A guide to a stress-free holiday meal


So, I’ve been doing Thanksgiving dinner at my house for 14 years now. Each year, I have found another way to make things easier on myself. Now, let me make something clear, my Thanksgiving dinner is nothing fussy or fancy. I serve the food family style and allow people to pick and choose the items they want. We also sit all around the house to eat. Some people sit in the kitchen, some in the dining room, and some in the living room. I believe that this makes things more casual and comfortable for my guests. There were a few years where we all sat around a table together and it just felt too formal for my liking. Now, with that said, if you’re into the more formal style, by all means, go for it. The food is really what this is about anyhow. So each family is different and everyone does things their own special way. This is certainly not me telling you what to cook, how to cook it, or how to conduct your Thanksgiving dinner. This is simply me sharing a few tricks and shortcuts that I have been using for years to reduce that frantic feeling when you’re hot as hell from slaving over a hot stove all day, and the tantalizing aromas are leading more and more people into your kitchen to loom over your shoulder with hungry eyes, and there you are, silently praying for death while your gravy decides to choose TODAY of all days to seize up and be clumpy. Look, we’ve all been there and that is what Bourbon is for. And in all honesty, no matter HOW much you plan ahead and do in advance, there is always going to be some amount of stress and pressure when conducting those last moments of the “Turkey Dinner Symphony”. I don’t care WHO you are, it is a challenge getting everything out and warm at the same time. So, just do your best and have a cocktail. You’ve earned it.

Let’s start with the star of the show…the turkeyIf you’re buying a frozen turkey, you will need to thaw it properly before cooking. The best method for thawing the turkey is in the refrigerator at about 38 degrees. You can calculate that the turkey will need 1 day for every 5 pounds of turkey. So for a 15 pound turkey, it will take 3 days to thaw. If there is no room in the fridge for a turkey to thaw, you can place the turkey in a cooler outside (in cold weather, of course) with some ice scattered around the bottom of the cooler to ensure it does not get too warm. When deciding how many pounds of turkey to get, I generally go with the rule of 1 pound of turkey per person. Does that mean that if you plan to have 20 people over for dinner you buy a 20lb. turkey? No. Some years we’ve had more guests than others. For those of you with lots of guests coming, I would recommend buying two smaller turkeys rather than one gigantic one. For starters, the giant ones take forever to cook, and often dry out by the time they are done. The other reason is that when you buy two turkeys, you can roast one the evening before Thanksgiving and keep in the fridge until the next day. Some people really like cold turkey. I slice the turkey the night before, and store in an airtight container in the fridge overnight. Then when I’m ready for it, I put the sliced turkey in a container with some chicken stock and microwave it for a minute to heat it up. The chicken stock ensures you get moist turkey. No one is ever the wiser. Then you also have the second turkey roasting in the oven the day of, giving your house that amazing aroma. Basically, I use the hot turkey first, and use the cold turkey for seconds and leftovers.

  • 1 16-18 pound whole turkey
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 stick butter, room temperature
  • 2-3 lemons, halved
  • 2-3 onions halved
  • chicken stock
  • kitchen twine
  • meat thermometer

Preheat oven to 425 degrees with the rack in the lowest position (I forget to remove the top rack nearly every year and have to take it out once it’s very hot). Remove any bags from inside the cavity and neck of the turkey. Reserve for gravy if desired, though I never use them. Rinse out the cavity of the turkey. Place turkey in large roasting pan, preferably with a rack in the bottom to keep the turkey lifted slightly from the pan. If there is no rack, place a layer of carrots, celery, and quartered onions on the bottom of the pan. Add enough chicken broth to almost cover the vegetables, or to almost reach the bottom of the turkey. Do not put too much broth in or the turkey will steam. Pat the turkey dry with paper towels, making sure to get under the wings and around the drumsticks. A dry bird browns better and gives you that crispy skin. Once the bird is very dry, smear the entire turkey with softened butter, making sure to get in all the nooks and crannies. Season the cavity of the bird with a teaspoon of salt, as it’s important to season the bird from the inside as well as the outside. Fill the cavity of the turkey with halved onions and halved lemons. Fill the cavity, but make sure not to over pack it. Truss the drumsticks with kitchen twine, as this helps the turkey cook evenly, as well as closes the cavity. Season the outside of the turkey generously with salt and ground black pepper. It might feel like you’re using too much salt and pepper, but trust me on this one…Again, make sure to get in all the nooks and crannies, massaging the salt and pepper into the turkey.

Place on lowest rack in the oven and cook for 30 minutes. Reduce the oven to 350 and continue to roast until a meat thermometer reads 165 when inserted to the thickest part of the thigh, about 2 1/2-3 hours. Once removed from the oven, the turkey will continue to cook while it rests. It is very important for a moist bird to allow the turkey to rest after cooking. This allows all of the juices to return back into the meat. If cut too soon, all the juices run out of the turkey. After the turkey has rested for at least 30 minutes, slice and serve. The pan drippings can be used for the gravy if desired. Servings: 12

Next up, gravy.  Gravy is an item that freezes wonderfully and will keep in your freezer for months. What do you make your gravy with without a roasted turkey?? Well, go to the meat section of the grocery store and look for turkey wings and necks. If you cannot find them, ask the butcher and see if they can provide you with some. Roast those up in the oven until golden brown and crispy, and use the bits from the bottom of the pan as the drippings for your gravy. If all else fails, simply make a gravy with butter, flour, turkey or chicken stock, and whatever herbs you desire. Store the gravy in an airtight container (those clear plastic containers with covers at the olive bar in the grocery store work great!) making sure to leave some room because the gravy will expand slightly when it freezes. Thaw overnight in your fridge and heat up when ready to use it.

  • 1 whole turkey, or turkey wings and neck
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 carrot, cut into pieces
  • 1 stalk celery, cut into pieces
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and quartered
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 3 cups turkey or chicken broth

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat the meat in olive oil or softened butter and season generously with salt and pepper. Scatter vegetables around the bottom of the roasting pan, season generously with salt and pepper, and add the meat. Roast until a meat thermometer indicates the meat is done. Pour any drippings from the pan into a bowl and allow to sit undisturbed for several minutes to allow the fat to float to the top. Skim off the fat, reserving 3 tablespoons. Add the remaining juices to the stock.

Add the reserved fat to the roasting pan and place on a burner over medium high heat. Scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Stir in the flour and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Whisk in the stock and continue to stir. Bring to a boil and cook until thickened, about 3 minutes. Strain the gravy, discarding the vegetables, and season with salt and pepper to taste.
*If you end up using butter, flour, and stock, use 3 tablespoons butter, 1/4 cup flour, and 3 cups stock.
*To thin out a thick gravy, simply whisk in more broth until desired consistency. For a gravy that is too thin, in a small bowl, mix together equal parts of softened butter and flour and combine with a fork until crumbly. Slowly whisk into the gravy and bring to a bubble until desired thickness.
Servings: 6-8
Next up…cranberry sauce. Cranberry sauce. In my house, we use the good old canned stuff, but if you plan to make homemade cranberry sauce, that can be made up to a week before the day and stored in an airtight container in your refrigerator.
  • 1 pound fresh cranberries, washed and dried
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup water
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cardamom powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 lemon, zested and juiced
  • 1/2 vanilla bean, seeds scraped
In a medium pot, combine the cranberries, sugar, salt, and water. Stir to blend. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat. Reduce to a simmer and add the cardamom, vanilla bean, and nutmeg. Stir to blend and simmer for an additional 5 to 7 minutes. Some of the cranberries will burst and some will remain whole. Add the lemon juice and zest, stir and allow to cool before serving.
Note: Cranberries contain natural pectin (that’s the stuff that makes things jelly). Once the sauce cools, it will thicken and become a jelly. If you like your cranberry sauce smooth, puree the cranberries. This will give you a more loose sauce. To thicken the smooth sauce more, take one packet of plain gelatin and mix with one cup of cold water. Pour into hot cranberry mixture and cool in the refrigerator until the gelatin sets.
Servings: 6-8
Last, but not least, the stuffing. Now, I do not make the stuffing in advance, but I do prep all of the veggies and herbs involved in the recipe. I store them in an airtight container in the fridge for a couple days, and when I’m ready for them, I toss them in a pan to sautee them and add them to rest of the ingredients for the stuffing. I also toast the bread cubes the day before and store them overnight in a ziplock bag until I’m ready to use them. The oven is occupied for several hours during the day of thanksgiving, this way, it’s one less thing you need it for. Voila! Simple.
  • 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter
  • 8oz. bacon, cut into pieces with kitchen scissors
  • 2 large onions, finely chopped
  • 2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
  • 3 celery stalks, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme, minced
  • 4 sage leaves, minced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley, minced
  • 1 pound day-old bakery bread, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
  • 1 cup (or more) canned low-salt chicken broth
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 large eggs, beaten to blend
  • 1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Place bread cubes on a large baking sheet in a single layer and bake in oven for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, butter a 15 by 10 by 2-inch glass baking dish. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook until crisp, about 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a large bowl. Melt the remaining butter in the same skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions, carrots, celery, thyme, sage, and garlic. Saute until the onions are very tender, about 12 minutes. Add parsley. Transfer the onion mixture to the large bowl with the bacon. Add the toasted bread and toss to coat. Add enough broth to the stuffing mixture to moisten. Season the stuffing, to taste, with salt and pepper. Mix in the eggs.Transfer the stuffing to the prepared dish. Cover with panko bread crumbs. Cover with foil and bake until the stuffing is heated through, about 30 minutes. Uncover and continue baking until the top is crisp and golden, about 15 minutes longer.
Servings: 8
So that’s pretty much it!! Make sure to have plenty of drinks, cocktails, sparkling waters, things of that nature. Try and relax and have some fun. Make sure to sit down once and a while and take some deep breaths. You can do this. If there is anything that you would like to know more about that perhaps I have left out, please feel free to contact me and ask away. Mostly, you can take the techniques I’ve explained and apply them to whatever dishes you are planning to make. Start planning now. Make a menu list. Make a guest list. Figure out and break down what can be done when. Buy any and all non-perishable ingredients as far in advance as possible. Not only does this make things more manageable financially, it makes it easier for you to be able to focus when the big day approaches. Make grocery lists for ingredients. Think about how you walk through the store and what is located where. As you visually imagine the store, list your items in the order of which you go through the store. This will save you SO much time not having to walk back and forth over and over. I hope this has been helpful and allows you to master your own Thanksgiving dinner. Best of luck to you and have a great holiday! I will be adding recipes for my Thanksgiving leftover dishes over the next couple weeks. Stay tuned!
Jenn Knapp

About Jenn Knapp

Jenn is a self-taught home cook who's passionate about using local and seasonal ingredients. She's a stay-at-home mother of two constantly looking for innovative ways to encourage her kids to be healthy and adventurous eaters.