10 Tips to Avoid Thanksgiving (Or Any Holiday) Dinner Disasters

Advice from a clueless cook who finds new ways to screw up each year

Roasted turkey (golden color) sitting in an open oven.
Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

I’m clueless in the kitchen. My holiday meals may not taste great or start on time, but they provide lots of family entertainment.

I’ve hosted four Thanksgiving dinners and not one of them started within an hour of the scheduled time. My sides are usually cold and crusty. My turkey shows up late every year. And my guests sweat their butts off helping me in the kitchen because I bounce around the house like Tigger, from Winnie-the-Poo.

So, you’re probably wondering why you should follow my advice. Good question. Think of this as a “what not to do” article so you can minimize embarrassment with your holiday meals.

Some of these tips may not be applicable this year with many of our gatherings being limited to nuclear families. Even if you’re cooking for a small number this year, you’ll probably learn from my mistakes. Or at least be entertained.

I don’t have a good turkey track record.

Thanksgiving Turkey #1

The turkey weighed eight pounds — that sounded like a lot of meat to me. But, once we took it out of the oven, it looked more like a bronzed cornish hen than a turkey. It was supposed to feed four adults. Oops.

Thanksgiving Turkey #2

I had a point to prove — I went big and fancy. I borrowed my best friend’s “fail-safe” recipe but didn’t realize that stuffing a turkey changed the cook time. We ate five hours later than planned. Oops.

Thanksgiving Turkey #3

I skipped the stuffing and bagged that bad boy. Only, I couldn’t find the red button thingy through the bag and ended up burning myself when I tried to cut slits (I forgot to do that before putting the turkey in the oven) in the bag to find it. Oh. And it never occurred to me to put the meat thermometer in the turkey. Ouch and Oops.

Thanksgiving Turkey #4

I didn’t calculate my defrost time correctly so I shot cold water up the turkey’s ass for three hours before I could get it in the oven. We missed our scheduled time by 90 minutes. And I think I got frostbite. Oops.

Thanksgiving Turkey #5 (this year)

I have a 16 pound free-range turkey for two adults and two little kids (7 yo and 5 yo). I know one thing for sure, we’ll be eating lots of turkey for the rest of November. Oops.

So yeah, I’m not what you’d call a “domestic goddess.”

How to avoid a Thanksgiving like mine

Maybe you’re making your first Thanksgiving turkey because you’re quarantined or you want to start hosting for some insane reason. Whatever your motivation for making a turkey, try to avoid these mistakes.

I’ve made all of them, so consider me an expert on how to screw-up a holiday meal.

1. Get that bird out of the freezer (or store) NOW!

Okay, if you don’t have that bird out of the freezer yet and you’re eating on Thursday, you’re probably screwed. But, still do it. If you do end up with a frosty turkey, then run water up (or down?) its butt (or neck?). I still get confused on what end I’m working with during that whole process.

Anyway, back to the rapid defrosting procedure. It’ll take a while to get your bird ready to grease up, but it works. Start early though.

The rule of thumb (that I clearly forget) for defrosting in your refrigerator is for every 4 pounds you defrost it for 24 hours. So in my case, I have a 16 pound turkey, so I need 4 days to defrost it in the refrigerator.

We’re having our dinner on Saturday, so I took mine out of the freezer and put it in the refrigerator on Monday.

Of course, I’ve proven myself an unreliable source on turkey thawing so please check this link and don’t rely on my estimates.

2. Write out your menu. Stick to it.

I used to tease my mom when she made her Thanksgiving list. I would taunt her (in my teenaged, snotty tone) while smacking my Double-Mint gum and say, “Mom, you’re so weird. We have the same thing every year. I don’t understand why you need a list.”

And she should have said, “Because Moms can’t remember what they wore yesterday, let alone what their menu is…that’s why! Stop smacking your gum and go get the green beans!”

In addition to having “Mom Brain” I also have “shiny new thing” syndrome. I’m all over the place. I’ll get last-minute menu ideas or appetizers and then forget items that I was supposed to make. For example, last year I made enchiladas to go with our normal menu. No clue why. I forgot the rolls but I made enchiladas.

Menus keep you focused. They also help you make your grocery list and plan what to prep early.

Here’s our menu (and yes, it’s the same every year, unless I add something random like enchiladas):

  • Turkey
  • Mashed Potatoes
  • Green Bean Casserole
  • Corn Casserole
  • Deviled Eggs
  • Rolls
  • Cranberry sauce (the kind that plops out of the can in one cylinder shape)

3. Give yourself a wide serving window.

I tell my family to arrive at 3 pm for appetizers. And then I tell them that we’ll eat around 5ish.

I’m a big fan of the ‘ish…I think you can go an hour before or after the time and still be within the planned time. So bam! I’ve got myself a 2-hour window.

Sure, you could probably poke some holes in this theory, but it works for me.

Getting all the food out at the same time, warm, and ready to eat is HARD. I’ve yet to do it. I’m convinced my mom worked some crazy witchcraft in the kitchen to achieve that goal.

Note: Have appetizers that you can throw in the oven and have ready in 10 minutes. I also do a cheese and sausage tray. Easy stuff. No cooking. I’ve made the mistake of putting all my effort in making the appetizers and starting the sides an hour later than planned.

4. Outsource sides and dessert. Or really anything you can.

If it’s your first Thanksgiving, then I’d just focus on the damn bird. Outsource the rest. If you don’t have guests because of COVID, then order from a local restaurant your sides and dessert!

Slowly start to add your sides each time you make a turkey. I’d say to start with Green Bean Casserole because a 5-year old could make it, but I managed to screw it up last year. I skimped and bought generic Cream of Mushroom (not Campbell’s) and it looked like cat barf (more than it usually does anyway).

So…pick the sides at your own discretion.

5. Don’t be shy. Delegate to family members.

Don’t try to do it all yourself. Give your family jobs. My Thanksgiving is an “all hands on deck” event, especially when I have my inevitable screw-ups!

I tell myself that they enjoy it, but sometimes my brother-in-law needs to change his clothes because he sweats during the prep process.

Hmm..well, they keep showing up for the dinners, so I assume they enjoy it!

6. Clean the house 3–5 days before your event.

I’ve waited until Thanksgiving Dinner day to do my cleaning and regretted it EVERY TIME. Get all that done as early as possible.

Of course, if you live with two little heathens like I do, you’ll probably need to tidy up, but get the laundry, mopping, and vacuuming done the week ahead.

Yes, I’ve been doing all three of these things when guests arrived.

7. Prep as much as you can before the Thanksgiving dinner day.

I used to roll my eyes at my mom and best friend when they told me this. I thought they were crazy when they prepared 1–2 days ahead of time.

I get it now. When I left everything for one day, I was exhausted by the time dinner came. I didn’t want to enjoy the meal with my family, I just wanted to go to bed.

If you can prepare something and put in the fridge the day before, do it.

8. Skip the stuffing.

Maybe I’m still bitter, but if you want to make stuffing (or dressing) then make it separate from the turkey. Don’t stuff it in the turkey. It messes the time up on the turkey.

And it kinda creeps me out to eat it out of the bird.

9. Don’t cook your sides until that damn bird is done.

The turkey can sit for a while and still stay really hot. The sides, however, don’t. I re-heated my green bean casserole so much it turned charcoal. Ugh.

Prepare the sides while the turkey is cooking but don’t put them in the oven until you take the turkey out.

10. Laugh at your mistakes. You’ll screw something up, just have fun with it.

I expect something to go wrong every year. Maybe it’s pessimistic, but I consider it realistic. It would be boring if I didn’t have some mistake to share and laugh about!

Bonus Tip: Oh, okay, I have one more tip — get yourself all gussied up first thing in the morning. More often than I’d care to admit, I’ve had guests arrive and I’ve been in my sweats wearing a baseball hat with a crooked pony-tail poking out of it. So, your first order of business should be: shower, “put your face on” as my mom says, and get dressed in your dinner clothes.

There it is…tips from a clueless cook! Hope you have better luck than I did! I wish you and your family a safe and happy holiday!

Adrienne Parkhurst is a Top Writer in Parenting. She’s passionate about personal and professional leadership. She is married with two active and hilarious boys. She also writes about lessons learned from managing teams for 20+ years. If you liked this article, join her newsletter, Listen. Learn. Lead., for more stories, leadership tips, and reading recommendations.

I’m passionate about personal and professional leadership. I write about lessons learned from managing teams (and myself) for 20+ years.

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