A Simple Thanksgiving

Last year I didn’t cook.  We planned on eating at Cracker Barrel and then hitting the Phoenix Zoo, but the wait at the restaurant was hours’ long and we headed straight to the zoo, where we ate overpriced hot dogs and personal pizzas.  We had a great time at the zoo in spite of the mediocre food.  We tried good ol’ CB again on the way home and encountered the same issue (wish they would accept reservations!) so we went to our local Denny’s and had turkey dinners there.

I considered copping out of cooking for another year, but it’s our first holiday season in our very own home (for the first time in almost 10 years!) and I really want to make the holidays special every year. I did, however, come up with several ideas to keep things simple and easy.  I think these ideas could easily be modified to work for anyone!

Pare down on the number of recipes and quantity of food.

There are things I make every year, just because this is the way I’ve always done Thanksgiving.  I have always made everything my mom and I made when I was growing up and over the years  I’ve added things my husband likes. This year, I decided to eliminate things that are superfluous or unpopular.  Example…Cranbrosia.  It’s a cranberry-gelatin-cool whip concoction with pineapple, coconut and mandarin oranges.  My mom loved it.  My dad (who usually eats with us on Turkey Day) won’t touch it.  My kids won’t touch it.  Personally, I like the flavor but not the texture.  Hubby claims to love it, but never eats more than one scoop and shuns its leftovers.  It’s a grand pain-in-the-butt to make right (as in, cutting off both ends of the cranberries before chopping them) and has little redeeming value in the way of nutrition.  And honestly?  I no longer can bring myself to eat massive quantities of Cool Whip or something made with massive quantities of it.

So Cranbrosia is literally off the table this year.  I felt a huge sense of relief as soon as I decided.

Another way I’ve always complicated Thanksgiving is by making double or triple batches of everything.  My mother used to love to come over (again) on Friday for leftovers and she expected to take home extras.  Over the years as my own family grew, I started making three huge trays of stuffing as well as doubling or tripling all my other recipes so that we’d have plenty of food to share.  Since my mom has passed on, we haven’t been able to eat all the leftovers without growing sick of them as they dry out in the fridge and frankly, now that we no longer keep a second refrigerator running, I don’t have room to store so much excess.

I typically make twice baked potatoes and a sweet potato casserole.  This year I’m substituting sweet potato pie for pumpkin pie and nixing the sweet potato casserole.  I’m also doing my twice-baked potatoes casserole-style to cut down on the time and work involved with preserving the shells and filling them.

We’re ditching the rolls in favor of homemade pumpkin bread (usually have both) and we’re serving one veggie dish (a broccoli-cheese casserole we love) rather than several (used to do the broccoli-cheese dish and green bean casserole and creamed spinach in addition to buttered peas).

Ditch the turkey.  And don’t have ham, either.

I can hear the gasps.  I never thought I’d advocate this.  I used to buy a 24lb turkey and also get a hold of several extra, smaller birds.  I’d make the huge one on T-Day and cook the remaining ones during the weeks preceding and following the big day.  I also used to serve a spiral sliced honey ham in addition to the turkey.  But…with my mom no longer with us, there is NO ONE to eat the dark meat.  The rest of my family shuns the legs and thighs.  We only eat the breast meat.  Which led to a huge epiphany…I can just buy whole, fresh turkey breasts.  My Sprout’s has them for $2.99/lb this week.  I plan to called ahead the Monday before T-Day and order four.  This way we’ll have double the breast meat we usually have, but we’ll have none of the ordeal and mess of preparing a whole turkey, wondering when it’s done, etc.  There also will be virtually no waste as we eat a ton of turkey for sandwiches already.

Consider disposable dinnerware and bakeware.

For years I’ve used disposable baking pans (the half-sized buffet ones from Sam’s or Costco) in order to save on mess and clean up.  This year I’m taking it a step farther and have purchased cute, Thanksgiving-themed paper plates, plastic cups and napkins.  I might use real flatware but I’ve got plastic of that too, if the urge strikes.

Consider  your cooking/serving plan *and* line non-disposables with foil for easier clean-up.

I’m trying something new this year…I bought two covered buffet warmers/servers when I caught them on sale for a steal. I’ve wanted them forever.

Each holds (and keeps warm) three 2.5qt chafing pans, but can also be used with any casserole dishes/heat-safe containers you have.  My plan is to cook the hot side dishes in the chafing dishes and then transfer them to the warming station, eliminating the need for separare cooking and serving vessles.

Plus, this way the food will be covered and kept at a safe temp while we eat and graze throughout the evening.  I can transfer hot, sliced turkey breast to a warmed, covered chafing dish, rather than leaving it out on a platter to get cold and dry.

Adding two small appliances that I’ll have to store much of the year seems counter-intuitive to simplicity but I do think that they will make life easier when I host holiday dinners and potlucks.  I will probably use them at least 3-4 times a year.

I plan to line the chafing dishes with foil and spray it with cooking spray to make clean-up easier.

Eat at dinnertime.  Not brunch-time or lunch-time.

Even if I get a lot of the prep out of the way the day before, I still get really stressed out about trying to get a meal out by noon or even 2pm or 4pm.  I like to eat at 6pm.  It’s gives me all day to cook and enjoy preparing for dinner at a leisurely pace.  I often make eggs and sausage for brunch and serve it with the first batch of fresh pumpkin bread.  Some cut-up veggies with dip usually can keep hunger at bay between brunch and dinner.

Ask for help.

Having family or guests join you for the big day?  Ask each of them to bring something you need.  You could have them bring a favorite side dish or dessert to share, or simply ask them to pick up soda or sparkling cider.  My mom used to order and pick-up the pies.  She sometimes would make the Cranbrosia and bring it, but she had three cats so it came with extra…texture…if you know what I mean.

Do a bit in advance, but not too much.

I used to try to make nearly everything in advance but I realized that assembled recipes that have been refrigerated or frozen take so long to cook that it wasn’t worth making them ahead of time.  My best advanced-cooking tip is to chop and saute the stuffing veggies (and sausage if you use it, like I do) the night before.  I cook it all up with a pound of butter in my 7qt dutch oven, let it all cool and stick it in the fridge.  The next day when I’m ready to make the stuffing, I put it on the stove, warm it back up and add chicken broth. Once it’s all hot, time to mix it with the bread and you’re good to go!

Don’t worry; be happy.

Don’t strive for perfection and whatever you do, don’t get stressed out.  Kids and husbands (or any significant other) make *great* sous chefs.  Remember that and put them to work!  Have the kids make place cards and let them make a centerpiece and set the table.  Before you know it, you’ll be sitting down to a yummy, stress-free meal.  Don’t forget to have everyone share something they’re thankful for.  It’s a great conversation starter and ice-breaker.

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