Work ahead for more calm and less stress this Thanksgiving

by | Nov 21, 2022

The holidays can be enjoyable but also stressful times, especially if there’s a big meal that’s part of the tradition. Some people easily source great local ingredients, plan everything perfectly and deliver a delicious meal for a crowd year after year. Others, on the other hand, can easily feel intimidated or overwhelmed.
With a little shopping and planning ahead, a Thanksgiving or Christmas meal should be a little less stressful. There are several things that can be done in the few days before the holiday to take a little pressure off.

Buy early. Cook or prep early.
Many side dishes can be made ahead of time. At a minimum, you can buy the ingredients, including vegetables, a few days ahead of time. A good place to start is your local farmers market. Many roadside stands or markets are open extra days or they extend their hours ahead of a big meal holiday. Nobody wants stale veggies, so getting them from local growers helps ensure they will “hold up” longer because they’re fresher. They’ll also be more flavorful, and everyone loves food with better flavor. You can also check grocery stores for Got to Be NC products or other items grown in your area.
“Often, side dishes can be made a day prior to Thanksgiving. Just refrigerate and reheat,” said Lisa Prince, the executive director of the North Carolina Egg Association.
Prince has spent several years coordinating with chefs and Got to Be NC for “Local Dish” segments on WRAL, in addition to working with food competitions at the N.C. State Fair and doing her own cooking at home.
“If you need to start even earlier, you can make pies, dessert bars, cakes, pie crust and cranberry sauce several days ahead and keep them in the refrigerator,” Prince said.
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Short of cooking ahead, you can do some basic prep in the days before the big meal.
“Anything that can be chopped, washed, drained, jelled, premixed, measured, soaked and so on is an obvious way to get a head start for the big day,” said Freda Butner who is a registered dietitian nutritionist in the NCDA&CS Marketing Division. “Use lemon juice to preserve the color of raw foods that tend to brown quickly.”
You can even set out butter and eggs the night before baking, since most recipes call for room temperature ingredients, recommended Caitlyn Randall, who works with Bunter in NCDA&CS Marketing. She also likes to go ahead and measure any nonperishable ingredients and put them out on a baking sheet with the recipe card ahead of time. It helps organize multiple recipes with pre-measured, ready-to-go ingredients.
When it comes time to cook mashed potatoes, Butner said leaving the skin on the potatoes is a way to make the task easier. It also adds to the nutrition profile and shows your guests that they are from scratch.
Appetizers are another front-runner for make-ahead items. Prince said they could and should be simple with a few recipes like this:
Spinach & artichoke puff pastry bites
Egg salad BLT cups
Bacon & onion quiche bites
She also recommends putting the appetizers in an area away from the kitchen on Thanksgiving morning. That keeps guests out of the fray.

Reduce food safety anxiety
Butner also recommends two ways to reduce any food-safety stress you may have. First, buy and use a meat thermometer.
“It is the safest way to ensure food safety and eliminate the constant checking and rechecking through an open oven door.”
Second, buy cheap, color-coded cutting boards to make assigned tasks easy for all to follow and avoid accidental cross-contamination.

Non-cooking preps
Prince and Butner agree there are several other things that can help ahead of time that have nothing to do with the actual cooking. They both recommend cleaning out your refrigerator several days ahead of time. If needed, you can put items like mustard, ketchup, pickle jars, jellies and other condiments into another space in your house. Since they’re preserved foods, it’s okay to keep them unrefrigerated for a couple of hours. If you have a garage fridge, that’s another place to put as many items as possible.
“A clean refrigerator means you’ll have plenty of room for cooking ahead, for when guests arrive with food and for leftovers,” Prince said. “While you’re at it, make sure your dishwasher is unloaded before guests arrive too. That makes for an easier cleanup after the big dinner.”
Other early tasks can include, setting the tables and pulling all your plates, glassware and silverware the day before. You can also go ahead and set aside containers and baggies for guests to take home leftovers. That can also make cleanup easier.
Just like appetizers, Prince suggests setting up your beverage area in another spot away from the kitchen to help reduce congestion in the kitchen.
Ultimately, you could cut down on a lot of work and worry if guests bring something. Most guests want to help, Prince said. Sides, appetizers, desserts and drinks are usually the easy for guests to contribute.
Butner shared a list of even more things that can help with logistics on the day of the big meal:
• Prepare a designated space for muddy shoes and boots for kids in advance
• Designate a child to be the door greeter, a coat checker and keep the trash emptied
• Have all your fancy dishes, hand towels and kitchen towels washed and polished; even make sure toilet tissue and soap are well stocked for easy access before guests arrive!
• Do a quick inventory of trash bags, coffee filters, dish liquid and other supplies in advance.
• Wear an apron! It is the day you don’t have time to change clothes or try to wipe away stains. You will also move more freely and confidently.
• Buy or make homemade wine stem charms or use stickers for other beverage glasses. For disposable products, use a permanent marker to match names to cups.
• There’s never enough counter space, so get a spot ready. Clear out one of your floor cabinets (store items in a closet temporarily) so there is a place to store guest potluck containers.
• When clearing the table, place a plastic sink tub on the counter to put the dishes and utensils in to keep the sink space freed up for rinsing and liquid disposal.
“Last but not least, and truthfully this should be first – respect the cook! They own the plan, whether the host has an anything-goes personality or an overassertive style,” Butner said. “They have prepared the space, food and day in the way they think is best to fulfill this annual feat. Dozens of things run through their minds until the last guest has left. It’s best not to disrupt that invisible timetable. Word to the wise –keep the cook happy.”

For even more recipe ideas, check out the “Recipes & Stove Side Chats” section of