My favorite (realistic) ways to prep for Thanksgiving

Hey there! I’m no lifestyle expert, and I stumble as much as the next gal with keeping it all together, but I love to help people solve problems, and I love to share things I’ve learned. So, if you enjoy this kind of “how-to” and find it helpful, please let me know in the comments and I’ll keep them coming!

Thanksgiving is two weeks away! Are you ready? Are you not ready? Are you still focused on eating your way through the Halloween candy backlog and can’t really handle anything else right now, thanks very much?!

If you’re anything like me, it’s prime time for falling down the ol’ internet rabbit hole, gazing at perfect Thanksgiving meals and decorated tables on Pinterest, Instagram and wherever else they peddle those beautiful dreams of exquisite Thanksgivings you will never have.

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Real Simple Magazine describes this Thanksgiving tablescape as “easy to pull off.” But I calculated that the table settings alone would cost over $600. 😳

BUT WAIT! There is another kind of amazing Thanksgiving you can have. It is a Thanksgiving where you are relatively calm and relatively prepared and can still add a little pizazz to the festivities in order to fully enjoy the holiday.

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Humpty Dumpty keeping his Fall goals attainable. Artwork by Rachel Greenberg.

Let’s break Thanksgiving preparations down into three categories:

  • House prep
  • Food prep
  • Fun stuff

House Prep

Now is not the time to start a full-house, top-to-bottom deep clean. Save that fantasy for January (when it will be equally unrealistic, but much less time sensitive). You have a finite amount of energy for the holidays, so conserve as much as you can! Just hit the hotspots, and don’t save it until the last minute before guests arrive and you are still in your sweats. Do it earlier than you think you need to. You can always go back for a quick touch-up.

  • Give the guest bathroom a good scrub and put out fresh towels and a scented candle or plug-in (this is my all-time favorite holiday scent!)
  • Purge the fridge of old stuff and give it a good wipe down before you do your food shopping
  • Clear off your kitchen counters
  • Sweep/mop/vacuum your floors

Seriously, don’t go on a manic cleaning binge. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You will wear yourself out. You will wake up on Thanksgiving morning with tight hamstrings and a bad attitude and you will have nowhere to hide. I might know this from experience.

Food prep

Don’t over-oven

Another thing experience has taught me is that the quickest way to a Turkey Day meltdown is trying to cook everything in one day. Don’t try to be the superhero that perfectly synchronizes five hot side dishes at different cooking temperatures. You will not succeed. Potatoes will be lukewarm and tempers will be hot.

If you feel like reheating is cheating, it is not (although, dang, that’s a catchy phrase). Reheating means you are being strategic and realistic. Why these qualities are applauded in the business world and frowned upon in the kitchen beats the hell outta me. Gordon Ramsay’s philosophy of avoiding “Chef Mike” at all costs may apply to restaurants, but restaurant patrons (unlike Thanksgiving guests) rarely wander into the kitchen obliquely offering help, asking for the Wifi password and telling the chef to “just relax and enjoy the day.”

Shop smart

I love/hate doing Thanksgiving grocery shopping. I start out strong and brave and feeling virtuous, and then about 20 minutes in I lose steam and things can go south pretty quickly. One thing that helps is to have a clear plan of attack. If you don’t already have a good system to keep track of your shopping lists, might I humbly suggest the Wunderlist app? You can change the order of items on your list, share the list with others, and check things off as you go with a very satisfying *ding.*

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Make sure to include emergency staples on your list, like chocolate and gin.

Make a simple schedule

Even though you will have trusty Chef Mike by your side on this most thankful of days, you’ll probably still need to plan out the timing for your oven, since certain dishes (like turkey and stuffing) don’t fare too well on your sous-chef’s glass turntable. But fear not, you shall have a plan, and you shall write it down! I made a printable to help! Here’s an example:

ThanksgivingMealPlan

What happened to the pie column you say? Well, what are you thinking baking a pie on the day of Thanksgiving? Are you crazy? Bake it at least one day before, you maniac. Or just buy one at the store…I mean, who are we, Julia Child?

You can download the Thanksgiving Meal Plan blank template here. First, write in your specific dishes in the top of each column. Then, write in your time increments in the far left column, from when you’ll start cooking to when you’ll serve dinner. I used 30 minute increments in the above example, but you can use 15 minutes or 1 hour, whatever works for you. Finally, block out the times when you’ll be cooking or reheating each item.

Is it nerdy to have a spreadsheet for cooking Thanksgiving? Absolutely. Will it will make it much easier to keep track of what you’re cooking and when? Damn straight it will.

Stock up!

I love to stock up on inexpensive items that make my life simpler and tasks more pleasant. And there’s no better time than before the holidays! Here are some items you might want to stock up on:

The Fun Stuff

For me, the best part of hosting Thanksgiving is thinking about fun decorations and festive little touches! Here are my favorites:

Go green

Instead of getting a big expensive flower centerpiece, get several inexpensive bunches of greenery filler from the supermarket and fill vases, glasses or mason jars with it and put them all over the house for an instant perk up. Greenery lasts much longer than flowers do, so you can prep them well in advance and enjoy them long after the guest are gone.

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Printables!

There are hundreds of sites with free fall and Thanksgiving printables on Pinterest, in lots of different styles. Just do a search!

If you want something a little fancier, or that doubles as a fun activity, there are lots of inexpensive printables you can buy for anywhere from $3-$10 and print yourself. Some of my favorites are from The House That Lars Built and Etsy.

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To give your printables a more polished look, print them on cardstock instead of regular paper. If you can’t sneak a few pieces from your office copy room (I won’t tell!), you can buy it online or at an office supply store. I also like to put printables in small wood frames and group them together with the greenery. Add a few candles or tea lights and you’ve got simple, elegant decorations that feel substantial, without a bunch of fuss.

I would suggest steering clear of anything that contains the phrase “pumpkin spice” or “happy fall y’all.” They know what they did.

Games

If your guests like to play games (other than the kind where they don’t RSVP and then show up with extra mouths to feed), you can put out some decks of playing cards, Uno, or the forever classic Yahtzee to play after your meal. Nothing steers familial tension and one-upmanship away from politics and religion and into more neutral territory than a game that involves literal score cards.

Let everyone DJ

To have a diverse music selection that everyone can contribute to, you can make a collaborative playlist on Spotify. Send the link to your friends and family in advance, and they can add the songs they want to hear, either before or on Thanksgiving. Then all you have to do is launch the Spotify app and hit play! If you want to avoid the commercials, you can sign up for their free three-month Spotify Premium trial and enjoy it for the whole holiday season before deciding if you want to keep it or cancel in February.

Share the WiFi

Speaking of apps, my last tip is to write your WiFi password down on a piece of paper and post it where everyone will congregate. It will be much appreciated and you can get on with other things, like remembering to take that weird plastic bag of gizzards out of the turkey carcass before you roast it. I mean, why do they keep putting that in there when they know that 99% of us forget to take it out??

Finally, Enjoy Yourself!

I hope some of these ideas might be helpful for planning a fun Thanksgiving with enough time and energy left over for you to truly enjoy the holiday. You deserve to have as much fun as your guests! Let me know how it goes, and if you have some other helpful tips, tell us about them in the comments!

See you on the other side my friends!

– Jenna

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