Everyone expects Thanksgiving dinner to be large and elaborate, but many people today have little experience with how to put together a large meal. It is difficult to plan a Thanksgiving meal that is balanced, attractive to varied tastes, and that gets cooked in a reasonable amount of time. With the tips below and a little planning, though, Thanksgiving meal planning should go much better.
Thanksgiving Dish Categories
Any meal needs dishes in several categories, and Thanksgiving is no different. The meal needs a main dish, side dishes, vegetables, fruits, and dessert. Since Thanksgiving dinner takes time to make, even when done efficiently, it also makes sense to have an appetizer of some sort for guests to munch on while awaiting the main event.
The main dish for Thanksgiving is usually turkey, of course. Common side dishes accompanying it include stuffing, mashed potatoes, rolls, and green bean casserole — this last one doubles as a vegetable. Be careful not to have too many side dishes at the expense of vegetable and fruit dishes; otherwise the meal will not be as balanced and satisfying as it should be.
Common Thanksgiving vegetables include sweet potatoes, either plain or in a casserole, corn, and squash. Common fruit dishes include cranberry sauce and other cranberry dishes, and apple dishes. Vegetables ought to outnumber fruits to prevent the main meal from being overly sweet; further, among the dishes typically expected at Thanksgiving more vegetable dishes than fruit ones are considered traditional. Appetizers, if needed, can easily be drawn from the vegetable and fruit categories; for example a bowl of nuts, or celery filled with peanut butter.
Thanksgiving desserts are usually pies, particularly pumpkin, sweet potato, apple, and pecan. Having at least two types of pie to choose from makes sense, but it is not necessary to make all of these, especially if a similar dish has been served during the meal. (Baked apples or sweet potato casserole need not be duplicated in apple or sweet potato pie, for example.)
The exact number of dishes needed will vary widely depending on the size of the dinner, but the amount of sides and vegetables should be similar, and the number of fruit dishes smaller. There should be at least two dessert options, but not so many that they overbalance the meal. The turkey, of course, need only vary in size.
A Variety of Tastes
Those needing to accommodate people with allergies or other special dietary requirements must look elsewhere for help, but for simple variance in tastes there are several things one can do. The first is providing contrasting tastes and textures. Sweet side, vegetable, or fruit dishes should be balanced by sour or savory ones. So a sweet cranberry jello salad can be balanced by a sour dish such as cranberry-orange relish; a rich sweet potato casserole can be balanced by savory stuffing or mashed potatoes, and so on.
Thanksgiving dinner tends to have many soft foods, so guests desiring crunch may appreciate some celery or something similar. Other similar oppositions can be applied to other dishes, though it is not necessary to perfectly contrast every dish with another.
Cooking Strategies for Large Meals
Since many kitchens have only one oven and four burners, it is impossible to cook all parts of a Thanksgiving meal at once. Making dishes ahead and using the oven for multiple dishes simultaneously can alleviate this problem. Guests can also help by contributing dishes to the meal.
Pies can always be made the night before Thanksgiving and refrigerated. Appetizers should be chosen that require no cooking, thus leaving only dishes for the main meal to be prepared. Some of these can be partly prepared in advance; sweet potatoes baked the day before can be made into a casserole Thanksgiving morning. While the turkey is roasting, the casserole can finish on another oven rack.
The turkey itself can be made to cook faster by cooking the stuffing in a separate dish rather than stuffing it in the bird. Many casseroles are suited for cooking at the same temperature as a turkey, so can be cooked on a rack below it. Meanwhile, on the stove top, it is important to organize the order of cooking so that things requiring further work after cooking go first (cranberry sauce must set, for example); some of these things may also be made the night before. Foods requiring only a short cooking time can be cooked last, and the hot stove will cook them even faster than usual.
Easier than all these timing strategies, however, is finding guests willing to bring dishes with them. Since most people have a few special family recipes for Thanksgiving, they are often eager to help out, especially when they know sharing the burden makes for a meal that comes together in a more reasonable time.
Following these principles for making a balanced meal with varied and tasty dishes that are finished in a reasonable time will help make a Thanksgiving dinner to be proud of. Thanksgiving meal planning can then become an enjoyable and fun time, rather than a difficult one.