Holiday Tips: Planning A Large Thanksgiving Gathering

If you plan on having a crowd over this holiday season, use these tips to help manage a successful event. Information on cooking, time management and seating.

It's your first year in your new home, and this year, you've gone and invited the entire family to your house. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but now you are worrying about a few problems. You've never cooked a big dinner before, you have a small fridge and your dining space is small. You're beginning to wonder if you're going to be able to handle it.

Don't worry-- you can, if you plan ahead and make some smart preparations. Here are some tips to help you get through it.

DON'T WAIT UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE

Get RSVP's well ahead of time, so you know just how big a crowd you will be entertaining. Don't assume anyone will show up just because they've always gone to Grandma's when she's cooking-- call and get a confirmation.

Purchase frozen foods, canned or dried goods, beverages, and your turkey, and anything else that will keep, at least a week or more before the festivities. The closer to the holiday you get, the more crowded the stores will be, the longer the lines, and the more chances that they will have run out of something you need, forcing you to make another trip. This will take time away from you that you will need, and causing stress that you won't need. Make a detailed list of what you will be serving (use the recipes when compiling your grocery list) and shop early, leaving the few days before the holiday for cooking and cleaning.

Figure out what you can cook ahead of time. You can prepare many side dishes up to three days in advance, more if they can be frozen. Come home from work every night and make one simple side dish, and put it in the fridge or freezer. You'll be taking that much pressure off of yourself on Thanksgiving Day if all you have to worry about is putting the turkey in the oven and microwaving prepared dishes before dinner. Would you rather be in the kitchen simultaneously clarifying butter for mushrooms, mashing potatoes and whipping up fresh cream for the dessert, or with your guests offering them the appetizers you made two days ago?

ENLIST HELP

Everyone knows that making a big, Thanksgiving dinner for a huge group is hard work and stressful. Many of your guests will probably offer to help, so be sure to take every one of them up on it.

Most guests will be perfectly happy to stop at the bakery for fresh bread, or bringing some wine or a case of soda. Some people will be utterly flattered if you ask them (well ahead of time, of course) if they can whip up one of their prize-winning apple pies for dessert. If someone asks if they can bring anything, tell them what you need, and tell them what someone else already has covered.

You may also want to consider having a pot-luck party in which you provide the entrée, and everyone else brings the side dish he/she is most famous for. Just be sure to coordinate so you don't end up with six yam dishes, but not one cranberry on the table.

If your kind old aunt who loves to help out offers to come a couple of hours early to set up, let her, and have her favorite tea and a big thank-you hug ready for when she gets there. Try to arrange it for one of the close-by guests to pick up your young children in the morning and entertain them at their place until party time, so you can get things underway in peace. Put a small TV set on the kitchen table and sit your husband down with the carrots, potatoes and a peeler so he doesn't keep disappearing into the living room to catch the football scores.

MAXIMIZE YOUR SPACE

If you have too small a table, consider renting a larger table (or two) and chairs. Push your table to the side to be used as a buffet, or an extra food preparation area.

To avoid children from getting underfoot, set aside another room or area (remove as many breakables and valuables as possible) for them to congregate. Have a box of age appropriate activities, such as old books, some crayons and coloring books, board games, etc. Also keep a ball or Frisbee around in case the kids get a little rowdy, and suggest someone taking them outdoors to use up some of that energy before dinner is served.

Put big furniture accessories, like coffee tables or potted plants, in another room ahead of time to make more room for chairs. If you have a perfectly good surface in the living room that can house drinks or appetizers, clear off the pictures and knick-knacks, throw a table cloth over it and put it to work. Take all the cookie jars and the toaster off the top of the fridge and stick them on your bedroom dresser for the day. You're going to need every available surface in the kitchen, so put away any unnecessary appliances.

If your refrigerator is small, get a hold of a couple of coolers and put a bed of ice in them, then stick them out on the porch or in the garage. Then you can store appetizers, desserts, or side dishes your family brings until you are ready to use them, without taking up all of your fridge space. Have one for soft drinks, too.

KEEP THINGS SIMPLE

Consider using paper plates and plastic utensils, and disposable cookware. If it is a casual family gathering, no one is going to care if they are dining off fine china with silver, or drinking out of crystal goblets. Some lovely decorative table settings can be obtained at party and discount stores to set beautiful table. The best part is that there will be fewer dishes and pans piling up in your sink and on your counter as you are preparing dinner and dessert, and you'll be able to clean up quickly (by throwing everything into the trash) and spend time with your guests, rather than disappearing into the kitchen to spend an hour washing dishes.

If you really don't like to cook, don't think you cook well, or are dreading cooking for a crowd, order a pre-cooked turkey or ham. Your guests will enjoy it much more than a half-hearted attempt that results in a dried-out bird or burnt pork butt, and you'll save yourself the time and trouble.

If you are planning on cooking yourself, unless you are a cooking enthusiast, feeding a huge crowd is not the time to make elaborate recipes. Go for the simple, traditional fare-- an oven-roasted turkey, some butter and cream mashed potatoes, a nice salad and a plate of cranberry sauce and a basket of fresh rolls. Garnish with a sprig of parsley or chicory leaf rather than carving that turkey out of an acorn squash. While that candied sweet potato and turnip flambé stuffed into mushroom caps with cherry tomato rosette garnishes may look great on the page of a woman's magazine, think about what you are getting yourself into on a very busy holiday.

KEEP CONTROL OF THE DAY

Before Thanksgiving, make lists- lots of lists. Lists of last-minute perishables or ingredients you'll need, lists of cooking or reheating times for each dish, check lists of all the things you need to do (from setting the table to putting on the coffee after dinner). Plaster them all over your fridge for easy viewing to make sure you are remembering everything and keeping on track. Keep a pencil handy to cross things off as you accomplish them.

Don't let one difficult dish or task completely monopolize your time. Be prepared to ditch a dish, or call for reinforcements if the folding table you borrowed won't open. Don't let yourself get so wrapped up with one thing that you let your whole schedule go askew.

If guests are milling about your kitchen offering to help, but only getting in your way, ask them to do something in another room (serve beverages, set the table, put out the flowers, ask someone good with children to entertain the youngsters present, etc.). Many people will want to help; again-- let them, but don't allow them to go about looking for things to do or getting into what you have under control. Use your lists and delegate responsibilities so that what needs to get done will get done, and so you don't end up with three separate people salting the soup.

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