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When my wife Kathy and I were writing our brand new “Simply Happy Cookbook,” we tried to come up with as many simple recipes based upon simple ideas to make any meal prep… simple! Here are some of our shortcuts to make your Thanksgiving, simply happy!
“You don’t need a silver fork to eat a good meal,” a friend once told me, and they were right! But big important family meals like Thanksgiving require extra planning, here’s how we do it.
THREE DAYS BEFORE: We ask our guests if they have special dietary requirements and what they’d like to drink. There are more non-alcohol drinkers than ever before, so Kathy will try to come up with a clever mock-tail or canned zero-booze beverages to please everybody at the table.
If someone informs you they are a vegetarian ask them if they’d like to bring a dish. That way that person can be guaranteed to have something on the table that they really like. They’ll get the props, but people will only remember it was at your house, so you get collateral credit for something you didn’t have to make. Win-win!
TWO DAYS BEFORE: We pregame as many things as we can. Kathy makes pies and her famous cranberry sauce. Between onions, green beans, and various other vital ingredients, there’s a lot of chopping to be done, so we chop and shred vegetables—and plunk into separate zip-top bags.
DAY BEFORE: I go grocery shopping—with the same list Kathy has used for the last 20 years. But be careful! I remember one Thanksgiving afternoon Kathy asked me as she peered into the fridge “Where’s the Parmesan?” I immediately realized—I’d forgotten it. She had to have it, so I hopped in the car and drove to every grocery in our town, they were all closed.
Only one food seller was open— a Papa Johns pizza joint. Clearly frazzled I breathlessly dashed in and politely asked the cashier if I could get 15 single serve packets of parm. I could tell he was about to say, “No” just as a crisp $10 bill slid across the counter in his direction and he instantly stuffed two fistfuls into a paper bag. “Merry Christmas, mister!” he said as I smiled and vowed to always take an exact inventory so I would never again wind up at a pizza place begging for grated cheese.
ON THANKSGIVING DAY: Thanksgiving 2022 seems a little different, because of inflation, supply chain issues, and money concerns, so many people are cutting back on side dishes. We are going to eliminate most pre-meal snacks. Famously Julia Child served only one snack item on her Thanksgiving dinner table— little bowls of Goldfish crackers. Cheap, classy and easy!
HOT TIME! Your kitchen’s most valuable real estate on Thanksgiving is the oven. You have half a dozen dishes that need heating and baking. They all need different settings and you can’t do them all at once! That’s why we love to use a $79 countertop oven—we call it Kathy’s Easy Bake Oven. Great for side dishes and recipes that bake at temperatures other than at what you’re cooking your turkey. These ovens tend to bake hotter, so keep an eye on baking progress. Additional food heater-uppers in your kitchen, your microwave, hot plates, air fryer and Instant Pot can all warm-up and keep warm things.
SPICE UP THE ROLLS: My mom would amp up store bought Parker rolls, by brushing them with melted butter, then giving them a light shake of Kosher salt. These days we’ll shake some everything bagel seasoning on top. And then warm.
GRAVY: It cools pretty fast on the table, so once you’ve warmed the gravy on the stove, serve some in a gravy boat, and then reserve the rest in a tall insulated coffee cup, like a Yeti— closing the top to keep that stuff hot until you need to refill.
POTATOES: We’ve started making them an hour before the turkey comes out, and once perfectly buttered and blended, we put them in a slow cooker, lid on, set on WARM. When it’s time to serve, place the cooker crock on a trivet in the buffet line with your gravy boat (and Yeti back-up) nearby—showtime!
IS THE TURKEY DONE? My dad eyeballed it, my mom would slice into it and it was not even close to being done. Leg wiggling doesn’t work. Use a thermometer. Butterball says their turkey is done when a thermometer in the thigh registers 180-degrees. Then also check the thickest part of the breast when that hits 170-degrees, the turkey is cooked. BUT if there’s stuffing inside the bird, that is not considered cooked until the stuffing also hits 170-degrees.
DESSERT: Who really has room for a big dessert? We’ve gone from full pieces of pumpkin pie, to pie-bites. Take a store-bought pie, and then using a lightly oiled 2 1/2-inch biscuit cutter—cut out as many pie rounds as we can, then place on a single platter and top with whipped cream. Looks great, and that way everybody gets a taste.
LEFTOVERS: Pick up to-go containers so that everybody can re-live your great big amazing meal… tomorrow at their houses.
CAN’T COOK? NO TIME? Do what the Doocy family does every other holiday, we order a boneless Honey Baked Ham and all of their delicious side dishes. Handily frozen and ready to heat up and palm off as homemade. One year when our stove and oven were both broken, a celebrity who lives in our neighborhood raved to our eldest child, “Peter, your mother is the best cook I know.” Peter smiled broadly, he didn’t have the heart to tell him the entire meal was wrapped in plastic an hour earlier, heated up in the microwave or on our Weber propane grill.
FINAL BEST ADVICE: We know you look forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas all year and you’ll plan everything so that it’s perfect… but something is going to go wrong. The house gets dirty, you run out of Diet Coke, somebody bought frozen sausage—there goes grandma’s dressing! At our youngest child Sally’s wedding during the height of the pandemic—literally every single thing went wrong. An actual hurricane hit the hotel at the exact time the ceremony started. Kathy and I looked her way, brokenhearted and you know what our youngest child said? “It is—what it is.”
It is—what it is.
We can only control—what we can control. So what if things go haywire? Just enjoy the rare time with your loved ones and marvel at how everything else turned out great. However, if during meal prep your dog jumps up and pulls the bird off the stovetop like our dog Charlie did—or an aunt puts an uncle in a headlock… maybe next time you should have the big dinner at somebody else’s house.
Enjoy your Thanksgiving… just know you only have about four weeks to plan before the next big holiday feast!
Adapted from ideas and recipes in Steve & Kathy Doocy’s new book “The Simply Happy Cookbook.” To order your copy, simply click here. Used with permission of William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers. All rights reserved.