Your Thanksgiving Cheat Sheet

The days of sweating over a turkey or stressing over mashed potatoes are over! We've rounded up the best hints and cheats from expert chefs and authors to help you keep your cool while prepping this mother of a meal. Armed with our advice, your big feast will be a breeze.

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The First Step to an Easy Thanksgiving: Make a Plan

Jennifer Causey

The First Step to an Easy Thanksgiving: Make a Plan

  • "When putting together the menu, don't overwhelm yourself by making a variety of food options. Prep one salad instead of three. It requires fewer serving dishes and less counter space." --Kelsey Nixon, host of Cooking Channel's Kelsey's Essentials and author of Kitchen Confidence
  • Write down your cooking schedule. Start with the time you want everyone to be sitting down at a table full of food, and then work backwards.
  • Pull out serving dishes and label them with pieces of paper so that you know what everything will be served in, says Nixon. It is a small step, but in that last crucial hour it can be a lifesaver.
  • "Plan side dishes by cooking method, such as roasting or sautéeing, so you don't have seven items that need a burner to cook or heat up when you only have four burners." --Andrew Zimmern, host of Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods America
  • Ask your guests to bring side dishes such as salads or cranberry sauce. It will make your life as host a little bit easier.

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Assemble Your Appetizers: No-Cook Nibbles

Jennifer Causey

Assemble Your Appetizers: No-Cook Nibbles

  • "You're about to have a feast, so keep starters simple and light. Nuts and marinated olives are among the lowest-maintenance possibilities, but if you absolutely must prepare something, figs and blue cheese or prosciutto-wrapped pear slices are elegant and come together quickly." --Mark Bittman, New York Times columnist and author of How to Cook Everything Fast
  • "Pick up some fun specialty vegetables at the farmers' market to serve with store-bought dips as an appetizer. Yellow cauliflower and purple carrots, for example, are exciting and different but still within the zone of familiarity." --Ellie Krieger, R.D., author of Weeknight Wonders

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Make a Pilgrim-Hat Dip Station

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3 Sipping Tips

3 Sipping Tips

Break out the corkscrew and follow this advice from Jennifer Desmond, NYC wine writer and educator.

1. Before the meal offer your guests cava, a bright, bubbly white wine from Spain. It will remind everyone of champagne, but it's easier on the wallet.
2. Have one type of white and one type of red on hand for the feast. Look for inexpensive dry Rieslings and pinot noirs, which are versatile and pair well with different flavors.
3. Plan on one bottle of wine for every two drinkers. If you end up with extra, it won't go to waste.

Desmond's Picks

  • Bohigas Cava Brut Reserva, Spain
  • 2011 Trimbach Riesling, France
  • 2012 Ritual Pinot Noir, Chile
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Prep the Sides Ahead

Jennifer Causey

Prep the Sides Ahead

  • "Try to do everything in advance. The day of should be for cooking the turkey and finishing the gravy and/or dessert. Strive to participate in your Thanksgiving instead of missing it!" --Geoffrey Zakarian, coauthor of My Perfect Pantry and chef/partner at The Lambs Club, NYC
  • Wash, dry, and trim hardy green vegetables up to two days early. Stash in zip-top bags in the fridge. You can also pre-chop and store the carrots, celery, and onions.
  • "Roasted Brussels sprouts are one of my favorite sides. You can trim them ahead and roast in the oven. Then just season with freshly squeezed lemon." --Marc Murphy, chef/owner of Landmarc, in NYC, and judge on Food Network's Chopped
  • Peel, cut, and soak potatoes the day before for mashed potatoes, Murphy suggests. The water keeps the potatoes from turning brown and most of the work is done. The next day just boil in fresh water and mash.
  • "Serve sides that can satisfy both vegetarians and nonvegetarians. Try a roasted beet salad made with arugula, nuts, cheese, and a whole grain." --Curtis Stone, chef/owner of Maude, in Beverly Hills.

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Easy Green Beans

Paula Hible

Easy Green Beans

  • Shoot for at least one room-temperature side dish such as blanched green beans in vinaigrette; this will free up oven space and last-minute prep time.

How to Blanch:
Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Throw in your vegetables and cook until just tender, about 4 minutes for green beans. Drain and run under cold water.

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Make-Ahead Mashed Potato Casserole

Jennifer Causey

Make-Ahead Mashed Potato Casserole

Once this creamy potato dish is assembled, cover it with foil and refrigerate for up to 24 hours.

Get the Recipe
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Set a Modern Kids' Table

Jennifer Causey

Set a Modern Kids' Table

  • "You're setting the table and making it special for the adults. Do the same for the kids. A few flowers or even some small fun toys for a centerpiece can go a long way toward making kids feel part of the holiday." --Alex Guarnaschelli, chef at Butter, in NYC, and author of Old-School Comfort Food
  • Want your little ones to gobble up dinner? Lay off the snacks before the big meal. A hungry kid is more likely to dig in.
  • White butcher paper looks pretty in pre-feast photos and is a perfect canvas for kids'-table creativity.
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The Gobbler

Jennifer Causey

The Gobbler

Have the kids create these cute "gobblers" for a light lunch while you prepare the dinner.

Get the Recipe
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How To Tame the Turkey

Peter Ardito

How To Tame the Turkey

  • Leave the bird unwrapped in the refrigerator overnight to dry out the skin and encourage browning. Bring it to room temp half an hour before roasting.
  • For juicy meat, Marc Murphy recommends placing pats of herbed butter under the turkey's skin before roasting.
  • "Put the grill into play if you can. A turkey done on the grill can be a great way to extend the abilities of your kitchen." --Ben Ford, owner of Ford's Filling Station, in Los Angeles, and coauthor of Taming the Feast
  • Transfer the turkey to the cutting board right away and let it rest for up to an hour before you carve it, says Mark Bittman. Use this time to make gravy or to finish (or reheat) the sides you've already assembled.
  • You want Thanksgiving to be memorable, but not because of food poisoning. According to the USDA, turkeys should reach a minimum internal temperature of 165°F. Check both the innermost part of the thigh and the thickest part of the breast with an instant-read thermometer to be sure they hit the mark.

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How to Roast Right

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Simplify Dessert

Jennifer Causey

Simplify Dessert

  • Put the kids to work! They can decorate this moist cake (at left) by setting clean, autumn leaves on top like stencils before sprinkling on powdered sugar. This same technique also works on a store-bought pumpkin pie.
  • Bake different cookies for the holidays and use them to prepare a few mini ice-cream sandwiches, says Alex Guarnaschelli. Then wrap them in parchment, freeze, and serve for an off-beat treat.
  • For an elegant, easy no-bake dessert, Mark Bittman recommends poaching pears with spices.

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Sweet Turkey Cupcakes

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Make a Clean Exit

Kim Cornelison

Make a Clean Exit

  • Enlist a kitchen companion to help you clean as you go, aiming to have an empty (or a near-empty) sink when you sit down to eat. This requires less juggling than it may seem if you multitask during pockets of downtime, notes Mark Bittman.
  • Do not wave away guests who offer to help with the initial cleanup. Dishes get done a lot faster when you have an efficient assembly line, Kelsey Nixon points out.
  • Make cleanup fun (it's possible!). Listen to music, fill up to-go containers, and enjoy some more wine.
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Leftovers: Remains of the Day

Paula Hible

Leftovers: Remains of the Day

  • "Leftovers are the mother's milk of Thanksgiving. Treat them with respect." --Geoffrey Zakarian, coauthor of My Perfect Pantry and chef/partner at The Lambs Club in NYC
  • "Save any little bits of turkey meat; chop and place inside tortillas with Mexican cheese to make a quesadilla. Saute until warmed through and serve with tomatillo salsa for dipping." --Catherine McCord, Parents contributing editor and author of Weelicious Lunches: Think Outside the Lunch Box With More Than 160 Happier Meals
  • "Make little turkey casseroles. Mix a bit of stuffing and gravy with diced turkey and spoon the mixture into small casseroles or individual baking dishes. Spread mashed potatoes over the top to cover. Wrap with foil and chill; just pop those bad boys into the oven the next day." --Curtis Stone, chef/owner of Maude, in Beverly Hills
  • "One of my favorite leftover meals is a Turkey and Almond Stir-Fry. Just stir-fry 1 Tbs. each minced fresh ginger and garlic in 1 Tbs. canola oil. Add a small head of chopped Napa cabbage, or snow peas, until wilted, then add leftover turkey and even leftover green beans and a handful of whole natural almonds. Whisk together 3 Tbs. soy sauce, ¾ cup chicken broth, and 2 tsp. cornstarch and add to pan, and cook until the sauce is thickened." --Ellie Krieger, R.D., author of Weeknight Wonders: Delicious, Healthy Dinners in 30 Minutes or Less

Copyright © 2014 Meredith Corporation.

Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Parents magazine.