It’s November. You’re juggling end-of-year budget meetings, vacation plans and holiday gift lists. With all the other responsibilities you have to contend with this time of year, the thought of preparing the Thanksgiving meal can be overwhelming. It’s helpful to treat this holiday like any other project and to combat the stress by getting all those to-dos down on paper and asking for help when you need it.
Chances are, if you’re cooking this type of meal, you know about it well in advance, which is fortunate, because the key is planning ahead and sharing the work. Following is a list, which will help you get organized for the most wonderful time of the year.
More than 3 weeks to go
: Start planning your menu – gather all your holiday recipes together. Make sure to include the family favorites (apparently, I run the risk of divorce if a string bean casserole is missing from the holiday table - lesson learned). Draw new inspiration from the holiday recipe guides that are always popping up in magazines this time of year. Think about everything your guests will eat from the moment they arrive at your home until the moment they leave – appetizers should be part of your thought process too!
3 weeks to go
: Decide on menu items you’re willing to assign. You know your guests will ask you what they can bring – why not have an actual job for them? If there are any items you plan to order (rather than cook from scratch), place the order now. This is a perfectly acceptable option – I serve a deep fried turkey that I order from the Internet. It’s better than any turkey I could ever make, allows me to focus on the side dishes (which are more of the main event in my family) and it frees up precious oven space.
2.5 weeks to go
: Make a shopping list – include foodstuffs, wine, table top décor and cooking tools you may be missing. Going through every item on your menu, list all the ingredients you need for each recipe (including measurements!) Once the comprehensive list is finished, check it against your pantry and remove things you already have in stock (things like spices, oils, etc….) Shop for all the dry goods now – you’ll be happy you only have to shop for your fresh ingredients during the holiday week when supermarkets are a mob scene.
2 weeks to go
: Make yourself a prep checklist – assign days to do every task. Some of these tasks are food related, but many are not. Think about things like when to food shop, what dishes you can prepare in advance, when to set the table, what you’re going to set the table with….
1 week to go
: One of the hardest things about cooking is having all the components of the meal ready at the same time. In order to plan your game-day timeline, work backwards from the time you’d like to serve and, taking into account how much time each dish needs in the oven, assign a time for each task associated with your menu.
Here’s a good example – say you want to serve the meal at 4:30. If you know that the turkey has to cook for 1 hour and 15 minutes and rest for a half hour before carving, then you have to get it into the oven at 2:30.
The following schedule will give you a good idea of how my kitchen runs on the last Thursday in November
Morning Prepare bird, mashed potatoes,
2:30 pm Deep fried turkey in oven
2:45 pm Nuts in oven, melt butter mixture
3:00 pm Guests arrive – set out veggies, cheese and nuts
Stuffing in oven
3:20 pm Baste stuffing
3:30 pm Mashed Potatoes into oven
3:40 pm Baste Stuffing
3:45 pm Turkey out of the oven
Make mushroom ragout
4:00 pm Warm green beans, toss w/ shallot butter
4:15 pm Carve Turkey
4:30 pm We eat!
This week is also a good time to go through your servingware and assign a physical dish to each menu item. If you find that you’re short a platter or two, you’ll still have time to purchase or borrow one from a friend.
Now is the time for grunt work. Chop/mince/dice ingredients that you’ll need fresh for tomorrow – having the preparation complete will only make the day run more smoothly. The French phrase mise en place (pronounced meez en plas). literally “putting in place,” was defined by the Culinary Institute of America to refer to pre-cooking set-up. Get out all of your ingredients, prepare them according to the recipe and measure them out as specified. Bonus- you’ll know if you forgot something and can run to the store before you turn on the stove. Ever watch a cooking show and the chef is just throwing things into the pot from those little Pyrex dishes? His staff did a great job on the mise en place
Set the table with china and décor (think outside the traditional flower routine – use fruit, ribbon and other colorful objects to set a festive table). Layout your servingware. I even put a little post-it on each dish telling me (or helpful guests) what should be served on that particular platter.
CAYGO – Clean As You Go. A simple concept, but one I live by. All that prep work generates a lot of dishes to clean up. Load and run the dishwasher and wash large items (pots & pans, mixing bowls) as you finish using them. Tomorrow, you’ll have an empty dishwasher ready to hold all the dishes from the meal.
: Stick to your timeline. It will tell you everything you need to do – and when.
: Once the food is out – enjoy the meal you worked so hard to prepare. Let someone else do the dishes – you’ve been working hard for weeks!
Dayna Brandoff is the founder of Chaos Theory Inc., a professional organizing company located in New York City. For further organizing tips or hands-on help, visit www.ChaosTheoryNYC.com
or call (917) 576-1267.