How I Simplify Thanksgiving

We have been hosting Thanksgiving for a while now. Enrico’s family in Italy doesn’t celebrate the holiday, and my parents are far away in Ohio. Since we often make the trek to our family farm for Christmas, Thanksgiving is usually spent on our own or with friends.

I’ve been making the whole menu for ten or so years, and last night, as the girls and I were making the cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and stuffing, I was thinking how doing Thanksgiving was totally not intimidating anymore. Sure, part of it is practice, but here are some other ways we keep it sane.

Stick to the Tried and True

We don’t try new-fangled recipes. We make our family’s traditional dishes every year.

Since we don’t eat the stuff but once a year, it’s not like anyone gets sick of it. And the kids really look forward to the same tastes and smells.

Make it Early

Just about everything, besides the turkey, can be made ahead of time. Cranberry sauce can be stored in the fridge for days, as well as some of the more labor-intensive dishes like stuffing. Last night, Sofia and I completed all but the last step of the mashed potato recipe.

Sometimes I’ll even make the pie filling ahead, then just pour it into the pie shells the day of.

Don’t Deep-Fry the Turkey

When I started out doing Thanksgiving, the turkey was the thing that instilled the most fear. When you have guests, timing can be sometimes a little tricky (nothing that isn’t solved with some wine and music, though).

I looked at all sorts of cookbooks and consulted turkey gurus, but now I just cook the bird according to the package directions. This morning I didn’t even turn the turkey, and I barely even basted it, and it came out just the same!

Same simple cooking method goes for the cranberry sauce: we love the whole berry recipe on the back of the Ocean Spray package, and it couldn’t be easier.

Take Shortcuts

“If you can buy something that tastes homemade, go for it,” says cooking teacher and friend, Shirley Tenhover, who recommends the ready-made Bob Evans mashed potatoes.

If you are hosting Thanksgiving, I agree that you should feel completely justified in giving yourself a break. In years’ past, I’ve used those store-bought mashed potatoes or steam-and-serve green beans. And the roll-and-bake pie crusts are just as good as anything I could make.

Fresh Turkey-Juice Gravy is Overrated

I have come to the conclusion that making the gravy from pan drippings and the just-right combo of flour thickener and broth, while everyone is waiting and the turkey is getting cold, adds a level of stress that is not worth the taste pay-off.

One year I tried to avoid the heat-of-the-moment marathon by making gravy ahead of time. The New York Times’ recipe, which went on and on about how a good gravy enriches the entire meal, required buying separate turkey parts and making home-made broth in a two-day process. When it came time to finally serve the meal, nobody even said a word about the gravy.

This year I just poured store-bought gravy into a ceramic pitcher and it was delicious.

Skip the Veggies

What? Yes, it’s true. Besides a bowl of crunchy raw celery, we don’t bother most times with a cooked vegetable dish. Green veggies are not the real stars of the Thanksgiving show, so why try to crowd the stage?

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  • Pat Shops November 8, 2016, 7:55 pm

    Dear Frugal Mama,

    I love, love, love you! This post has given me a new lease on life, yes, that’s no exaggeration. You gave me permission to be me, face reality (easier is better and JUST AS good) and the holiday is about tradition, family, and the FAMILIAR….WHATEVER that means to each family. No NEED to go fusion, 2 day turkey broth made from different turkey etc. etc. LOVE your honest admission that basting, rotating, smooth talking did NOTHING to enhance your bird. Wow! I am free!!! Can’t wait to toss the ridiculous number of “brining” recipes I feel compelled to clip each Sept. from the home magazines.

    Love you!

    • Amy November 12, 2016, 10:32 pm

      Dear Pat,

      I’m so happy that you feel free (as a bird!) to do Thanksgiving in your way and to feel good about it. I know it will be a great day, especially if the cook is not stressed and enjoying herself.

      All my best,

  • Marian November 25, 2011, 8:57 pm

    These are really good ideas. But I am always conscious of the setting the scene, and I find it helps to get me in the mood and ease my nerves if I set the table a couple days ahead of time. At the very least, I get out all the linens and serving pieces. There are always minor snafus when setting for a crowd, and dealing with the missing napkin or misplaced gravy ladle is better dealt with on Tuesday rather than when my mother-in-law is trying to engage me in conversation.

    • Amy November 29, 2011, 8:54 pm

      HI Marian,

      Great ideas for getting ready ahead of time for guests. Just “plating” the food can take a lot of time and effort if you want everything to look pretty. Anything we can do to take the stress off the party day is great.

      Take care,

  • Mom November 25, 2011, 8:47 pm

    One thing I would add is a comment about the gravy. Given all the other simplifications, I don’t find it onerous to make gravy while your dad carves the turkey. However, I always have on hand a jar or two of store-bought turkey gravy and some chicken broth to extend my own gravy. This gives us enough to last for many meals of leftover turkey.
    Oh, and many of us opt for a turkey breast instead of the whole bird. Much simpler to deal with after the dinner itself.


    • Amy November 29, 2011, 8:55 pm

      If only I were as good at making gravy as you, Mom, then maybe I wouldn’t think it was such a big deal. Oh well, I guess we all have our strengths — and gravy is not one of mine. :-)

      Love, Amy

  • Jen @ Jen Spends November 25, 2011, 3:01 pm

    I always “cheat” and use that pre-made pie dough. To me rolling out dough always seems like such a chore! I’ve never hosted Thanksgiving, but my husband likes the traditional English Christmas dinner (which is very much like our Thanksgiving), so I’ll have another chance in December. I enjoy putting on a big meal once in a while.

  • Melissa Morgner November 24, 2011, 9:49 pm

    Amen to all of this! I didn’t realize until this year how much my kids depend on the traditional dinner we have every year. The kids all like to help with something and the sameness of it all makes them happy. And me too.

    I did cave and buy a pre-made pumpkin pie, it it was kinda disappointing. I was just too tired to make one yesterday.

    I had to laugh about the green beans. As we were wrapping dinner up today, I asked DH if we should throw on some frozen green beans and we opted not to. I was feeling kinda guilty about no veggies. Until I read your post.

    Thanks for this new series. I look forward to it.

    • Amy November 24, 2011, 10:19 pm

      Hi Melissa,

      So glad you’re on the same boat! And that I could ease your guilt about green veggies. I mean, the meal is still balanced, and I think the celery is a nice counterpoint to the mushiness of the rest of the meal.

      I find store bought pumpkin pies to be disappointing too, but you don’t know unless you try. And sometimes, the time and effort saved is worth it.

      Thanks for writing in, Melissa!