As a cook, I love Thanksgiving. As a chef, I love that people still cook on Thanksgiving so that chefs can be home with their families.
I love that the stores are packed with people that will go home and make their favorite dish for their family.
I got into the food business because I love cooking for my family, and I got out of the food business because I love cooking for my family.
Preparing a meal for your family can be a rewarding experience. But balancing the work of cooking with the reward is hard when you are trapped in the kitchen all day.
A small gathering lends itself to a leisurely meal without all of the pressures and expectations that come with many guests in the house.
If this is the first Thanksgiving meal that you will cook, take the opportunity to make something special, even if it is just for yourself.
Free your mind from the idea that Thanksgiving has to have certain foods or a certain quantity of food. And at the same time, embrace the special meal and, if you want, the traditional food.
If you are cooking your first turkey or scaling back your regular event, here are some ideas to help plan your day.
Turkey or Chicken or Something Else?
There shouldn’t be any food rules. If you want to cook a turkey, do it. If you are afraid of the leftovers, buy just a turkey breast or legs. If you want something else, that is fine too. Roasting a whole chicken will give the appearance of the bird, without the size.
I don’t cook a turkey on any other day of the year, but I love to make it on Thanksgiving. First, it is a simple thing to cook. Season the turkey, and put it in the oven. Second, the bones impart flavor in the meat that you don’t get when you just cook the meat independently.
If you want turkey, the time to look for one is now. Ask the butcher about the sizes. There are small turkeys, 8–10 pounds, but the smaller sizes will probably sell fast this year. You can order them in advance from most meat departments.
If you haven’t cooked a whole bird before, but you want to try, do it, on one condition. Make sure you get yourself a meat thermometer.
Using a meat thermometer will let you know your meat is not over- or underdone. As a chef, I used one every day. The thermometer doesn’t lie. You know that the meat is cooked correctly, without cutting into the flesh.
Poultry should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 °F. When you put the thermometer in the flesh, make sure it is as far inside the muscle as possible and not touching any bones.
If you stuff the turkey, the stuffing should be 165 °F too. My mom used to stuff the bird all the time, but my first Thanksgiving home from culinary school, I realized that it is nearly impossible to have the stuffing at a safe temperature without overcooking the breast meat.
Storing the leftovers
I love the leftovers, probably because I don’t have to cook the next day.
If you do nothing else after eating, put your meat in the refrigerator. You don’t want the meat to be at room temperature for more than four hours. You should have plenty of time, but you need to account for the time it takes for the meat to cool down in the fridge.
If you roasted a whole bird, take the meat off the bones and freeze the bones and refrigerate the meat. Then when you have time, you can make stock with the bones.
In today’s food world of boneless skinless chicken breasts, we often don’t get our hands on bones to make our stock. I used to put the bones in a pot make the stock that evening, but now I always freeze them and make the stock on Sunday. Finishing cleanup at 10 pm is not my idea of fun.
There is always room for vegetables or a light salad at the table.
My general advice for four people or less, pick one vegetable dish and roll with it. If you want a make-ahead salad, I recommend this broccoli salad recipe from my broccoli page. It’s even better the next day.
If you love the tradition of green bean casserole like me, I created a lighter version without the casserole dish. You can make this from scratch on the stovetop in 30 minutes.
Green Bean Casserole Re-Imagined
Made from scratch green beans with a simple recipe improves the texture and taste.
Mashed Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes, Dressing, AND Bread?
For a small group, I would pick one or two starchy side dish options. You might want to survey the group, but that should be easy to do.
The hard part is deciding. You might not make everyone happy. Don’t layer on more work for yourself if you are the chef.
The good news, if you do have extra food, all of these reheat well as leftovers. Which also means that you can make them the day ahead and reheat for dinner.
Pie or Something Else?
Pick a dessert you love and order it from a bakery or make it the day ahead. There is no reason to stress over dessert. Dessert is the one place where store-bought is just as good as one you can make and a whole lot easier.
A last bit of advice.
I once read an article that said not to clean your oven before Thanksgiving because they knew someone who ran the cleaning cycle and broke their oven. If your cooking plans are ruined to this degree, it wasn’t meant to be. Order in and relax. I always clean my oven because cooking a turkey makes my smoke alarm go off, and the alarm is obnoxious.
Thanksgiving is for Cooking and Family
I hope that more of you are cooking this Thanksgiving. Even if you have a small family or group, food is a pleasure to share with others and with yourself. Spend the day preparing something that you wouldn’t ordinarily cook.
At the same time, don’t let yourself get caught up in the fussing and trimmings. If it isn’t perfect, at least there will only be a few people to witness your mistakes.
Julie Moreno is a chef and writer, now trying to get more people to cook their own food and understand where it comes from. She lives in the middle of California, where she’s learning to landscape with fruits and vegetables. Find her on her blog Food Demystified, Twitter @juliehouse, and Facebook @fooddemystified