The Barefoot Contessa certainly knows how to host a feast.
If there's anyone who loves Thanksgiving, it's Ina Garten. After all, the star of Food Network's Barefoot Contessa has made an entire career for herself by sharing easy tips and tricks for pulling off the ultimate dinner party. Ina's very first rule to a perfect Thanksgiving meal is so important that she actually wrote an entire cookbook around it. Make It Ahead, the New York Times best-seller, taught us just how many delicious meals you can make days before a big event.
There's no doubt that Garten will spend the days before Thanksgiving whipping up a few of her must-have side dishes—including her version of chipotle smashed sweet potatoes—and plenty of desserts. But even Ina knows there's more to a successful Thanksgiving feast than just meal prepping in advance.
Every home cook faces different challenges when it comes to Thanksgiving dinner, like how to perfectly roast a large turkey without drying it out, or how to adapt a menu for guests with special diets (more on that later). But the brilliant mind behind 11 different cookbooks—including Cook Like a Pro, which is an essential read for novice home cooks looking to master the basics—has quite a few tricks up her sleeve to help you conquer Turkey Day.
We're walking you through eight of Ina Garten's most essential tips and tricks to pull off a delicious and easy Thanksgiving spread this year. If you're looking for healthy Thanksgiving recipes, visit Cooking Light's Thanksgiving page where you'll find everything you need for your celebration.
More essential tips and tricks to win Thanksgiving:
- Our Best Tips for the Most Stress-Free Thanksgiving Ever
- The Very Best Healthy Thanksgiving Recipes and Menu Ideas
- 10 Hacks to Save Time This Thanksgiving
1) Make Your Sides Ahead of Time
This is one Garten's most important tips for managing a Thanksgiving feast, and one that she suggested multiple times after sitting down for a Thanksgiving tell-all interview with InStyle.
Some of the most essential side dishes can be made a few days before Thanksgiving (like these perfectly whipped mashed potatoes.) Ina says the key to reheating them on Thanksgiving is your oven. Scoop your potatoes, grains, or vegetable casseroles into a gratin dish or Dutch oven, sprinkle extra cheese on top, and bake it.
Ina also told Food52, “You can keep [mashed potatoes] warm in a pan set over simmering water if you want to make them in the morning and serve them in the afternoon.”
Ina's favorite Thanksgiving side is roasted Brussels sprouts. “This recipe is about as simple as it gets,” Garten explained to InStyle. “And what makes all the difference is sprinkling just enough salt." You can take a peek at Ina's Brussels sprouts recipe here.
2) Stay Away from Recipes You've Never Made Before
Thanksgiving isn't the time to test out a recipe you've never made before, Garten says. In an interview with Good Housekeeping, Ina suggests writing out a menu in advance with all of the recipes you're going to work on—plus the ingredients needed for each recipe. If there's something you’re not familiar with, you may want to practice with it ahead of time, or choose another dish.
This is also a chance to think about ingredients your guests may be allergic to (such as dairy or nuts). If you're welcoming guests with certain dietary restrictions into your home, you want to create a menu that everyone can eat, not just a single "safe" dish.
3) Don't Fry Your Turkey—It'll Ruin More Than Just Your Diet
Garten isn't a fan of fried turkey, and not just because it adds calories and fat. "Nobody wants a trip to the hospital. It's dangerous. You're dealing with a huge cauldron of hot fat, and you're lowering this turkey into it," Ina told Time, taking a firm stance against the recent Thanksgiving trend. "Just put it into the oven."
Ina isn't the only one who is opposed to deep-fried turkey. James Corden's "5 Reasons Not to Deep Fry Your Turkey" went viral back in 2015, showing how easy it is to set off a massive fire when lowering a cold turkey into hot oil.
An oven is easier (and safer) than a deep fryer, but Ina has a few tips for those who may feel nervous about roasting a whole turkey for the first time, too.
4) Cook Your Stuffing Separately—It'll Help Keep Your Turkey Moist
"Traditional stuffing can get so soggy," Garten told InStyle. “Cook your stuffing separately from the turkey to avoid overcooking the bird.”
Garten will often serve a savory bread pudding in lieu of a more traditional stuffing recipe. Whether you choose to cook bread pudding or stuffing, choosing to do so in a casserole dish outside of your turkey will ensure the bird isn't dry.
5) Keep Your Turkey Simple
Ina shared her "make-ahead" roasted turkey recipe with Vogue back in 2016, highlighting that a simple rub of salt, lemon zest, and thyme is enough to make flavors really shine.
"Everybody gets so crazy about the turkey, but the turkey isn't the star of the meal," Ina tells Katie Couric in the video below. "Sometimes it's the side dishes. Take it easy, take a deep breath: roast it like you would a large chicken...Let it rest, cover it, and let the juices return into the turkey."
Choosing the perfect turkey for your event is key, too—and with so many different options on the market, Cooking Light has an expert guide for first-time shoppers right here.
6) Don't Overthink Appetizers, Either
Many home cooks are nervous about welcoming guests into their home and worry about what appetizers they should make, but Ina makes a really good point—no one is expecting fantastic hors d'oeuvres before the main Thanksgiving spread.
"Just serve nuts, great olives, or even figs and prosciutto with a bottle of wine or Champagne," Ina told Good Housekeeping.
While there are plenty of amazing appetizers to make from her Barefoot Contessa cookbooks, Ina Garten isn't one to overthink apps. In fact, she's been known to throw dinner parties where she serves no-cook, store-bought appetizers to her guests.
7) Skip Store-Bought Desserts
Thanksgiving is the ultimate occasion to do some seasonal baking, and store-bought pumpkin pie is never as good as homemade. Desserts are the very first thing you should cross off your to-do list, Garten says, as you can make pies, cakes, tarts, and other treats several days in advance.
"It’s a fabulous thing to serve because it’s refrigerated, so you can make it days in advance, leave it in the fridge, and then just turn it over,” she tells Food52.
Desserts are also an opportunity to have your guests contribute to dinner. Ina Garten will purposefully ask each guest to bring a dessert, which is a simple way to include them in the festivities, according to Good Housekeeping.
8) Choose One Wine for the Table, and Serve It Straight from the Bottle
If you were noshing on one of Ina's Thanksgiving spreads, Garten would serve one special bottle of wine and keep it flowing all night long.
“With Thanksgiving there’s enough to do already, so I think wine is really easy,” Garten tells InStyle. “Take out the cork, you’re ready to go."
If you're looking for a perfect wine to pair with your turkey, these six delicious options are all under $30—and you can ask your guests to bring a bottle, too.