WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – Thanksgiving will be here before you know it.
While it may seem too early to even think about it, it’s less than a week away. Whether this is your first time hosting, or you’re a veteran of preparing for the holiday, here are some hacks to help save some time and help your Thanksgiving dinner go more smoothly.
I am far too unorganized as a person to ever resort to the use of spreadsheets for anything outside of work or a budget, but my wife loves them. If organization or spreadsheets are your jam, or if you have trouble keeping track of everything, a spreadsheet can be a huge help.
Keep track of how long each dish will take to prepare, what time something needs to go into the oven, and what time guests will arrive. Give yourself wiggle room for mistakes and disasters, just in case, but keeping things organized will make everything go smoothly. Make an inventory of every pot, pan, dish, piece of equipment, etc., that you are going to need on the big day.
Make room in the fridge
Start making room in the refrigerator and freezer now. Check the dates on all of those condiments and salad dressings.
You may find that many of them expired a long time ago. If you don’t plan on making anything that would require having them around between now and then, toss out the expired stuff and either wait to replace them until after the meal or buy a fresh bottle to store in a cabinet or pantry.
What about your freezer? When was the last time you took a good look in there? Check everything over for freezer burn. There’s a good chance that if something has been in there for a couple of years, it’s never going to get eaten and should be thrown out or used ASAP.
Making room now will save you from needing to scramble for space later. Don’t forget, odd bags of half-used frozen veggies, and odd bits of meat can be used to create a stock or broth that can then be frozen and used at a later date.
Still out of space, now what?
Coolers. It’s always a good idea to have several large coolers available to clear space in the refrigerator and freezer for everything you may need to keep cold or frozen that isn’t related directly to the meal, either to be served or as part of the preparation.
The ideal temperature to safely store fresh foods is between 33°-to-40°F. So in a pinch, as long as it is sealed in an airtight container, kept out of the reach of animals, and the outdoor air temperature is between 33° and 40°F, you could even briefly store a few items outside.
You can also use coolers to keep those hot foods warm. However, I recommend lining them with some foil or some old towels in case anything leaks or spills.
Free up counter space
Is there anything on your counter taking up space that you need that you aren’t going to use while preparing and serving Thanksgiving dinner? Move what you can to a storage room, storage space, or even a garage shelf until the space is clear. Use cake stands or adjustable kitchen cabinet shelves on your countertop to give you more surfaces to place serving dishes and bowls.
The right kitchen tools
If you’re prepping a lot of vegetables for your Thanksgiving meal, you can save yourself a lot of time and trouble by making sure you have a few of these things at your disposal.
First, you need a good vegetable peeler, one with a comfortable grip that doesn’t hurt your hand after a few minutes. Make sure the blades are sharp. You can find reviews of peelers here if you’re on the hunt for a new one.
The next thing I recommend is a potato ricer. Potato ricers are like a giant garlic press. The advantage of using a ricer is that it breaks the spuds down without destroying the starch, which helps to keep them fluffy. If you have ever had mashed potatoes that tasted fine but behaved like glue, it’s because those starches were broken down in the mashing or whipping process. If you don’t already have one, here is a link to reviews of top-rated ricers. As an alternative, you can also pass the potatoes through a food mill or a mesh strainer. Although the mesh strainer will take some extra work.
For tips on making the perfect mashed potatoes and gravy, click here.
Next, a mandolin slicer, vegetable chopper, or food processor can cut your preparation time down significantly. Food processors can do the work of a mandolin slicer or vegetable chopper and are usually motorized, but they can take up counter space. Some companies make combination mandolin slicers and vegetable choppers. I own one at home that I often use for a variety of recipes, especially preparing onion and peppers for chili and carrots, celery, and onion for mirepoix.
Crockpots are also a valuable tool. You can use them to keep things like mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, or even carved turkey moist and warm until it’s ready to dish up. If you want to make cleanup for your crockpot simple, try a crockpot liner. They even come in permanent silicone versions if you’re environmentally conscious or just don’t want to deal with the extra trash.
Keep a conversion table handy. Maybe you’ve lost a measuring spoon or cup here or there. Maybe the one you need is dirty. With a conversion table, you can easily use another spoon, cup, or liquid measure in its place. Any decent cookbook in your house will have a table in the front or back. If you can’t find one, here is a link to one you can bookmark and pull up on your smartphone on the big day.
One last note, make sure all your cutting instruments are nice and sharp, especially the ones you’re going to use to carve up that turkey.
Prep what you can ahead of time
You can chop your fresh vegetables, except your potatoes, in advance of Thanksgiving Day. They will keep for a couple of days in your refrigerator. It doesn’t matter if any of the veggies you’re going to use for stock get a little flimsy, just as long as they aren’t moldy or slimy when they go in the pot of water with the giblets, neck bones, etc.
If you’re making stuffing from scratch, you can chop your onion and celery the day before and store them in the fridge. Many other side dishes like casseroles can be prepped the day before so they can go right into the oven.
Some grocery stores offer chopped celery and onions or even a stuffing blend that is ready to go. These tend to sell quickly, though, so plan ahead. Since they’re going to be cooked to death anyway, you can buy these in advance and freeze them. In the freezer section, you can sometimes find bags of them as well.
Have an easy breakfast ready for the day of Thanksgiving and the day after.
Something simple you can warm up in the oven, a box of donuts, something that doesn’t leave you with a bunch of dishes to clean up and food to cook. Keeping your breakfast simple will help your day in the kitchen go much smoother and give you a chance to relax and take it easy the day after.
Don’t fear your microwave, air fryer, or similar devices
Your microwave air fryer and similar all-in-one devices can be the perfect tool to free up some oven space and save some time.
That green bean casserole? Start the base of it off in the microwave, then transfer it to a baking dish, add the classic fried French onions to the top, then stick it in the oven until they turn golden brown. You can easily save 30 minutes to an hour of baking time, depending on the dish.
Fresh seasonings vs. dried
Dried seasonings usually pack way more flavor than their fresh counterparts. You end up using way more fresh herbs just to equal the flavor power of a single half teaspoon.
That being said, fresh herbs can impart a different flavor, which can brighten or transform a dish. Some fresh sage, basil, cream, and a little stock can make a wonderful pan sauce for pork or chicken. When it comes to things like homemade stuffing, I would go with a bit of both. You will get a bit of the comforting, familiar flavors with some new layers as well.
Butter, butter, and more butter
You will need more butter than you realize. Have plenty on hand.
I highly recommend using Irish, European, or Amish Roll butter for your mashed potatoes, and any pastries you plan to bake as well as to butter dinner rolls. Those butters have a higher fat content and less water, which means more flavor. If you want to go all out, it’s really simple to make your own at home.
There’s no shame in outsourcing
Not everyone has a kitchen with a large oven or multiple ovens to cook with. There is no shame in purchasing a pre-cooked turkey that you heat yourself.
Check with local BBQ restaurants, or even with friends and family to see if they know anyone who may be preparing and selling smoked turkeys this year. Popeyes is even offering free shipping for their pre-cooked Cajun-style turkey if you order online or at one of their locations nearest to you.
Lots of families also do potluck for the holidays, with the guests and host each providing a food item for the dinner. Going with a potluck not only saves a lot of time and energy, but it can also free up the oven, and stovetop space, and save money.
Although costs have started to come down a bit, Thanksgiving dinner can be an expensive endeavor on a tight budget. From 2020 to 2022, the cost of Thanksgiving dinner rose $17.00 from an average of $46.50 to serve 10 people to $64.05, according to the US Farm Bureau. Earlier this month, Target announced a Thanksgiving dinner for under $25 for four people. Walmart and Aldi also promised to lower Thanksgiving dinner prices.
If you still plan to cook your own turkey, remember to thaw it out in time. A turkey needs 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds it weighs to properly thaw. Also, the turkey must be cooked within two days of being thawed. Don’t forget, the Butterball® Turkey Talk-Line® and website has lots of useful tips and tricks that are free for anyone to use.
Make sure you have a meat thermometer. While some turkeys come with one of those pop-up plastic thermometers to tell you that the bird is cooked, those can fail. Turkey breast meat should be at 165°F and thigh, drumstick meat should reach a temperature of 175° F. Make sure you check the thickest part of those sections to make sure it is thoroughly cooked.
Let’s talk turkey tips
First, before the bird goes in, dry off the skin. Generously season the cavity of the bird with salt and a bit of pepper. If you’re not going to add an herb bouquet or stuff the cavity, add some poultry seasoning too. Trim off the wing tips since they tend to dry out and burn. You can add them to your pot to make the stock for the gravy.
Try coating the skin with a neutral cooking oil to help it crisp up. You can even make a compound butter that you spread under the skin of the bird and over the surface which will help make a flavorful, moist turkey and brown the skin.
Consider spatchcocking the bird for an easier, even cooking that ensures crisp skin on all sides. You can use the backbone for stock. After splitting the bird, you will also want to remove the wishbone. You can find plenty of videos, guides, and recipes online to show you how to do all of this if you’re inexperienced.
Alternatively, you can use an oven bag.
Clean as you go
While you won’t be able to clean every dish, cleaning up knives, cutting boards, equipment, pots, and pans that you’re done using will mean you can relax and enjoy the meal with very little cleanup afterward.
Consider placing a large bowl near you for scraps rather than having to take a trip to the trashcan each time. This applies to every meal you cook at home, but even more so holiday meals. Better yet, assign a family member this task.
Give the kids something to do
You can designate an adult or responsible teen to be on young kid duty. Keep them busy with games and activities to keep them out of the kitchen, or give them age-appropriate tasks to do. Have them throw away trash or clean a utensil, pot, or pan if they are old enough. Just give them a task to do that they can handle. Worst case scenario, they get bored and find something else to do. You know how kids are.
Make dish cleanup simple
Maybe you don’t have good china you want to show off, maybe you do, but it’s such a hassle to clean. There’s no rule saying you have to use it. There are a variety of upscale, recyclable, single-use dishes and utensils out there. Just be sure to rinse off any food debris before placing it in your recycling. If you aren’t able to recycle or have concerns about the environment, there are also several brands of compostable and biodegradable plates and utensils.
Have “doggy bags” ready for your guests
Guests, even if they are family, may not be presumptuous enough to bring their own containers for leftovers, or if they are, they may forget to bring them. While you may want to keep some of those leftovers for yourself, too much food can take up a lot of space and will likely spoil before you even get to finish it. So, why not have containers ready to send home food with your guests?
You can purchase meal prep containers (even disposable ones) that have different compartments for different food or even takeout boxes that you can decorate and label. You can also just keep it simple and purchase some basic low-price storage containers.
If you want to save time and trouble, make reservations. You will find at least a few restaurants in your community will offer a Thanksgiving dinner of some type. Some will even cater your Thanksgiving, with you either picking it up before or delivering it to you ahead of Thursday with instructions on how to reheat it. Start calling now to book because slots will fill up quickly.
Hacks to avoid
You may have seen that hack that tells you to boil the potatoes whole, skin on, then stick them in ice water to shock them to peel them quickly. This is nothing more than a gigantic waste of time, space, and dishes. Sticking them in ice water stops the cooking process. You will just have to heat them back up again. Not only that, you’re wasting time watching a pot of potatoes to make sure you don’t overcook them to make the hack work. Plus, some of the potatoes could easily break off with the peel if you don’t get it perfect.
Another hack involves taking a stiff bristle toilet brush, affixing the handle to a drill or impact driver, filling a 5-gallon bucket with water and potatoes, and then pulling the trigger on the drill and spinning the brush in the water. After an undisclosed amount of time, the potatoes are skin-free. Don’t do either of these to yourself.
Remember, any so-called hack that adds a bunch of extra steps that will end with the same result as doing it right in the first place just isn’t worth it. That’s also an important life lesson that everyone should already know by now.
Some of those viral hacks you see can come with hidden dangers as well.
Fruit can be eaten, or it can be a garnish. Don’t freeze it and use it as an ice cube for a drink, as some websites and viral videos may recommend. This is one of those things that sounds like a festive and fun extra touch to spruce up that drink, until a child or older adult starts choking on a cranberry, turning Thanksgiving into a nightmare for everyone.
The bottom line when it comes to any viral hack you see, scrutinize it thoroughly. It could be fake, more trouble than it’s worth, or even have a hidden danger you might not have thought about.