We’re less than one week away from the Big Meal, and in all probability some of you have succeeded in inviting over your parents, siblings, aunts, cousins, and closest friends–but you don’t have a single clue what you’ll be making, how you’ll be making it, and whether or not anyone will notice that your bathroom sink is covered in toothpaste.
The fact is, magazine editors and stylists spend weeks (months, even) planning and setting up the elaborate spreads you see in your favorite glossies. Products are sourced from far and wide, twenty-year veteran food editors cook perfectly trussed birds, and a professional photographer spends hours lighting a scene to get that one perfect (so-called “effortless”) shot of a Thanksgiving spread. But nobody needs to do all that to create a yummy, pretty table that will leave your loved ones appreciative for the invite and the shared time.
So if you still haven’t even glanced at a cooking mag for inspiration and you certainly haven’t customized your own cocktail napkins, this guide will help you get–and stay–on track for a beautiful, stress-free (or low-stress, at least) Thanksgiving.
7 Days Out
- Plan a Menu: Find one site or magazine’s entire listing of Thanksgiving menu options and stick to it. Make it a place that, as a mission, values time. Real Simple has fantastic, delicious options that won’t force you to hunt down rare spices at a natural foods store an hour away from your house, for instance. Then pick one recipe you care most about (stuffing, maybe) and go to a noted food source. (Bon Appetit and Food 52 continually serve up the yummiest, most reliably good recipes.) This way you have one standout dish to keep people raving, but your entire meal doesn’t feel like a bacchanalia.
- Design an Oven Strategy: There are few meals as difficult to pull off perfectly as Thanksgiving. With that bird hogging the oven for several hours and multiple other dishes that need to be prepped and cooked day of, it’s crucial that you know how long each dish needs and at what temperature, and that you establish a system for what goes first, etc.
6 Days Out
- Buy Your Basics: As any modern Hamlet would put it, “Get thee to a grocery.” Now. Before the store becomes a battleground. You may not be able to purchase all your fresh veggies, but you can stock up on any canned goods, baking supplies, wine, and dry goods. Plus, since you’ll inevitably forget something, you still have 5 days left to run back to the store. Looking to avoid the grocery store at all costs? Now is a perfect time to sign up for services like Peapod and Instacart, which will bring all your ingredients straight to your door on the day of your choice. Bonus: Instacart, which serves Whole Foods and others, offers free delivery the first time you use the service.
- Do You Have a Turkey?: This is an excellent question to ask yourself right about now.
5 Days Out
- Pull Out Your Kitchen Stuff: It will drive you bananas if you’re leaning in for the first baste, only to realize you don’t have a clue where your baster is (or if you even own one). So take out everything you’ll need for the meal, including serving dishes for each item, big spoons, glassware, and cutlery. Run anything crusty or dusty through the dishwasher. Obviously, if you don’t have something you need… go buy it, borrow it, or make do. Nota Bene: Nobody needs a gravy fat separator. Nobody.
- Clean Out Your Fridge: Chances are there is something living in the far corners of your fridge. Not only do you want to avoid letting your mother see that, you also want as much space as possible in there for the fresh grocery items that look relatively small in your basket but somehow multiply in size in your fridge.
4 Days Out
- Map Out Seating: If there are more than six people coming to your place, there will inevitably be multiple conversations happening simultaneously around the table. Keep apart anyone who dislikes someone else (even if the feeling isn’t mutual), shy folks, and loudmouths. Give yourself the chair with the easiest access to the kitchen. And put someone right next to you who you know you can count on to pitch in if need be. Use placecards so you don’t have to awkwardly direct traffic right before the meal.
- Does Your TV Work?: Someone will want to watch football. That person will raise holy hell if you can’t get the Dallas/Philly/Whoever Else game on. Remedy any problems, pronto.
3 Days Out
- Dust and Vacuum: Think about the places where your guests really will notice a mess. Tackle those first. If you have time to scrub the study and spare room too, well, God bless you.
- Bake Anything That Can Be Made in Advance: Many baked goods can keep for a few days. If your recipes indicate that’s the case, then bake them now, cover them tightly and store them in a cool (out of the way) place. We recommend pecan pie. Just because it’s delicious.
- Order Candles on Amazon: A huge variety of white pillars in all different sizes. Put a few groupings on beautiful plates and scatter them down the table. Everyone’s skin will look glowy, which will be much appreciated.
2 Days Out
- Clean Your Bathroom: You won’t remember to do it tomorrow, and if you’d cleaned it yesterday it’d be a cesspool by Thanksgiving morning. So do it today. Toilet, tub, the whole shebang. This is the one part of your house guests always (?) wander into alone: don’t make it a gross experience for them.
- Buy Your Fresh Food: Wake up in time to get to the grocery store 5 minutes before it opens, even if this means hauling yourself out of bed at 5 a.m. It’s worth it. You’ll have the store (almost) to yourself and the best pickins of the store’s latest shipment of fruits and veggies.
- Hit the Flower Shop: If anyone brings flowers on the day of, well, that’s nice, but you don’t need to make them your centerpiece. Instead, stop by a local shop (yay local!) and buy yourself some huge armfuls of greenery. Yes, just greenery. I promise, it will look exquisite and carefree and charming and it won’t cost $150 and take up 3 hours of your day. I recommend two small, low vases filled with overflowing leaves that lay along the tabletop: it looks glamorous, plus nobody is awkwardly peering around a gigantic centerpiece.
- Throw It All in Your Bedroom: If you’ve somehow made it to today and still haven’t cleaned up your place, then do yourself a favor and throw all that junk in your bedroom. Then dust the surfaces in the rooms guests will frequent and vacuum the entire floor (even if its hardwood).
- Set the Table: There’s enough to do tomorrow. Set the table today and impress your guests when they first walk in. If you’re picky about any dust gathering on your place settings, just turn over the plates and glasses.
- Everything else! Oh, and get dressed last. You don’t need an oily grease stain on your clothes right now. You really don’t.