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Day 18: How to Host a Stress-Free Thanksgiving

Friends, the week is nearly over. And what a week. I think I could literally sleep half the weekend!! I ended up moving today’s photo shoot to Monday, because I simply could not face a day of grocery shopping, prepping, and hauling props and that big wooden flooring board up to the apartment…and then returning it all! I’m trying to learn when enough is enough. And giving myself the grace to deviate from my plans from time to time.

I have to say (in spite of the fact that I was so worried about it) the highlight of my week was the West Elm class. I used to teach cooking classes years ago at a Viking Culinary Arts Center, and I had forgotten how much I love teaching. Especially when it comes to entertaining, I love to help ease peoples’ fears. It’s crazy how this perceived need for perfection really plagues people (myself included!), and robs them of the joy of cooking for friends.

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I think there are three keys to stress-free entertaining: 1) Plan ahead. Develop a game plan for shopping and prep and get started up to a week in advance. 2) Do as much in advance as possible. Saving things to the last minute will always cause panic. I make my goal to be mostly done when the guests arrive so I can enjoy spending time with them! 3) Throw perfection out the window. Your friends are not expecting you to be Martha Stewart – they’re expecting you to be YOU (who they already love and adore). And having a relaxed ‘you’ with a simplified menu is way better than a stressed-out Martha wannabe.

The topic of this week’s class was Thanksgiving – what to cook, how to come up with a pre-party game plan, how to pair wines with your meal, and a few simple table decorating tips. I’ve hosted Thanksgiving twice so far in our apartment (plus a faux Thanksgiving once for a newspaper story) and I’ve learned a bunch of tips to make the experience as fun – and low-stress – as possible. For those of you who weren’t at the class, I want to share my guide with you all here, including menu ideas and $12 wine pairings!

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ANNA’S STRESS-FREE THANKSGIVING TIPS

*Set your table the night before. In fact, do as much as you can a day or two before-pick dishes that you can make in advance (check out the game plan below for ideas) and reheat just before guests arrive.

*Don’t try and make everything yourself. One year I went all out and made the turkey, eight side dishes, and two pumpkin pies. It about killed me. This year, I’m doing the turkey and a few sides and asking my guests to each bring a favorite side dish or a dessert and a bottle of wine. Going potluck is brilliant because you won’t get stuck with all the cooking — and the cost. Plus guests love to feel like they’ve contributed something to the meal.

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*Keep the menu simple. There may be 10 fabulous new recipes you are dying to try, but Thanksgiving is not the time to try them all. Use the menu below as a guide, but don’t necessarily try and tackle the whole thing!

*Ask someone to come early and bring appetizers so guests have something to nibble on when they arrive. (You can suggest the recipes below!) That way you can put the finishing touches on the meal and everyone can have a drink and mingle in the living room. This is actually a really nice way to break the ice before everyone sits down at the table (and it buys you a good hour or so).

*Impressing your guests should not be your goal. This is Thanksgiving — it should be a time of warmth and family and friends. Make sure everybody is comfortable, but remember this is actually supposed to be fun for you too!

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*Think about which dishes can be made in advance (the more, the better!), which ones will need the oven, which ones can cook on the stove top, and which ones need to be chilled. The timing of Thanksgiving can be tricky since the turkey is in the oven for several hours leading up to the meal, and there are usually other dishes that need to go in the oven too.

*There is no shame in ordering some of your food from a restaurant or a grocery store. Maybe you hate cooking turkey — order it! Or make the turkey and pick up a pumpkin pie at a local bakery. Enjoying your guests is the goal, and they would rather have a relaxed you than an over-the-top meal that keeps you chained to the kitchen all day.

*Try and incorporate some simple, healthy side dishes into your Thanksgiving menu. Guests are guaranteed to bring fattening casseroles and desserts, so balance things out with some deliciously healthy veggie sides (see below for ideas). That way you’ll feel energized after the meal instead of comatose.

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*Consider asking a friend to stay after and help with the dishes in lieu of bringing food, or hire someone for a couple of hours the next day to come help with clean-up. For me, this is the biggest stress-reliever of all-not having to do all the dishes myself!

*Keep a bottle of bubbly in the fridge and have a glass before guests arrive. Remember to have fun-otherwise why bother hosting?

*At the end of the day, Thanksgiving is about being thankful. So don’t lose sight of that important fact as you’re cooking your big meal!

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THANKSGIVING DAY MENU + WINE PAIRINGS (click on links for recipes)

Spicy Roasted Nuts with Maple & Rosemary

Crostini with Brie & Sundried Tomato Tapenade

Endive Spears with Blue Cheese, Pears, Walnuts & Sherry Vinaigrette

Ca’ Furlan Cuvee Beatrice Prosecco

Herb-Roasted Turkey with Maple Cider Brine

Roasted Delicata Squash with Kale and Pomegranate Seeds

Farro with Wild Mushrooms

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Lemon and Pecorino

Windspiel Gruner Veltliner 2012

Gravelly Ford Pinot Noir 2011

Pumpkin Madeleines

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PREP GAME PLAN:

One Week Before: Order the wine. Make the Madeleines and freeze them. Stock up on anything you need for the table (place cards, votive candles, etc.)

Four Days Before: Make spicy mixed nuts. Grocery shop.

Three Days Before: Make Sundried Tomato Tapenade.

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Two Days Before: Make turkey brine; chill.

Day Before: Brine turkey for 24 hours. Make Farro. Sauté the mushrooms. Roast the Delicata squash. Set the table! Stock up on ice and any other last-minute items you need. Thaw Madeleines. Chill wine.

Morning of: Rinse turkey well and pat dry; roast. Combine faro & mushrooms and reheat. Roast Brussels sprouts after turkey comes out of the oven. Finish the kale and Delicata salad. Assemble hors d’oeuvres. Pour yourself a glass of Prosecco – you earned it!

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I hope this guide helps take a little stress out of your Thanksgiving Day planning. And by all means, please feel free to email me or comment below with any questions or concerns you may have. I’m happy to help! :)

Have a great weekend everyone, and see you next week!

xo, Anna

All photos were taken by the very handsome Brandon Carl.




My name is Anna Watson Carl. In a word, I love food, I love France, and I love throwing dinner parties. Over the years, I've worked as a personal chef, taught cooking classes, edited cookbooks, written for magazines, tested and styled recipes, and traveled whenever opportunity has arisen. But at heart, there's nothing I love more than sharing a meal with friends around the yellow table.

For me, cooking has always been a way of life. As a (mildly precocious) ten-year old, I planned and prepared a four-course Valentine's dinner for my parents, birthing a lifelong passion for dinner parties. That was just the beginning. I've been cooking ever since, whipping up souffles at a chateau in Burgundy, searing filet mignon for a wealthy client's dog (bizarre, but true), butchering ducks for confit de canard in Paris, baking the night shift in Nashville, and bathing the floor of my NYC apartment in turkey brine...the story continues.

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