked in large quantities. Also know that large pans of food may take longer to bake.

Does the cook have pots, pans and baking dishes large enough to make large quantities of food? Are there enough large serving dishes? Think through the dinner very carefully and decide if one needs to borrow any cookware or buy large disposable aluminum pans for baking. Plan the beverages: Coffee (coffee cups and coffeemaker), sodas or tea, and milk for kids. Don’t forget to add sweeteners and creamers to the grocery list.

Make a grocery list and include any notes that might help. Don’t rely on memory for ingredients or amounts. Avoid experimenting with substitutions or inferior ingredients that may ruin a dish. Little things count; for example, using margarine when a recipe states “use butter only” can wreck a dish. Using “imitation” items such as imitation crab meat can change the taste of a dish – sometimes drastically.

Cooking Strategy for Thanksgiving Dinner

Oven room is a big issue when roasting a turkey. Most popular side dishes (green bean bake, oyster dressing, etc.) take 30 minutes or longer to bake. The oven temperature required for each dish may vary. Possible solutions:

  • Have items that are to be baked assembled and ready to place in the oven as soon as the turkey is done. The turkey needs 30 minutes to stand before carving, so the timing will work out just about right for most baked side dishes.
  • Try not to have too many oven-baked side dishes. Plain vegetables steamed on top of the stove taste good, too. Oven temperatures are usually close enough for baked dishes that a little fluctuation won’t hurt. Keep an eye on the baked foods (especially those on the bottom rack) to prevent over-browning.
  • Heat dinner rolls or bake biscuits last.

Advice for Cooking a Thanksgiving Dinner

There are a few more tips to make a Thanksgiving dinner or any holiday meal a success. If it helps, write everything down – all the steps and timing involved – to use as a reference guide on the big day. There will be a lot of distractions between relatives (in-laws), kids, and everyone trying to help. Having directions on hand will take off some of the stress.

  • Don’t try a difficult new recipe on the holiday.
  • Read all directions and labels thoroughly.
  • Use packaged gravy mix, instant potato flakes and other reliable shortcuts when possible.
  • Make pies, cakes and most desserts one or two days ahead.
  • Delegate one or two trusted people to help in the kitchen.
  • Delegate one or two people to set up tables and chairs.
  • Never refuse offers to help clean up.

First and foremost, start early when planning to host a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. If the house needs cleaning, then get it done at least a week ahead of time (2 weeks ahead is even better). Buy groceries for Thanksgiving dinner at least a week ahead unless one is using a fresh turkey, fresh oysters, or anything else that has to wait until the last minute.

Check pots, pans, serving dishes, table space, and everything related to the day well in advance. The best advice: Have fun and relax. With any luck, there will be enough leftovers to last at least three days.

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