Southern cooks spend more time planning and cooking Thanksgiving dinner than anywhere else in the country. A recent nationwide survey of 400 households found people in the South start planning at least three weeks before the feast and spend two to three days in the kitchen.
While Southerners may have a lock on planning ahead, advice can come from other places. Here is guidance from Martha Holmberg, a food writer and cookbook author who lives in Portland, Ore. When it comes to Thanksgiving, Holmberg said, "I break it down like a military operation."
Her weapon of choice: lists.
To do now
•Plan the table. Once the guest list is known, determine how many tables and chairs are needed and round up extra furniture and dishes. Gather platters, serving dishes and utensils. If they have been in storage, wash them. Launder and iron tablecloths and napkins. Make place cards.
•Make the turkey decisions. What kind of turkey and how will it be cooked. A fresh turkey must be ordered or reserved. Frozen turkeys can be bought up to a week ahead but must be defrosted. Decide how you will cook the turkey. If it will be roasted in the oven, map out the logistics of cooking the side dishes and desserts. If it will be grilled, smoked or fried, gather equipment and supplies.
•Calculate defrost time. Figure one day for every 4 pounds, or four days for the average 16-pound turkey. The safest way to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator.
•Choose rest of the menu. Everything should fall into place based on available oven space and time. If oven space is limited, plan to prepare sides in a slow cooker, make casseroles to be reheated or prepare dishes in advance and serve at room temperature.
•Assess each menu item. What ingredients must be bought? What can be bought now and what shopping will be required a day or two before the dinner? What tasks can be done in advance?
•Buy non perishables, wine and beer. Stock up on sparkling water or sodas. Buy that frozen turkey.
A few days before
•Buy perishable items such as vegetables, breads and dairy products. Pick or buy flowers to decorate the table.
•Write a detailed to-do list with a timeline. When does the turkey need to start cooking? What tasks must still be done - make the gravy, whip cream for desserts, toast the nuts, etc.?
•Have a contingency plan. Have a dish in mind that can be dropped or simplified. Or if things go horribly wrong, know which restaurants offer takeout or serve dinner.
Planning, Holmberg said, can take the stress out of the holiday.
"If you do it all ahead," she said, "it minimizes you having to make all these decisions when the house is full of people."