No matter how organized the host, how gourmet the food, or how well timed the meal, Thanksgiving has a way of creating a lot of stress. Sometimes the turkey takes an hour longer than expected and sometimes the host runs out of chairs. Snafus are bound to happen, so a host usually welcomes a little bit of help here and there. It’s best to stay out of the way in the kitchen in the hours leading up to the feast, but you’d be surprised how much you can do. Follow these seven tips to help the day go smoothly. You may just be next year’s guest of honor.
1. Cook a simple side or two
Though most people mean well when asking what they can bring, it often stresses out the host since he or she has to figure out how to divvy up tasks to every family member calling and emailing. Instead, just volunteer to make something and let the host know what you’ll be bringing.
In this case, simple is usually better because you want your food to mesh well with the rest of the meal. Gratins are particularly good for this, because you can make them with just about any vegetable and they reheat wonderfully. Some of our favorites include Brussels Sprouts Gratin, Apple Celery Root Gratin, and Sweet Potato Parmesan Gratin.
Since the oven will likely be full when you arrive, you get bonus points for bringing a dish that fits in the microwave for a final zap. This can still work for dishes with a crisp topping, just adjust the recipe a bit. Bake the casserole without the crumbs, then either brown the topping in a skillet or on a separate baking sheet in the oven. Let the mixture cool, then store it in an airtight container. After heating the casserole in the microwave, sprinkle on the reserved topping.
2. Make a fantastic (and long) playlist
Even the best album gets extremely annoying after you’ve heard it on loop for five hours. Making a playlist is a simple, but still very thoughtful, way to make the day even better. Stay away from anything too trendy and go for crowd-pleasers like Frank Sinatra, Fleetwood Mac, and Stevie Wonder. If coming up with enough hits to last most of the day seems too daunting, check out Spotify’s nifty tool that creates a custom list based on your music tastes and how long you estimate the turkey needs to cook.
3. Figure out how to properly carve a turkey
Unless there’s a master butcher in your crew, it’s likely the bird ends up looking like a pile of rubble with skin strewn about after carving. An ugly presentation may not be the end of the world, but a beautiful one makes the meal look a lot more special. Fortunately it’s a lot less difficult than it looks. Think of the turkey as an overgrown chicken, and you’ll see the method is very similar.
When removing the wings and legs, you always want to look for the joint. This allows you knife to slide through instead of trying to wrestle through bone. As for the breast, remove one at a time, keeping your knife as close to the bone as possible. Once the white meat is removed from the carcass, slice it crosswise, making sure to leave the skin as intact as possible. For a detailed guide, check out this video from Epicurious.
And whatever you do, don’t throw away the carcass. There’s plenty of meat that can be picked off to use for soup. The host may even want to keep the bones to make stock, so ask before discarding them.
4. Offer to show up early to help out
Showing up early can be a major headache when a host feels like they have to entertain, but it’s a completely different story if you offer to arrive early to set the table or organize the buffet. Whatever you do, don’t make your early arrival a surprise. Call a week or at least a few days in advance to offer your services because even a helpful guest is super annoying when someone’s trying to cook 10 dishes at the same time.
5. Even if the host says they have everything they need, bring wine
Some parents, in-laws, or whoever else may be arranging the shindig will absolutely insist they have everything they need. Frankly, they may not have room in the fridge for additional food or leftovers. Just because bringing your famous sweet potato soufflé is off the table doesn’t mean you have to avoid any contribution. Showing up with a bottle or two of wine will always, always be met with a smile.
While you could spend hours trying to find the perfect bottles to go with the meal, it’s not worth the stress. The New York Times pointed out that a wide array of flavors on the table makes it impossible to pair anything perfectly. The story recommended a great selection of affordable bottles that would be welcome. And don’t forget about cider because it practically screams fall. Skip the familiar brands and go for something less expected. Your taste buds will thank you.
6. Help with dishes
What’s better than helping prepare the meal? Helping with cleanup. Even a relatively small gathering leaves a stack of flatwear, pots, pans, and loads of glasses. Roll up your sleeves, clear the table, and grab a sponge. The host organized and cooked most of the meal, so they shouldn’t be left with all the damage afterwards.
7. Cook or buy breakfast to take care of Friday’s first meal
Those traveling a long distance for the holiday will likely spend the night at their family’s house or close by. Even if the mashed potatoes were lumpy and the turkey turned out dry, your hosts probably worked extremely hard to make the meal as close to perfect as they could. The last thing they’re going to want to do when they wake up on Friday is cook. That’s where you come in and, luckily, breakfast food is about as easy as it gets. Cook a frittata, or make potato cakes with the leftover mashed spuds. If you’re a complete klutz in the kitchen, buy a coffee cake from your favorite bakery. Heads up, many businesses are closed on both Thanksgiving and the day after, so grab something on Wednesday.