Thanksgiving is that ONE holiday, that one event, where even those who rarely cook, do, and those who cook a lot, go all out.  The following is a guide to getting yourself to Thanksgiving dinner, a meal of the highest spirits and expectations.  We’ll review professional-level organizational steps for pulling off this dinner with no wasted time, effort, or expense.  Remember, you can apply these strategies to any occasion when you gather people together over good food.

I’ll ask you to stick with me for a few pages.  Thanksgiving dinner requires managing many details; I decided not to spare you one.  Follow them and they’ll get you where you want to go.

1.   PLAN THE MENU

While I preach the inefficiency and inherent waste of strict menu planning, I make an exception for meals like Thanksgiving.  For starters, planning multi-course meals, lays out a set course.  But its uncelebrated value lies in the freedom planning gives us to imagine the meal we’d love to create.   For this occasion, maybe you’ll make your own pastry crust.  This time, try squash pickles or change tradition with new sides.  How about a special cocktail or giving it a go with custard?  Don’t forget hors d’oeurves and ideas for using up leftovers.  Be indulgent and ambitious when you plan your menu; run with every idea.

Scratch out your menu over a few sessions, if you can.  Then, coming back to it, ask yourself if it does what you want:  Is there enough to eat?  Enough variety?  Are too many dishes roasted or each hors d’oeurves a version of toasts with dip?  Is there a balance of splurge ingredients and those you can actually afford?  Is your idea for a stuffing tart a terrible one?  Once you ‘ve decided what to cook, the next steps might seem comparatively droll.  But they’ll also guide you through how you’re going to pull it all off.

2.   FIND THE HOLDING POINTS

Your menu leads to your prep list.   Gather your recipes, including those from books and cards, and any floating around in your head.  Write down the ones you have memorized, photocopy others, and sketch out any original ideas.  Put your information on paper, getting bulky books out of the way.

Next, edit your recipes.  You want to note all increased amounts of ingredients or substitutions.  If you are doubling the recipe for stuffing, for example, write this next to the recipe’s title, and then calculate each increased quantity.  While simple conversions—for example, changing “1 cup” of flour to “2”—may seem like needless notations to make, they are exactly the details that will later prevent much grief and waste.  This failsafe step isn’t just for beginner cooks.  It’s a good habit of experienced chefs, too.

Next, highlight your Holding Points.  These tell you where you can prep ahead, when you have the time.  You can find obvious Holding Points in the ingredient lines.  For example, “2 onions, chopped.”  You probably already know that cutting onions in advance is part and parcel of a standard mise en place, a collection of “readied” ingredients.  But you’ll want to look beyond these Holding Points to less obvious places to interrupt the recipe, suspend the cooking process, without any loss of quality to the final dish.   For example, if your stuffing calls for first caramelizing your chopped onion, you could do at least that much in advance.

3.   THE MASTER PREP LIST

Once you’ve combed through your recipes, combine the steps of each one into a larger list of tasks.  After all, you are not just cooking individual dishes; you are set to make an entire meal.

The Master Prep List does more than intertwine separate tasks.  It gets us to merge ones that are the same.  For example, if five recipes require onions, you want to clean your cutting board, sharpen your knife, and peel and slice them only once, rather than each separate time.

Making the Prep List

Next, grab a blank piece of paper and make columns like:  Two Days Before, Day Before, Day Of, and Last Minute.  If you have as much as a week ahead of you, you might have a preceding column of Anytime tasks, too.

Read over your recipes and put each discrete step, each Holding Point, in the column that comes earliest in time.  For example, why would you clean your potatoes for mashed potatoes on the Day Of when you can do so Two Days Before? Ideally, your longest lists should be the earliest ones (Anytime and Days Before), or at least on those days when you’ll have the most time to cook (i.e., The Weekend).  This minimizes what you have to do on the Day Of and at the Last Minute.

No surprise, you can use your freezer to get ahead.  Make, roll, and freeze your pie dough beforehand.  Do it, not only when you have time, but also when you aren’t distracted, like when friends drop by unannounced.  If you do freeze your dough, of course, then you also need to write “Thaw dough” on your list  before you plan to bake your pie, because the recipe (thoughtlessly ignoring your strategy) won’t remind you to.  You can add to your list things like Setting the Table or Buying Wine and Flowers, too.

One thing that distinguishes an experienced cook from a novice is her instinct for Holding Points.  For example, if you are making a Lemon Curd Tart whose recipe calls for pouring just-made curd into a pre-baked shell, you might know that making the curd itself a day or two beforehand means you can spoon it into the baked tart shell sometime before serving dinner, cutting a thirty minute Day Of task down to two.  If you lack such intuition, don’t despair; it doesn’t make dinner taste better.  But with practice, thinking this way makes you an increasingly adaptable cook.

As you list all the tasks of one recipe, draw a line underneath them to visually separate each dish from the others.  It will help you monitor the progress of the recipes as you go along.

Next, sit back and review the list.  If your last column—Last Minute—feels too long, see if you can shorten it.  Look within each step for smaller holding points you might have missed.  For example, out of the Last Minute task to “plate soup,” you might pull out “pick thyme leaves for garnish.”  Carving turkey might remind you to first “sharpen knives.”  If this process seems tiresome, consider how happy you’ll be that your a downsized Last Minute column leaves you time to shower before people come over.

4.   CONDENSE THE LIST

This next step I take only for meals with many different dishes, like Thanksgiving.  It’s overkill for other, simpler occasions.

To condense a prep list, you might organize tasks by common ingredient.  For example, if I plan to chop four onions for stuffing and slice two for soup, I’d write:

I’m reminded to prepare the same onions in different ways, and to portion out similarly-prepared onions between two different dishes.  This tells me, too, to label one container of sliced onions “Onions – soup” and another “Onions – turkey,” so I don’t have to guess later on.

You can also group like tasks together by common action.  For example, all items to wash go into one column.

At this point, you might notice relationships between dishes you hadn’t before.  If you are roasting turnips for a side, you might think to toss their greens into the salad (make a note of it).  If you’re using fennel for the same salad, maybe you’ll add the fronds to the stuffing.  The best part is, even in the thick of exacting transcription, there is still room for improvisation.

Write The Shopping List

Write your shopping list for easy reference.   Start each line with the name of the ingredient, followed by type, then quantity.The best way to organize a shopping list is not by type of food (dairy, dry goods, produce) but by location in your store, and ordered by how you routinely move through it.

Don’t worry about standardizing measurements—in my experience, shopping list programs that ask you to do so lead to error, if not waste.  For example, a recipe that calls for “1 cup sliced onion” does not translate into an exact quantity we can buy.  Therefore, I leave my ingredients in designations as they appear in the recipe, making the call about how many onions to get only when I’m in the market aisle staring at what’s there.  My shopping list might start to look like this:

Onions, 2 small + 1 cup chopped

And if I think I’ll forget what a particular item is for, I’ll make a notation next to it.  For example:

Onions, 2 small (for roasting) + 1 cup chopped

This helps me make off-the-cuff but still smart decisions about possible or necessary substitutions (if shallots look better than onions. . .), and about quantities appropriate to buy (would two extra large onions cover everything?)  I have the information in the shopping list at the ready to immediately improvise other options.

With a large dinner, of course, you’ll need to add up various quantities of the same ingredient, as they appear in different recipes.  To avoid inevitable errors, I don’t do this in my head.  For example, if I plan to make several desserts, my line for “butter” might look start to something like this:

Butter, 1 ½ cup + ¾ cup + 2 lbs + 3 T + 4 ounces

Before I head to the store, I total the amounts, so I don’t have to do this in a crowded aisle.  With something like butter, the different measurements are easily converted to each other.  I would choose one that matches how butter is typically sold (by weight).  The total, in this case, would be almost 3 ½ pounds.

Bundle your shopping list, task list and recipes together.  If you’re inclined to lose things, make copies of everything before you shop.  Bring a pen.  If you have a chance to buy items in bulk, maybe bring measuring cups, too.  I wonder why I don’t see people doing this more often.  You can eliminate excess ingredients, while mise-ing them out in the aisle.

And don’t forget to check your pantry.  In fact, this should be your first stop.  Make sure your spices are fresh and that you have stock enough of the basic items.  Don’t assume you have salt to make a many-course meal for 20, when you don’t ever think about it with dinner for four.  I rarely list salt as an ingredient on my shopping list, because it’s a waste of time to add up the many incremental amounts.  If, however, salt plays a prominent role, like it would for salt-baked fish, then I’d list it on its own.

5.  START TO COOK

Work through the items on your task list, labeling the containers or bags that you put your prep in.  And be specific.  If you chop onions for stuffing and some for gravy, indicate that.  Avoid having to re-read a recipe or re-measure a prepped amount.  Additionally, while you previously combined your prep for different recipes, now you want to separate it again to store.  Place prepped items belonging to the same dish together, so you can pull them out at once.  Chefs call these bundles of ingredients “Kits.”  A basic Stuffing Kit might include chopped onions and celery, pre-measured and chopped herbs, and bread cubes.   Remember to cross items off of your prep list as you go, making notations when you need to, such as: “onions (2 containers), one in neighbor’s fridge.”

Inevitably, some tasks get rearranged as you cook through your list, but at least you’ll know, as you go, what the Day Of will look like when it arrives.  You’ll start cooking Thanksgiving morning with recipes you’ve already started, assembling the meal as a single project, not one recipe at a time.   On this last day, you might write yourself a separate (final!) list of Day Of tasks, putting things to do in sequential order, where appropriate, and giving yourself an overview of work that remains.  Likely, you’ll want to add things to it, such as “find extra wine glasses” or “eat breakfast!”

I like to work with recipes taped to my kitchen cabinets.  This gets them off the counter and keeps me from continually cycling through the same stack of papers to look something up.   On this last day, when a recipe is completed, I finally take it down.  Of course, as recipes come down, finished platters fill the table.  At the day’s end, you’ll have pulled off a feat for a feast of your own imagining, not once having to run to the store for a forgotten ingredient, and without having woken up at the usual 4 am.

Still looking for extra help?  In New York, you can order stocks, dough, brine, butters, and more from Purple Kale Provisions.  Proceeds go to Sandy relief.  Deadline is this Friday!  To order, click HERE.

Last workshops of the year coming up!  December 1st and 2nd.  For more information, click HERE.