Stay one step ahead this holiday season.
Mishaps are common (even expected) when prepping and hosting a Thanksgiving gathering. There’s so much going on with the cooking, setting the table, making sure guests are happy and well-fed, etc. Obviously the best tip is to plan ahead, but sometimes you can plan the whole day to the exact minute and still have some problems.
To keep the fiascos to a minimum this holiday, we asked chefs about the most common mistakes people make when prepping and cooking their Thanksgiving meal and what to do instead. They shared some extremely helpful tips that can help make the day not exactly stress-free because we don’t live in a perfect world, but at least a little less stressful and more enjoyable. Read on and take notes.
1. Overcomplicating the Menu
Forget about the fancy or complicated dishes and make it easier on yourself. “Make sure to make your menu easy with as many items as you can prepped in advanced,” says Shane McAnelly, executive chef at Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, California. “So often people try to make everything last minute and before you know it you’re eating Thanksgiving dinner at 8 PM, or things are cold/overcooked/undercooked/etc.”
And remember: store-bought can be fine. “Don’t feel like you need to tackle a dozen dishes plus five pies all from scratch; in addition to letting guests bring some things, explore local restaurants or a caterer to fill in some of the holes,” says chef Eric Klein of Wolfgang Puck Catering.
2. Shopping Too Late
Want to avoid stress? Shop early so you don’t have to deal with crowds. “Break it into two trips,” chef-owner of Oakland’s Bombera Dominica Rice Cisneros says. “Many of your items like yukon gold potatoes, yams, pumpkin, Brussels sprouts, green beans will all be fine for a week. Go the week of for items like herbs, mushrooms, etc.”
3. Overthinking It
“The holidays are meant to be enjoyable, a time to gather with loved ones around the table. If making an elaborate spread isn’t your thing, that’s okay. Contrary to popular belief, the food should play the backup role. The company is the main character,” says Gavin Fine, owner/chef of The Bistro at The Cloudveil in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
4. Not Prepping
Almost every chef said this is a big mistake. “One of the most common and significant mistakes I often observe when people are preparing and cooking their Thanksgiving meal is inadequate advance planning,” says chef Craig Wilmer of Farmhouse Restaurant at The Farmhouse Inn in Forestville, California. “Many tend to underestimate the amount of time and effort required for a Thanksgiving feast. Failing to adequately prepare can result in overcooked or undercooked dishes, missed flavor opportunities, and limited time for creative touches—not to mention added stress.”
Executive Chef of VAGA Restaurant & Bar in Encinitas, California, Claudette Zepeda, adds that you shouldn’t try to make everything scratch the day of. “Give yourself a runway of a couple of days. Prep your vegetables (peel, dice), clean and pick herbs, brine the turkey, etc.” she says.
And get your “mise en place” together in advance. “Washing, peeling, cutting, slicing all the ingredients that can hold up without impacting flavor or food safety, is the only way you’ll be able to actually spend time with your friends and family while hosting,” says Ryan Pollnow, co-chef at Flour + Water Hospitality Group. “Since refrigeration space gets hard, I’d also recommend saving your reusable takeout containers in the weeks before to help organize your mise en place, so all those prepped ingredients are ready to go when you are cooking on Thanksgiving.”
You can even make all your sides in advance, Alan Kwan, executive chef of Alila Ventana Big Sur, suggests. “A lot of things keep really well ahead of time, such as stuffing—that stays well ahead of time in the fridge, then throw it in the oven before the meal,” he says. “You can make almost all your sides and apps ahead of time, then reheat and garnish/put the finishing touches on ahead of serving.”
5. Miscalculating Food Portions
James Jung, executive chef at SET Steak & Sushi in Newport Beach, California, says people can make mistakes with portion size. “People always underestimate the amount of food and start prepping way more than what’s needed,” he says. “Nowadays, there are apps like meez that can calculate portions based on the size of your party.”
Executive Chef at Mountain Shadows Resort Scottsdale, Charles Wiley, breaks it down even further: “Figure 1 lb. whole turkey per person, ½ lb. stuffing, ½ lb. mashed potatoes, ½ cup gravy, ¼ cup cranberry sauce. You will have plenty of leftovers, but you’re not cooking for an army and you don’t want to run out on Thanksgiving.”
6. Not Planning Around Oven Space
“Biggest mistake I see is they don’t realize the ovens will all be full at the same time,” says Meg Walker, founder, CEO and executive chef of Made by Meg, MBM Hospitality. “You have to plan around how much oven space you have. A turkey usually takes one whole oven away. For potluck-style meals you have to remember people are coming in with cold dishes and need oven space too!”
You also don’t want to overcrowd the oven. “Trying to cook too many dishes at once can lead to uneven cooking and variations in temperature. Proper planning and allocation of oven space can prevent this,” adds chef-restaurateur Matt Horn of Horn Barbecue, Kowbird, and Matty’s Old Fashioned in Oakland.
To deal with a lack of oven space, Brooke Williamson, owner and executive chef of Playa Provisions in Playa del Rey, California, uses other forms of heat and cooking sources—she likes making a flavored rice dish in the rice cooker as a side dish. You get a side without having to take up oven real estate.
In addition to thinking about the oven space, you’ll want to think about refrigerator space. “People buy a lot of food products and try to prep everything before they figure out that they do not have enough refrigeration space to keep everything cold and also not enough tools to cook everything correctly,” Ewart Wardhaugh, director of food and beverage at the InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown.
7. Bad Time Management
“One of the most common mistakes is underestimating how much time it takes to prep and cook a Thanksgiving meal,” explains Massimo Falsini, chef of Caruso’s at Rosewood Miramar Beach in Montecito, California. “Start early, and have a detailed timeline or schedule for each dish, including defrosting the turkey, preparing side dishes, and baking pies. Being well-organized can prevent last-minute rushes and stress.”
8. Not Testing New Recipes
“Thanksgiving is not the best time to experiment with brand-new recipes you’ve never tried before. Stick to dishes you’re familiar with and have successfully made before,” Falsini says. But if you do want to make a new recipe, do a test-run before the big day.
9. Forgetting to Set the Table Ahead of Time
“Setting the table, the night before or the morning of Thanksgiving will take one task off your plate the day of and keep you from letting the food get cold (or burn) while you’re running around putting out silverware at the last minute,” Klein says. “And if you have any guests who you don’t want to end up next to each other, create place settings with names and set them out early as well. Don’t forget the children’s table to make it fun. For the buffet: Place the trays or platters so you know how the final looks will be (and not forgetting any dishes).”
10. Under Seasoning
“One of the biggest mistakes is that they under-season their food. The difference between chefs and home cooks is seasoning—we use way more kosher salt than you would,” says Brad Wise, chef/owner at Trust Restaurant Group in San Diego. “But remember: a lot of that seasoning is going to fall off when you cook, and when you use kosher salt, it’s less salty than regular table salt so you need more of it in your dish.”
Instead of just seasoning with salt and pepper, Hernan Melendez, executive chef of Carmel Valley Ranch in Carmel, California, likes to make a wet rub with a good olive oil base. He puts olive oil, onion, garlic, champagne vinegar or sour orange, oregano, cumin, paprika, and thyme in a food processor and leaves it marinated on the bird for two days before cooking.
Additionally, now is not the time to be afraid of butter. Chef Joe Hou of Tenderheart and Rise Over Run in San Francisco says one big mistake he sees is people not using enough butter or cream in mashed potatoes.
11. Not Salting Your Water Enough
“For mashed potatoes, salt your water—it should taste like the sea,” recommends The Resort at Pelican Hill’s Director of Culinary Operations Kyung Carroll. “This will keep you from over salting your potatoes. (pro tip: slightly overcook those potatoes and if you have a Kitchenaid put the whisk attachment on and whip them with your already warm cream and butter).”
12. Not Leaving Enough Time to Thaw the Turkey
“For those cooking a frozen turkey, not allowing sufficient time for it to thaw properly can result in a partially cooked bird. Plan ahead and follow recommended thawing guidelines,” advises Edward de Decker, food and beverage general manager at Call Me Pearl at The Rally Hotel in Denver.
Reden Ramos, executive chef at Hell’s Kitchen at Harrah’s Resort Southern California, suggests thawing the turkey in the fridge five days before cooking and brining the turkey two days before.
13. Stuffing the Bird
“It has been said before but if you are going to cook your bird whole do not stuff it. You run several risks. Either the inside doesn’t cook all the way and you are left with stuffing that has undercooked turkey juice inside. On the other end of the spectrum if you cook it long enough for the stuffing to be done generally the rest of the turkey will be overcooked,” Christopher Osborne, executive chef at Wolfie’s Carousel Bar in San Diego, California, says.
14. Putting the Turkey in an Oven Too Hot
Chef Alexandre Viriot of La Societe in San Francisco advises against putting the turkey in an extra hot over. “I recommend starting it low at 275/300 degrees and then crank it up to 400 degrees for the last 30 minutes to crisp up the skin. Also, don’t be shy on butter!”
15. Overcooking the Turkey
Overcooking the turkey leads to something that is dry and flavorless. “A turkey or roast beef needs to rest to allow the juices to go back into the center. As this happens the temperature will continue to rise, thus where the majority of the overcooking happens. Pull your roast 10 degrees (15 if it has a bone) under your target temperature and rest for 20-30 minutes depending on the size of the roast,” says Jason Pringle, executive chef at Montage Healdsburg.
You can also avoid this common mistake by spatchcocking the turkey (removing the backbone), adds Jesse Mallgren, executive chef at Jordan Winery in Healdsburg, California.
16. Not Letting Your Turkey Rest
Be patient and don’t be quick to carve. “Rest it for at least an hour after you pull it from the oven,” Wise says. “The bird needs that time to redistribute juices and settle. So when you go to cut it, your meat is going to be juicy and tender. It’s the best thing you can do.”
17. Not Tasting Your Dishes
“You always want to be tasting your food making sure it’s not burnt, under-done, soggy, or overcooked,” chef Hannon Matern of Videre in Los Angeles says. “There’s nothing more depressing then seeing a perfectly cooked turkey that’s as bland as card board. Remember, you can always crush a little sea salt to finish a dish but you can’t take it away.”
18. Serving All Hot Dishes
“If all of your dishes are to be served hot, you likely won’t have enough burners or oven space to allow them all to be kept hot before serving. Do yourself a favor and serve a cold or room-temperature dish such as a salad,” Klein recommends.
19. Forgetting the Appetizers and Side Dishes
Appetizers can come in handy if the other dishes are taking longer to cook. “Appetizers can keep guests from getting hungry and relieve some of the pressure of getting the meal on the table. Set out some light and easy snacks or grazing boards or small bites,” says Klein.
And don’t neglect your sides! “The turkey tends to get most of the attention, but don’t forget about the side dishes,” Falsini says. “Overlooking them or not giving them proper attention can lead to a less satisfying meal.”
20. Letting the Food Go Cold
“When serving so many different items, it’s common for the food to get cold. Organization and timing is essential in cooking and reheating dishes to ensure everything is at the temperature you want it to be when you sit down to eat,” says Kathy Sidell, owner of Saltie Girl (locations in Los Angeles, Boston, and London).
21. Forgetting Fresh Herbs
Not only can they add more flavor to the food, they can also make your dishes look aesthetically pleasing. “For me cooking with herbs its my secret weapon,” adds chef Marva Desimone of TATEL Beverly Hills.
22. Trying to Do Everything
Assign tasks to others. “Don’t be afraid to delegate. No heroes, everyone is there, put them to work!” says Dave Beran, chef at Pasjoli in Santa Monica.
You can also ask guests to bring dishes to supplement your menu, too. “It’s better as a host to make five to six solid dishes than 10 mediocre ones,” adds Kaleo Adams, executive chef at Sandpiper at Oceana Santa Monica.
23. Stressing Too Much
“The most important part is being surrounded by family and friends! But do have a backup plan just in case. Make sure to have gravy or some kind of sauce in cause your turkey comes out a little drier than expected. Slice your turkey thin to help it taste dry,” says chef Tony Nguyen of Crustacean Beverly Hills.