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A Thanksgiving Strategy

With some smart strategies and the right supplies, you'll be able to relax come Thanksgiving Day.
Martha Stewart Living, November 2011

There are things you have figured out by now: when and where to order the turkey, what tablecloth to use, which cousins not to sit near one another.

But what about those less expected (and less publicized) loose ends that crop up every time you host Thanksgiving? Like, what's the most fail-safe plan for hosting a potluck (to make sure you don't end up with one turkey surrounded by nearly a dozen green bean casseroles)? Or what's the best way to organize the refrigerator so it doesn't resemble a precarious stack of Jenga blocks? And what, exactly, are you supposed to do with the carcass before it's time for those dreamy day-after leftover sandwiches?

We took these burning questions and more to our editors, to find out how they manage coordinating this annual feast. Because despite the industrial kitchen they use at work, when they're home with their families, their setups look just like yours.

The Big Chill

Give the refrigerator a ruthless edit, getting rid of mossy leftovers and, if you have the luxury of a second refrigerator in the garage, relocating low-priority items (like that mango chutney you used once). A cooler also works. Organize what remains by retrofitting shelves with a lazy Susan for jars and containers, and stacked bottle holders for wine.

Professional French Door refrigerator, $3,200, frigidaire.com. Fridge Binz wine holder, $8, containerstore.com.

Premix and Serve

Consolidate olives to tidy up the fridge and have a little nibble ready for guests. Keep cheeses nearby to also put out as a starter.

Dough to Go

Pie dough can be made and frozen up to three months in advance and thawed just before baking.

Prep and Stack

Keep chopped or precooked vegetables and sauces in stackable plastic quart containers.

Ready Berries

Make cranberry sauce ahead of time and scoop it into a compote bowl so it's ready for the table.

Clean the Greens

Rinse your herbs and last-minute vegetables the day before, store them in plastic bags, and stash in a refrigerator drawer.

Keep Juice Handy

If a lot of kids are coming, stock up on juice boxes that you can cool in the refrigerator and then take out by the dozen and leave on a counter.

A Few Weeks Ahead

Plan the Menu

Gather your recipes and give them the once-over, noting the temperatures and times required, and think about how you'll strategize the cooking. "Make sure you have a few things that get cooked in the oven and a few on the stove," Martha Stewart Living food editor Anna Kovel says. "If multiple dishes go in the oven, they should cook at fairly compatible temperatures."

Plot a Potluck

Don't let a potluck become a free-for-all. "I'll say I'm going to make the turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes," food editor Jennifer Aaronson says. "Then, as I talk to people, they'll offer to bring things and I make sure there's no redundancy. It's not being pushy to say the meal needs another green vegetable." Plus, no one wants to show up with a duplicate -- or worse, a less-tasty version -- of something already on the table. Another option: Give the potluck a culinary theme -- an Italian-inspired Thanksgiving, for example, or a Southern one. It will help focus the guests and the dinner. Don't rule out asking someone else to bring the bird: "I know families where the host makes everything but, and a guest roasts the turkey and lets it rest in the car ride over," Anna says.

Make the Piecrusts

Prepare disks of pate brisee several weeks in advance, date them, and store them in the freezer.

One Week to a Day Before

Thaw the Turkey

Depending on its size, a frozen turkey can take anywhere from one to six days to thaw in the refrigerator. (The rule of thumb is one day in the fridge for every four or five pounds.) Keep the bird on a rimmed baking sheet, covered in plastic wrap, to keep juices from spilling over.

Prep Vegetables

Blanch or saute vegetables that need to be precooked before going into stuffings or casseroles. When you're ready to make the full dish, you'll be a step ahead.

Mashed Potatoes

Yes, you can prepare this dish entirely the day before, Jennifer says. Then you'll just need to heat it on the stove, stirring and adding milk as needed to moisten it.

Double-Check Supplies

When did you last sharpen the carving knife? Sharpen it now. Also, give your oven thermometer a dress rehearsal: Make sure it reflects the temperature on the dial. If the oven runs a little high or low, adjust accordingly. Having an instant-read thermometer handy, too, will spare you the agony of wondering if the turkey (which will be done when it hits 165 degrees) is really ready. Do not, Jennifer says, rely on the turkey's pop-up gauge.

Purge the Fridge

Maximize space by getting rid of leftover takeout, dregs of condiments, and anything you can't recall using or needing. "Get creative, too," Anna says. "Is a neighbor leaving town for the holiday? Ask if you can 'borrow' refrigerator space."

Thanksgiving Afternoon

Bring It to Room Temp

If you have pre- or partially cooked a casserole and refrigerated it, let it warm to room temperature on the counter before putting it in the oven.

Half-Hour Final Sprint

The most stressful period of this entire enterprise might be the 30 minutes that the turkey rests before carving, when you can put everything else in to cook. Packing in casserole dishes can overcrowd the oven, interfering with heat circulation. "If you're just finishing cooking or warming things up, it's okay to put a lot of things in at once," Jennifer says. "You just need to keep an eye on things -- something that calls for a 350-degree oven for 25 minutes might need a little more time."

Give Props

To give all potluck cooks their due, food editor Charlotte March suggests writing the menu -- along with each cook's name beside his or her dish -- to post on the sideboard.

Chill a Bowl and Beaters

Once you sit down, standing back up -- to cook, no less! -- will feel impossible. Serve room-temperature desserts. If you need to whip cream, put the bowl and beaters in the refrigerator so it fluffs up faster. Get a pot of coffee ready to brew before sitting, too.

After the Meal

Dry Idea

Have dish towels at the ready for anyone who asks how they can help. Don't be the martyr; don't insist you have "a system" -- just let them dry dishes. If it's distracting for you to wash and direct people as to where exactly the gravy boat goes, clear a place on the table for dried dishes. You can put them away later.

Bio Pak takeout boxes, $37.80 for 40; nashvillewraps.com. 14-Piece Bake & Store Set, $45; pyrexware.com.

Making Turkey Stock

Comments (2)

  • Simply Cath 22 Nov, 2013

    So many great tips, especially the one about cleaning out your fridge in advance.
    However, I really object to that last one about drying dishes. For years I've been swimming against the tide of mothers-in-law and sisters who jump up from the table to clean up as soon as the last bite of dessert is taken. My ideal post-dinner time is enjoying my guests' company (putting away only those foods that should not sit out at room temp) instead of the women turning into scullery maids!

  • Lyn Instefjord 22 Nov, 2013

    I AM going to be organized this year. Thanks for this helpful information.