We all want to entertain with ease this Thanksgiving so that we can actually enjoy the company of our family and friends. In order to accomplish this and avoid any mishaps or a day full of stress, having a to-do list mapped out a week in advance is a must for every host. The easiest part is making up the guest list and trying to figure out who will actually show up. The most challenging aspect for anyone hosting this dinner is the menu itself, with the numerous side dishes and the perfectly roasted, plump turkey as the main attraction. Perhaps the most fun thing to do, at least for me, is the table setting and the decorations that go into making this day memorable. Now is the time to take out the best of the best and all of the season's finery to impress our guests, but whether one sets the table it in a modest way or in an over-the-top lavish way, it's best to establish a tone and mood based on who we're inviting. No guest should ever feel out of place at the holiday table.
China, Platters & Serving Bowls
There are no rules when it comes to choosing china on Thanksgiving. Use all white plates which go with everything or choose fine pieces in earthy, seasonal tones if you have them.
I personally enjoy using Wedgwood drabware (gilded or plain) or a mix of creams & brown transferware.
You don't have to have a full service of one particular china set to make a meal festive, so if you're going to mix and match, do make sure that you stick with colors and tones that complement one another. Locate those platters and serving bowls that will hold all of your sides. It's best to set those aside the weekend before with post-its attached to them labeled with the contents that will be served in them.
- Every guest should have a water glass, which can be in the form of a tumbler, highball or even a goblet.
- If you're serving wine, choose wine glasses and designate what type will be served in them. If you're going to have a tasting of different wines, have glasses for white wines and some for red wines. I'm not a stickler when it comes to having a specific Bordeaux wine glass if I'm serving that type. I have a mix of new and antique glassware which make serving wines a bit more interesting.
- Pick out the silverware you want to set your table with and polish it if you need to. Remember, you don't have to have matching sets of everything or a full dinner service to set a nice table. You can certainly make a mismatched place setting seem interesting if you pay attention to style and proportion. For instance, if you only have 4 place settings of one pattern and 4 of another, alternate the settings for a cohesive look. By the way, although I've read that cleaning silverware in the dishwasher is safe, I NEVER do so. I wash all of my silver by hand and buff dry with a cotton towel.
- If you want to make it easier on yourself, use a good set of stainless steel flatware that is dishwasher safe.
- Tablecloths should be ironed at least one day in advance and set aside in a closet until it's time to set the table. If you can, set the table a day ahead and close off all access to it from your pets. Choose the right size cloth for your table and one which will complement your china and glassware. For this dinner which is more formal, you should have an overhang of 10-15 inches on either side of the table to make it feel luxurious.
- Table runners can be used in lieu of a tablecloth for a more informal approach to the table setting. These can be made to run the entire length of the table and should have drops of 15 inches on either side. They can also be made to run crosswise to define the seating arrangements.
- Table napkins don't necessarily have to match the tablecloth. Choose napkins that pick up the colors of the cloth or the colors of your china and have them measure 18 inches to 24 inches. Napkins can be folded any number of ways or they can be used with napkin rings. Have a few extra napkins in case anyone drops them and line bowls or baskets with them meant to hold rolls. By the way, don't be gauche and tuck that napkin into your collar. It's not nice! Keep it tucked on your lap.
- Placemats are an easy option for those who don't want a tablecloth. They are best suited for a more informal meal though. Make sure your table is large enough to give plenty of space in between each place setting when using placemats. Four inches is a good rule of thumb.
- If you have a crafter in your family, ask them to make a few simple arrangements for you. Small wreaths can be made out of wheat or ears of corn and placecards can be made out of tiny pumpkins or gourds. You don't need to glitter everything to make it look nice.
- A cornucopia of fruits (fresh or dried) and nuts can be placed along the length of the table to create a sense of bounty. It can act as the centerpiece without any other adornment. If you have nuts in their shells, provide nutcrackers.
- Fresh flowers should be left to be arranged the day before Thanksgiving so that they are fresh & vibrant. Choose flowers that don't have strong scents that will compete with the aromas of the food being served and for conversation purposes, make low arrangements so that everyone can see one another. You're not holding a state dinner at the White House!
- Make room for it in your refrigerator. I always get fresh turkeys from a butcher which specializes in poultry, but I know many who buy frozen; determine 1 to 1 1/2 lbs for every guest. Frozen turkeys need to be given 24 hours of thawing in the refrigerator for every 4-5lbs. A 16-20lb. frozen turkey will take 4-5 days to thaw and a 20-24lb frozen turkey will take 5-6 days to thaw. Plan ahead! Have all of the necessary tools to prepare a good bird such as a roasting pan that can accommodate it, kitchen twine to truss it, a bulb baster to keep it moist as it cooks, a meat thermometer to check for doneness, a large platter to set it for serving and a sharpened knife to make carving easy & neat.
- If you plan on delegating sides to a few of your guests, make sure to tell them what to bring. You don't want any overlap. It's best if guests bring something that doesn't have to take up precious oven time from your preparations. Fresh vegetables make the best tasting sides, but in a pinch, frozen produce such as squash, spinach, baby lima beans or corn can be used with great success. If any of your recipes call for blanching the vegetables, do it a day in advance and keep them stored in the refrigerator until right before you saute and heat them.
- Mashed Potatoes are a must! Make room for them on your stovetop. I like to make the potatoes 2 hours before serving time and keep them in a covered bowl set over hot water on the stove. I leave a layer of milk on top of the spuds so that they don't dry out and do a final mix right before I put them in the serving bowl. If they do seem a little dry, add more milk or stock to lighten them.
- Bread doughs meant for rolls can be made early in the morning and be baked the moment the turkey comes out. It is helpful though to have a second oven, even if it's a countertop convection oven. These little ovens are a great help during the holidays for this purpose!
- Whether you're serving a red wine or white wine, or both, it's a good idea to buy a few bottles now. Visit your local wine store before the mad rush and calculate 6 pourings for every 750ml bottle. What you end up buying is up to you, but a good Pinot Noir is a good bet or any one that doesn't have a lot of tannins. We're having turkey not a porterhouse steak or prime rib. Save those for another occasion. What I do encourage is that you chill your whites thoroughly before serving time. It's nice to have 1 or 2 bottles of white wine in ice buckets at the dinner table for the first pouring and any subsequent bottles in the refrigerator. Red wines also benefit from a little chilling. These shouldn't be served ice cold, mind you, but they should not be served warm or at room temperature, despite what you might think. Giving a red up to 30 minutes of chilling in the refrigerator (never put wine bottles in the freezer!) makes it more quaffable.
- Pies, custards, cakes and cookies should be made a day or two ahead of time. Keep custards, pumpkin pies or cream pies well covered in the refrigerator and fruit pies or nut pies out at room temperature, well covered. Cakes made without any frostings or fillings (think pumpkin pound cake!) can be left out at room temperature well covered, as can any type of cookie. Pie or cake baking should not be done on Thanksgiving day. If any of your guests offer to bake something for your gathering, let them. Any sauces meant to accompany these desserts should also be made in advance and be stored properly in the refrigerator
- Whipped creams should be left until the last minute. If you're making a flavored whipped cream, steep the cream a day ahead and keep it in the refrigerator. The cream, bowl & whisk should be chilled in the refrigerator until serving time.
Coffees & Teas
- It's nice to offer both coffee and tea to accompany the dessert course. Have decaf coffee for those who prefer it and the necessary sugars, honeys & milk to go with these hot beverages.
After your most gracious host or hostess has finished with the last of the serving, do help out in some way with the clean up. Even if the washing is to be done by dishwasher, it's always nice to lend a hand. If antique glassware, silverware or china has been used, none of it should go in the dishwasher. Ask beforehand if you can be entrusted with these valuables, because some hosts will rather do it themselves. If you're going to be a guest at someone's home this Thanksgiving, offer to make or bring something for the table. And remember, a hostess gift goes a long way toward making anyone feel appreciated, so don't overlook it.
If you have a tried and true method on how to pull off this holiday dinner without a hitch, by all means stick with it. For the first-time host or hostess, or for those who need a little bit of prompting because you've been procrastinating, go through the list of items I've compiled and be realistic about what you can and can't do. Don't be afraid to ask for help when it comes to hosting a crowd this Thanksgiving, because most people generally do want to help out with the preparations. Use the list as a guide and tailor it to your specifications, wishes and festive approach to entertaining. Everyone has their own style and unique flair when it comes to entertaining, so use these personal touches to their advantage. The main point of this holiday is to be thankful, grateful & appreciative for what we have.