Hosting Thanksgiving: Lessons Learned the Hard Way


Happy thanksgiving everyone!  My intention was to post this article two weeks prior to Thanksgiving.  Alas, a wild flu took over our household, messed up my schedule and blogging routine!  In any event, better late than never.  In a blink of eye, Thanksgiving would be here again around the corner   

5 years ago, on a chilly October day, I was at the public library with my kids for a weekly story time.  I ran into our affable librarian with whom I had a friendly conversation over Thanksgiving holiday.  The straightforward middle age lady sorrowfully intimated to me that her Thanksgiving experience was never an easy one!  “It is very stressful!  It is almost a mission impossible to serve a beautiful turkey along with a plethora of perfectly cooked side dishes to a hungry three-generation crowd,” she added.

Her statement was sad but held some truth.  I totally understand how this blissful celebration could morph into a nightmare.  I was there myself before I learn how to dodge the frustration,  which comes with hosting a cross-cultural crowd with all sorts of dietary restrictions.

The first Thanksgiving I hosted occurred one year past my naturalization.  I was living in Paris back then.  My husband and I decided to host thanksgiving to bring together a US couple who was visiting the city along with other few single friends and coworkers.

Needless to say, I was equally intimidated and challenged!  Ostensibly, I sensed the pressure to prove that I became a full-fledged US citizen who can efficiently plan and adeptly cook for such a fundamental American holiday.  It took me full 10 days in advance to diligently online-research and studiously consult locals and US expats on recipes and ingredients.  Luckily, my efforts, to some extent, paid off.  Neither all the dishes on that day were perfectly cooked, nor the pies were food magazine worthy.  Yet, the turkey was a hit!  My guests were happy and I was content that I got to put together this celebratory American dinner, even with some imperfect dishes.  From then on, I was open to learn new tricks every year, which rendered the whole experience less stressful, more enjoyable, and pleasantly memorable year after year.   My Thanksgiving menu has evolved and matured over the years.  It is becoming simpler- the flavors and textures are balanced, and more diverse, all at once.

I am sharing here my two cents with those who are planning to do most of the Thanksgiving cooking themselves.  There are always simple steps and tricks that could make your thanksgiving dinner a pleasant experience to you as well to your guests.

Hosting Thanksgiving: Lessons Learned the Hard Way.

  • Plan ahead.  Invite your guests two weeks ahead and ask for RSVPs.  Decide on the dishes 10 days in advance.  Get the turkey 7 to 5 days prior to the dinner.  Do your grocery shopping 3 days ahead.
  • Consider a Kosher turkey.  I fancy Kosher turkey as they are pre-brined.  One step less to worry about.
  • Defrost the turkey early enough.  Each 4 pounds requires one day to defrost. Do your math to avoid a turkey drama.  I always bear in mind that I will additionally need 12 hours for brining, if the turkey is not pre-brined, and another 12 hours for marinating or seasoning.
  • Serve light simple appetizers.  Store bought spicy nuts, pickles and olives are my go-to appetizers for that day.  Save the homemade cheesy artichoke-spinach and seven layer dips for  another meal.
  • Consider your guests dietary restrictions and allergies.  When I plan for the sides, I make sure my dishes are diverse enough and sensitive to my guests’ dietary restrictions.  Eggless, dairy free, vegan and vegetarian sides bring variety to my Thanksgiving table and make everyone happy.
  • Opt for diverse yet simple and quick fix sides.  Each side should deliver distinct aroma, texture and color.  Yet, it should not be too complicated with tons of hard-to-find ingredients.
  • Consider  pre-chopped produce and semi-homemade dishes.  I do rely on pre-chopped peeled produce, store-bought pie crusts and appetizers.  Shortcuts are necessary to save enough energy to properly entertain my guests for several hours.
  • Going  for disposable aluminum pans, disposable plates and cutlery.  That might sounds insensitive to environment but sensitive enough to my sanity on that specific day.  Plus I am saving water too:)
  • Be informative and accepting help if  any is offered . If you guests offer to bring something, make things easier for them and specify what they should bring.  You don’t want to end up with 5 pumpkin pies on your dessert table.
  • Butterfly the turkey or use a roasting bag.  The first will decrease the roasting time and leads to a crispy skin and evenly cooked bird.  The second will also decrease the cooking time, spare you the pain of basting ever 20 minutes and will leave your oven spotless with no grease stains or splashes of sauce.
  • Make the gravy ahead.  One day ahead I use the neck and giblets of turkey to make the gravy.  After the roasting is over, I add some of the dripping to the gravy for a depth of flavor, some butter and a splash of cream.
  • A simple meal served with a smile is more treasured than an elaborate feast served by a depleted grumpy host.  I seriously plan my time so I can create some room to get enough rest, and dress up before my guests arrive.  I love to enjoy that day as much as my guests do even if I  have to decrease the number of dishes.
  • Make the table the night before.  A beautiful table is a feast to the sight. Do it the night before you get too tired.  Get your family members involved, and initiate the positive vibes.
  • Make one show stopping dessert and order the rest.  Pies are tricky and they become trickier when you are tired and your kitchen is steaming.  Therefore I strongly recommend focusing on just one make-ahead show stopper dessert while ordering the  rest, or better ask the guests to bring over their favorite pies.
  • Serve Thanksgiving dinner at a reasonable time.  Don’t starve your guests.  Serve diner before kids become whinny and adults start to lose their cool and appetite.  I like to serve mine at 6 PM. That leaves us with ample room to eat with no rush, clean up and retire to bed at a reasonable time for well-earned rest.
  • Have foil and disposable containers handy.  There is seldom a Thanksgiving dinner without leftovers.  Your guests will appreciate going back home with a slice of pie for breakfast, or some turkey slices for a sandwich with melted cheese the next day.
  • Don’t re-heat the turkey leftovers more than two times in a row.  Poultry could develop poisonous bacteria when they are re-heated few times in a row.  I was personally a victim of this type of bacteria and it is not fun!
  • Don’t worry too much.  It not going to be anything less than enjoyable.  It is all about giving thanks after all!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!


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I am a citizen of the world and a staunch believer in food diplomacy. For more, click here:

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