A family's holiday spread.

What to Cook for Thanksgiving

Fall has arrived and with the chilly air comes the beginning of the holiday craze. With everyone adjusting to new school and work routines, life is finally starting to settle down. But wait! Here comes the biggest holidays of the year: Thanksgiving and Christmas. Do not panic. If you do not know what to cook for Thanksgiving, we have some great ideas to help make your holiday memorable and free of stress. Thankfully (pun intended), there are delicious options that will help you make your Thanksgiving come together perfectly.

Planning the Party

You should think about and start making lists for Thanksgiving at least two weeks in advance. This gives you time to special order anything you might need (the turkey, ham, floral arrangements, linens, even buffet tables or folding chairs). For calculating how much food everyone would eat based on your guest list, generally estimate each guest will eat at least two plates of food. Even the kids. Hey, it is Thanksgiving, right?

Your menu should look like this:

  • Primary proteins (turkey,ham)
  • Starches (mashed potatoes, stuffing)
  • Hot vegetable sides (green beans, corn)
  • Cold vegetable sides (salads, crudité platters)
  • Breads (sweet and savory quick breads, dinner rolls)
  • Desserts (pumpkin pie, apple pie)
  • Beverages (wine, holiday punch, water, milk, eggnog, tea and coffee.

If there are special holiday dishes that are handed down from family to family, by all means, add those too. This is where the regional or ethnic menu touches make each family holiday memorable. Take into account any guests that suffer from allergies or are on special diets. Many people will bring their own food out of courtesy to the host or hostess if they have specific food needs. Do not be afraid to ask. Better yet, accept offers of help because it is your holiday too!

What Does a Traditional Thanksgiving Meal Look Like?

Everyone knows the star of the show is the turkey, but turkey was not originally served at the first Thanksgiving in 1621. It is favored because it is a large cut of meat that is relatively inexpensive, easy to obtain, easy to prepare and it serves a crowd. Ham is the co-star here and if you are looking for a shortcut, simply purchase a honey glazed spiral ham.

A basic Thanksgiving feast consists of roast turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, corn, dinner rolls, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. Depending on where you live in the country, your traditional Thanksgiving menu could vary widely. For instance, in the southern region of the United States, Thanksgiving tables may showcase sweet potato pie, okra pickles and cornbread. If you hail from the New England area, there will be oysters or clams in your stuffing and a pudding for dessert. Only in Texas is the dangerous practice of deep frying your turkey the preferred method of preparation. In California, sourdough bread is used for stuffing and wild rice casserole is a favorite on tables in the Midwest.

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The Gravy

Now that we have talked about the turkey, it is time to talk about other important foods on the table. Gravy pulls it all together! If it is served on the turkey, the ham, the mashed potatoes or the stuffing, a good gravy cannot be undersold! Using the juices from the turkey, the gravy is cooked last, made by mixing butter, flour and the drippings together until they are smooth. Add a little heavy whipping cream and simmer…viola! The best gravy ever!

The Ham

Lots of families prepare a ham alongside a turkey and hams are far more forgivable to prepare, mostly because hams are pre-seasoned and pre-cooked. If you are tight on time and energy, simply order a pre-cooked spiral ham and focus on those other holiday tasks.

To Dress or to Stuff?

Dressing or stuffing? This depends on where you are from. Technically, stuffing goes inside the bird and dressing is cooked outside of the bird, but they are both made with the same ingredients: bread, aromatic seasonings, butter or broth, celery and sometimes cranberries.

The Sides

Almost as important as the turkey, side dishes are the kinds of items guests can bring (or you can assign them to) and these are huge time savers for you! Anyone who has hosted Thanksgiving and is now an honored guest will almost always want to bring something. Let them and save some time.

The Desserts

The great thing about desserts is they can often be made in advance, up to two or three days, in fact. Most varieties of breads and pies actually taste better after a day or two. Just keep them covered and they will be perfect when the time comes to serve

Tips, Tricks and Shortcuts

Aside from enlisting guests to bring side dishes, dessert, or drinks, take inventory of what you already have in the fridge and pantry and find a way to incorporate it into your meal plan. You will be cleaning out those spaces and saving some coin for those Black Friday sales. Purchase pre-made vegetable platters, breads, rolls and desserts. Keep the focus on the main menu items such as the turkey, ham and major sides like the mashed potatoes and gravy. Make as much food in advance as you can. Those few moments of pre-prep can make all the difference on the day of the main event.

Pulling it all Together

Whether it is your first Thanksgiving feast or not, there is always a little bit of stress surrounding the day. Think of it as excitement! Thanksgiving only comes once a year and with it, perhaps friends and family you rarely see. These tips and tricks will guide you into the holiday season with confidence! That being said, you can still pull of a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner without losing your giblets!