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Our Best Tips for the Most Stress-Free Thanksgiving Ever

Photo: Jennifer Causey

Relax and enjoy. This is the Thanksgiving that goes off without a hitch. We collected our staff's hard-earned wisdom after many decades of Thanksgiving meals and created this list of things you just shouldn't sweat. Let these practical tips be your guide for the most stress-free holiday of the year. Yes, it's possible. We'll show you how.

By following these "Don't Sweat It" tips from our food team, you will be the master of Thanksgiving this year in all its family and food glory. Let the how-to edition of our annual Thanksgiving cookbook be your secret weapon from turkey troubles to the right way to ask for help in the kitchen. Believe us, there is a tip for everything. 

Photo: Jennifer Causey
  • Appetizer Affair: Serve appetizers that fare best at room temperature so you can move them out of the kitchen early and focus on the meal. Skip fussy canapés or tartlets: Large-format appetizers allow guests to munch as little or as much as they like. No time to make the apps? Cheese, mixed nuts, and olives are completely fine. Opt for unsalted nuts and lower-sodium olives, such as Castelvetranos, so guests don't fill up on salty food.
  • Build an Appetite: Guests will arrive hungry, but it's not your job to serve an extra meal (and you don't want them to get too full). Refill apps sparingly, and encourage guests to take a walk or play a game rather than mindlessly nibble all day long.
  • Make Trays That Travel: Keep appetizers mobile—each on its own tray with any necessary utensils and napkins—so they can circulate out of the busy kitchen and around chatting guests. They will also be easier to clear and replenish.
  • Save Some for Later: Set out a portion of each appetizer rather than the full dish; otherwise they will take up too much space. Refill trays as needed throughout the afternoon, and stop refilling about an hour before the meal.
  • Set Out an Extra Bin: Have a dedicated receptacle for wadded napkins, toothpicks, olive pits, and other trash in the living area so guests aren't constantly searching for the garbage can in your kitchen.
  • Let Guests Help: If you have no kitchen tasks for helpful guests before the meal, ask them to fill water glasses, collect dirty plates, assign seats, and set finished dishes on the buffet.
Photo: Daniel Agee
  • Need Help? Just Ask: Tell the wine seller what you like and what you'd like to spend. He or she will guide you to the right bottle. There are no wrong questions or answers: Serve whatever makes you and your guests happy.
  • Don't Beat the Heat: Forget about every dish emerging piping hot from the oven right before serving. It won't happen. Holiday dishes are designed to be delicious warm or at room temperature. Loosely cover pans with foil, and reheat in a warm oven, no more than 300°F, a few minutes before serving, if needed.
  • Plan by Color: When planning your Thanksgiving menu, don't fret over including all the classics or everyone's favorites. Instead, think by color: a balance of orange, green, golden brown, pops of red, and so on. This will ensure a good mix of food groups, plenty of variety, and a gorgeous spread that will satisfy everyone's tastes.
Photo: Jennifer Causey
  • Use Old Bread: Stuffing is even better with stale bread because it toasts faster. Enjoy a couple of slices earlier in the week, and set the rest aside. If you run low on baking dishes (this holiday demands many), portion the stuffing into individual muffin cups, and bake at 375°F for about 20 minutes. You'll save oven time and get more crispy edges per serving.
  • Stop Stressing the Turkey: If you fear under- or overcooked turkey, relax. There are quick solutions to both. Cover the breast loosely with foil in the last 10 minutes so it will be done, not dry, when the thigh reaches 160°F (juices should also run clear). Revive dry meat by soaking slices in warm chicken broth or stock.
Photo: Jennifer Causey
  • Don't Skip This Dish: Can't possibly cook one more thing? Try a fresh cranberry relish. Quarter 1 medium navel orange and pulse in a food processor with 1 (12-oz.) package cranberries and ¼ cup sugar until finely chopped. You can also make the sauce a few days ahead. Just skip the can—it tastes too sweet, and you'll miss the tang of fresh cranberries.
  • Let Dessert Be Relaxed: Dessert calls for less fanfare than the meal, so don't feel the need to fuss or rush. Once dinner dishes are cleared, set a stack of small plates and desserts on the table and let everyone help themselves. A messy kitchen gives grateful guests more chances to help: One can package leftovers, another can load the dishwasher, another can rinse, and another can dry.
  • Bake and Forget: Pies and dense cakes do fine for a few hours at room temperature; bake these first so you can forget about them until serving. Last minute sauces and whipped cream can come together while plates are cleared.
  • Skip the Fine China: Plates that require delicate handling and hand-washing just aren't practical. Sturdy white dinner plates are best for the job. Have plenty of dishes but none that match? An eclectic mix of servingware looks more inviting anyway.

Now that you've mastered the stress-free prep, use our tips for Setting Up the Perfect Thanksgiving Buffet to help you present all the food you worked so hard to prepare. Making a spread that is both inviting and efficient is easier than you might think.