The challenge features in Norman Rockwell paintings, sitcom TV, and movies: delivery of a holiday dinner with all the fixings. What the media doesn’t show in those picture-perfect displays of domestic prowess is the detailed planning that these home cooks use. (Note to hiring companies: If you come across a person who can get the meat, vegetables, and bread prepared and on the table hot at the same time, then you’ve found an incredible project manager. Hire that person right away!)
No traditional Thanksgiving dinner succeeds without a domestic mastermind managing the process. Whether it’s you, Grandma, or Great Uncle Bob who cooked for the Army, begin meal delivery well in advance of the holiday by with deciding what to serve. Inventory ingredients, pots, pans, servingware, and appliances. You won’t want to run out of stove-top burners or oven space or pots in which to cook. Count heads: who will descend upon your household and what can each person be expected to consume? Shop for the ingredients you’ll need in the quantities anticipated. Decide what can be made a day or three ahead. Delegate to visitors: they can all bring something to the table.
Plan your culinary campaign and allow for extra time to accommodate the inevitable delays and mishaps. You might even want to have a backup plan in case the family dog helps himself to the tempting bird sitting unguarded on the kitchen countertop. Calculate cooking times for the different dishes you’ll serve and schedule them accordingly, including preparation time. Complete as much prep work in advance as possible. Be sure to figure in resting time for custards, cheese sauces, and meats. But not souffles. Those should be served within 90 seconds of emerging from the oven. Especially if you’re the host of this holiday gathering, enlist all those extra people cluttering your home and put them to work, even if it’s only to remind you to take that pot off the burner before it boils over.
A bit of extra help comes in handy when the time arrives to set the table. This is a great time to teach youngsters how to properly set a table. (In this age of fast food, learning that skill won’t hurt them.) Uncork the wine and let it breathe. Take a few exploratory sips and tell everyone you’re testing the quality. You and they will know differently, but everyone will maintain the polite fiction.
Transfer platters and serving bowls to the table immediately prior to ringing the dinner bell–or bellowing, “Dinner’s ready!” above the noise of family members cheering (or booing) the game on television. Once everyone’s seated, take deep breath, say a prayer of thanksgiving, and dig in.
When the meal ends and there’s nothing left but dirty dishes, a bony carcass, and groans complaining, “I ate too much,” draft assistance once more as you and a trusted helper or five set out pies, cakes, cookies, and other desserts. Now it’s your turn to relax. You cooked that fabulous meal, now let someone else clean up while you accept well-earned praise and take a breather.