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Thanksgiving Cooking Tips

How two chefs cook a feast for a crowd

November 8, 2023  |   by Daniel Osser

Hosting a large group this year? We’ve got you covered! My wife and I are both chefs. We host a family Thanksgiving gathering every year for about 50 people. It may seem like quite the undertaking, but years of experience have helped us come up with some valuable time-saving tricks. We break up the prep so it’s not all on one day. We’ll even break up the shopping — one trip for non-perishables and one for perishables. We’ll cook much of the meal ahead of time so that on the day of, we only have to cook the mains, heat the sides, and mix the salads. But most of all, we know our limits and we don’t overcommit. Follow the tricks below and you’ll have your meal together in a flash with plenty of time to schmooze.

pre packaged produce

How to Batch Cook for a Crowd

Batch cooking for a crowd all comes down to planning. Work backwards! Start with how many people you are cooking for and the menu (some inspiration here), then make a prep list and assign daily tasks. Our prep list is hand-written on a giant sheet of parchment paper pinned to our fridge, but do whatever works best for you! Break down each menu item into a shopping list and assign a shopping day, or even 2 shopping days to break it up. We’ll pick up all our non-perishables weeks ahead of time, then shop again for perishables the weekend before the meal. Next, look through each recipe and determine what can be made ahead. Create a column on the list for each prep day leading up to the feast. Break it up! Make it manageable!

Clean and organize. We’re all guilty of storing some items in the fridge for a bit too long. This is a great time to go through your fridge and clear out what you don’t need. You’ll appreciate having the extra space once you start prepping! Might be a good time to give the inside of your oven a good scrub as well.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the stress of cooking a big meal. There’s no reason to do it all in one day. Remember: don’t think of it as more cooking, just think of it as the same amount of cooking with more ingredients.

What to Prep Ahead

Stuffing – You can assemble the whole thing days in advance and store in the fridge. Then on the day of the feast all you need to do is bake it!

Potatoes – If you’re making spuds, peel the potatoes ahead of time and store them in water. They’ll hold just fine for a few days and, as long as they are covered in water, won’t oxidize. Store in your fridge until it’s time to boil ’em. You can also always assign the potato peeling to that one “How-can-I-help?” guest. We do that every year!

holiday dinner sides

Carrots, Onions, and Celery – The flavor base for many holiday recipes. Chances are, you’ll need lots. So why not chop them all ahead of time and store them in your fridge until ready to cook? You can also just pick up some pre-cut vegetables from the produce department to save the time.

Cold dressings such as cranberry sauce, cranberry relish, and vinaigrettes can be made ahead and held in the fridge until ready to use.

Salads – While dressing the salad should only be done right before it’s served, that doesn’t mean you can’t prep the ingredients ahead. Slice the veggies and store in an airtight container with a few ice cubes to keep everything fresh and crisp. Pre-crumble the cheese. Store cut apples in water with a squeeze of lemon to keep them from oxidizing.

double turkey stock

What to Freeze

Pro Tip: One roasted turkey never creates enough drippings for the appropriate amount of gravy to drown your plate in. Make this rich turkey broth ahead of time, and you’ll have plenty of gravy for the whole family to make their mashed potato/gravy volcanos. You can even make the gravy and freeze it ahead of time. Pull it out and thaw in the fridge the night before. Then heat it up, give it a good whisk, and serve. Of course, there’s no harm in picking up some delicious gravy ready-made from the prepared foods department! Can’t hurt to have a container in the back of your fridge for emergencies.

Most desserts can be made weeks in advance and frozen, including most cookies, pies, even fully frosted cakes. Don’t be afraid to get that work done ahead of time. The morning of your feast day, simply pull from the freezer and thaw on your countertop. For fruit pies, after the meal is well underway, throw them in the warm oven with the heat turned off to slowly heat through. It will be warm and ready by dessert. Here’s a collection of desserts that freeze particularly well.

Helpful Tricks

Delegate! Probably the most overlooked tip is simply to assign the sides to others! Chances are your guests will be happy to have an assignment and you’ll get a collection of family recipes to cover the table. Just make sure you assign specific foods. A roasted veg, mashed potatoes, a favorite casserole…it’s okay to be specific. Otherwise, you might just end up with 6 kinds of Brussels sprouts!

Have some shelf-stable snacks out and ready for the early guests to snack on. We generally go with chips, candied pecans, pretzels, and a bowl of assorted nuts in-shell with a nutcracker. They will keep the guests busy and out of your kitchen until it’s mealtime.

pastry on tray of berries

Have a second round of refrigerated snacks ready when more folks start trickling in. It will buy you even more time to get everything prepared. We usually go with a cheese plate (make your own or order one from the cheese department), a collection of dips (lots of options from the prepared foods and produce departments), and a shrimp cocktail (grab one ready-made from the seafood department or assemble something fancy). Have everything ready the day before and store covered in the fridge.

We worry less about keeping the turkey hot and more about keeping the gravy hot. The idea here is piping hot gravy will instantly rewarm your turkey even if it’s already cooled to room temperature. Keep the gravy hot by storing it in an insulated coffee pitcher. The pitcher will keep the gravy hot for over an hour, plenty of time for people to come back for seconds and thirds. Just make sure you label the pitcher so nobody gets a surprise when refilling their coffee mug!

Use crock pots to hold food warm. Ask your guests to bring extras from home. You can use them on the “keep warm” setting for mashed potatoes, stuffing, turkey, or any other warm sides!

And finally, try to relax! After all, having a feast is a reason to celebrate! Carve out time early in the day to take a stroll, listen to some music, or just enjoy a moment of quiet. Happy celebrating!

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