Because this post is packed with information, I italicized the topics within the paragraphs. I hope this will help you find what you need (without being annoying as you read.) 😉
Thanksgiving dinner can seem daunting for a couple reasons. One is the simple fact that we end up with as many dishes as you’d find at a farmers’ wives potluck. We consider this tradition and make ourselves feel that if we break it, we don’t love our families. It’s time to de-stress our preparations, and still love our family traditions.
Another reason is that we often go into this big strategical nightmare without a well organized plan. We grew up watching everything magically fall into place. We ran off to play with cousins and came back to a feast. There were no overheated, exhausted workers, just food fairies.
So how do we solve these issues? The first problem, having too many different dishes to cook and prepare, can be solved with a serious sit-down with yourself and any other cooks you’ll be sharing the kitchen with. This first step leads into the solution for the second issue. Start planning what you’ll fix, then plan how you’ll pull it all together on the big day.
Today’s post will take care of the first problem–the menu. In the next couple days I will post the strategies I’ve developed for a less stressful Thanksgiving.
Evaluate your menu
The first time I really looked at a typical menu I knew it would need streamlining. I was making the whole meal, and there was no way I was doing all that myself. I didn’t even want all that food on the table. I talked to my family to make sure I didn’t drop something someone had been looking forward to all year. As with everything having to do with food and cooking, I wanted to make changes that made the job easier, more economical, and healthier.
A traditional Minnesota Thanksgiving table includes the turkey and gravy, four starches, a green bean dish smothered in cream of mushroom soup, canned sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping, canned cranberry sauce and two to four of those fruit salads made with Jell-O and Cool Whip, and numerous pumpkin, pecan, apple and other fruit pies.
Before my Minnesota friends start yelling at me, I have to say there are certainly many healthy and organic cooks here. But even you must admit that this sounds like the Thanksgiving you grew up with.
Drop the excess
If your house is like mine, you’ll find that no one is eating one or more of the dishes. For me it was the bread stuffing, sweet potatoes and canned cranberry sauce. Some people would put them on their plates, but eat only a couple bites if any. The food went into the garbage. That is such a waste of time, energy, money and food. We dropped the stuffing and sweet potatoes from the menu, but I wanted to try one thing before dropping the cranberry sauce.
As my kids grew, I got them involved in the menu planning for special days, and had them help prepare big holiday meals in whatever ways were fitting to their ages. One of the first cooking jobs my oldest did was to make the cranberry sauce from scratch. We love it, and now the kids make the same homemade orange cranberry sauce in a matter of minutes a couple days ahead.
I also cut the chemical-, fat-, and sugar-filled fruit “salads” from the menu. Yes, people liked them and ate them, but they were so unnecessary and have no nutritional value beyond the canned fruit they contain. Okay fine! If my family whines enough, we make one (not four) the day before. I double up the fruit and de pepe pasta, hoping to fill people up with less Jell-O and Cool Whip. Plus you just get more flavor and substance that way. We use it for breakfast on Thanksgiving morning. Don’t judge me; I see that Captain Crunch in your kids’ bowls!
Modify what’s left
Did you notice that I said four starches? When left as complex carbohydrates they’re fine, but let’s be real here; in the new American tradition, bread stuffing is going to be Stove Top, and the traditional rolls are white; not to mention the fat that goes into mashed potatoes. Out of the four, wild rice dressing is the only whole grain, completely healthy choice.
Wild rice dressing is a favorite, and quite healthy, and because I make it a couple weeks ahead of time, it’s one of the best items on the menu. The mashed potatoes are also part of my make-ahead portion of the meal. They do still have a fair amount of fat in them, but when balanced with the other changes that I made, I chose to keep them as is because they’re so good and they need the fat to remain in the make-ahead list. These are two of my de-stressors. You can find both recipes and read about the reasoning for the fat in my “Make Ahead and Freeze” entry.
One year I replaced the white rolls with choices of white and whole grain and multi-grain crusty artisan breads. Everyone was fine with the change, and the bread was cheaper than rolls. Now we slice the loaves early and keep them in their bags until ready to serve.
This may shock your system, but do you really have to have the green beans drowned in cream of mushroom soup? With all the other heavy food, do we really need unhealthy vegetables? In consideration of the time issue, I started setting frozen green beans on the counter to thaw, then just before ready to serve, quickly heating them with a little wok oil, garlic and slivered almonds. Sometimes, if I feel like it, I add thinly sliced onion. It’s a nice, crisp flavor to balance the heaviness of meat and potatoes and gravy. They can also be seasoned with a little garlic and olive oil, or anything that is light and flavorful.
I could skip the cooked carrots, but I want to have more vegetable options, and I use the leftovers in the wild rice soup the next day. For convenience’s sake I use baby carrots. Most often I put them in a little crock pot, season them, turn it on low a few hours before dinner time and forget about them. I season them in different ways; sometimes with balsamic vinegar, olive oil and basil, sometimes garlic and salt, and sometimes with honey, cinnamon and fresh nutmeg. If you love brown sugar candied carrots, then make them, but if not, alter them to be a little healthier and to fit your taste.
Streamline and make it easily reproducible
Here is a typical de-stressed menu for my Thanksgiving table. In the next post I’ll go over the strategies for pulling this off as stress-free as possible. I promise, I’m writing as fast as I can!
Turkey – gravy – wild rice dressing – mashed potatoes – bread –sautéed green beans and almonds – carrots – cranberry sauce – sweet potato pie, apple and other fruit pies.
This menu is quite healthy if the mashed potatoes and gravy are not piled on in excess, and if you don’t overindulge in pie. I know, I know. But at least you’ve got the option of eating healthy!
Here’s the lavender hot cocoa I was drinking while I worked on this.
Lavender Hot Cocoa
- ½ cup sugar
- ¼ cup cocoa
- 1 tsp lavender buds
- Pinch salt
- 1/3 cup water
- 3 cups vanilla or plain almond milk (or regular milk if you prefer)
- 1 cup half-n-half
- ½ tsp vanilla
- Stir together the sugar, cocoa, lavender buds, salt and water in a medium saucepan over medium heat.
- Bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for two minutes, stirring frequently.
- Add almond milk and half-n-half and heat through. Do not boil.
- When cocoa is hot, remove from heat and stir in vanilla.
- Pour into cups through a tea strainer or other strainer small enough to catch the lavender buds.
- Top with whipped cream if desired.
Note: the lavender will continue to infuse the cocoa, so any leftover will get stronger. This is really yummy. After a couple hours, strain the rest out so it’s not too strong. When you use flowers in cooking or in teas and other drinks, too much or over steeping leads to a perfume-y taste.
Coming soon: De-stress Your Thanksgiving Preparations – Part 2