8 Expert Tips to Make Thanksgiving Easy for First Timers

Use these tips to avoid Thanksgiving Day disasters.
Use these tips to avoid Thanksgiving Day disasters.
bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images

Amid the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, more Americans will be celebrating Thanksgiving at home this year than usual. According to AAA Travel’s predictions, holiday travel will decline at least 10 percent for Thanksgiving 2020. The last decrease of this scale was during the Great Recession in 2008. That also means many people will be tackling cooking a Thanksgiving meal for the first time—without the crutch of having more experienced family members close by or being able to focus on a single dish during a friends-giving potluck. Even if they join a Zoomsgiving, behind the screen celebrants will need to whip up a festive feast. Here are a few tips and tricks that will help you prepare a great meal—and make it your own.

1. Make a plan—and do whatever you can in advance.

“A lot of Thanksgiving is planning and figuring out what you can make in advance,” says Amy Traverso, senior food editor at Yankee magazine and co-host of the national public television series Weekends with Yankee. Proper planning can help you avoid a Thanksgiving Day disaster.

One of the biggest pitfalls for first-time holiday meal cooks is not properly anticipating oven needs. It’s easy to find yourself an hour before the meal with a pie, casserole, and turkey all needing to bake at different temperatures—and no space left in your single oven. To combat this dish collision, cook and prepare as much in advance as possible.

Cooking the turkey is a day-of event; however, many of the sides can be prepared in advance, including stuffing, green beans, and sweet potato casserole. While the turkey is resting, which it should do for around 30 minutes, the side dishes can go in the oven to reheat.

Like turkey, mashed potatoes should be prepared day-of; luckily, it’s a stovetop dish—no oven needed. Still, home chefs can get a head start even on this process by peeling and dicing the potatoes the day ahead and storing them in water in the fridge overnight.

2. Know ahead of time when you want to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner.

Most Americans eat their holiday meal between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Decide what time you want to eat and work backwards so your dishes can arrive on the table at the same time.

3. If you’re having turkey, get at least a pound per person.

Thanksgiving earned the nickname “Turkey Day” for a reason. The U.S. Poultry and Egg Association estimates that Americans consume 46 million turkeys at Thanksgiving.

However, in 2020, you may not want to roast a whole turkey at all. “We all need to give ourselves permission to simplify our mission this year,” Traverso says. “Meat and three sides are just fine if you’re not having a big gathering. Or give yourself permission to make a roast chicken instead, or roast a turkey breast and not worry about the whole bird.”

Whether you decide on a turkey breast or whole bird, estimate 1 pound to a pound-and-a-quarter per person. After you’ve found the perfect centerpiece for your table, it’s time to begin your prep.

4. Leave yourself enough time to defrost and prepare your turkey.

More planning comes into play when you’re defrosting or seasoning a turkey. Frozen turkeys will need to thaw. Approximate thawing the bird 24 hours for every five pounds, always in the refrigerator—not on the counter. (If you’re reading this on Wednesday night and haven’t taken your bird out of the freezer yet, don’t worry: Just follow Butterball’s instructions here.)

Frozen turkeys come pre-seasoned to some extent, but fresh turkeys will need a flavor boost. Traverso recommends a dry cure, for which you rub spices—as simple as salt, pepper, and any herbs and spices you like—on the bird’s skin a few days in advance. Here’s Traverso’s tip for crispy skin: Allow the turkey to sit uncovered overnight in the refrigerator. Moisture will evaporate out of the skin, making it nice and crispy once it cooks. After that, all that's left is to carve the turkey. But even with these tips, there’s a chance your best laid plans could go afoul.

5. Have helpline info nearby.

Having a turkey emergency? The Butterball company offers a helpline to answer all your questions online or over the phone, and the National Turkey Federation has a Thanksgiving 101 tutorial for newbies.

6. Simplify your sides.

Traverso advises prioritizing and cutting the fluff from your menu this year. “Think back to childhood and dishes that meant the most to you,” she says. “Make those and be flexible about the other stuff.”

7. Never cook stuffing inside the bird.

If you decide stuffing earns one of those nostalgic places on your menu, bake it outside the bird. Leaving it inside can alter the turkey’s cooking time, and leave the bird underdone inside and overdone outside. Baking it inside the turkey can also increase exposure to salmonella or E. coli. A cornbread stuffing recipe is the simplest to start with, and you can use store-bought cornbread to skip at least one step. Simplicity is the name of the game this year.

8. Skip complicated recipes—and don’t be afraid to go with store-bought over homemade.

If you’re not a baker, for example, opt for drop biscuits instead of complicated breads or rolls. If pie crust intimidates you, buy a pre-prepared one or make a graham cracker crust. Traverso recommends a combination that’s as easy as pie: a pre-made graham cracker crust, filled with pumpkin ice cream, and topped with whipped cream and a sprinkle of nutmeg.

“We’re all going off script this year,” Traverso says. “If you don’t want to have a traditional Thanksgiving menu, don't. The point is to be in the spirit of the holiday and be together with whomever we can be. A table groaning with food is probably not the thing going to make you feel grateful, loved, and happy to be where you are.”

10 Reusable Gifts for Your Eco-Friendliest Friend

Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
DecorChic/Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

By this point, your eco-friendly pal probably has a reusable water bottle that accompanies them everywhere and some sturdy grocery totes that keep their plastic-bag count below par. Here are 10 other sustainable gift ideas that’ll help them in their conservation efforts.

1. Reusable Produce Bags; $13

No more staticky plastic bags.Naturally Sensible/Amazon

The complimentary plastic produce bags in grocery stores aren’t great, but neither is having all your spherical fruits and vegetables roll pell-mell down the checkout conveyor belt. Enter the perfect alternative: mesh bags that are nylon, lightweight, and even machine-washable.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Animal Tea Infusers; $16

Nothing like afternoon tea with your tiny animal friends.DecorChic/Amazon

Saying goodbye to disposable tea bags calls for a quality tea diffuser, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be shaped like an adorable animal. This “ParTEA Pack” includes a hippo, platypus, otter, cat, and owl, which can all hang over the edge of a glass or mug. (In other words, you won’t have to fish them out with your fingers or dirty a spoon when your loose leaf is done steeping.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Rocketbook Smart Notebook; $25

Typing your notes on a tablet or laptop might save trees, but it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of writing on paper with a regular pen. The Rocketbook, on the other hand, does. After you’re finished filling a page with sketches, musings, or whatever else, you scan it into the Rocketbook app with your smartphone, wipe it clean with the microfiber cloth, and start again. This one also comes with a compatible pen, but any PILOT FriXion pens will do.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Food Huggers; $13

"I'm a hugger!"Food Huggers/Amazon

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of plastic wrap or tin foil when it comes to covering the exposed end of a piece of produce or an open tin can—and keeping those leftovers in food storage containers can take up valuable space in the fridge. This set of five silicone Food Huggers stretch to fit over a wide range of circular goods, from a lidless jar to half a lemon.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Swiffer Mop Pads; $15

For floors that'll shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.Turbo Microfiber/Amazon

Swiffers may be much less unwieldy than regular mops, but the disposable pads present a problem to anyone who likes to keep their trash output to a minimum. These machine-washable pads fasten to the bottom of any Swiffer WetJet, and the thick microfiber will trap dirt and dust instead of pushing it into corners. Each pad lasts for at least 100 uses, so you’d be saving your eco-friendly friend quite a bit of money, too.

Buy it: Amazon

6. SodaStream for Sparkling Water; $69

A fondness for fizzy over flat water doesn’t have to mean buying it bottled. Not only does the SodaStream let you make seltzer at home, but it’s also small enough that it won’t take up too much precious counter space. SodaStream also sells flavor drops to give your home-brewed beverage even more flair—this pack from Amazon ($25) includes mango, orange, raspberry, lemon, and lime.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Washable Lint Roller; $13

Roller dirty.iLifeTech/Amazon

There’s a good chance that anyone with a pet (or just an intense dislike for lint) has lint-rolled their way through countless sticky sheets. iLifeTech’s reusable roller boasts “the power of glue,” which doesn’t wear off even after you’ve washed it. Each one also comes with a 3-inch travel-sized version, so you can stay fuzz-free on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Countertop Compost Bin; $23

Like a tiny Tin Man for your table.Epica/Amazon

Even if you keep a compost pile in your own backyard, it doesn’t make sense to dash outside every time you need to dump a food scrap. A countertop compost bin can come in handy, especially if it kills odors and blends in with your decor. This 1.3-gallon pail does both. It’s made of stainless steel—which matches just about everything—and contains an activated-charcoal filter that prevents rancid peels and juices from stinking up your kitchen.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Fabric-Softening Dryer Balls; $17

Also great for learning how to juggle without breaking anything.Smart Sheep

Nobody likes starchy, scratchy clothes, but some people might like blowing through bottles of fabric softener and boxes of dryer sheets even less. Smart Sheep is here to offer a solution: wool dryer balls. Not only do they last for more than 1000 loads, they also dry your laundry faster. And since they don’t contain any chemicals, fragrances, or synthetic materials, they’re a doubly great option for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Rechargeable Batteries; $40

Say goodbye to loose batteries in your junk drawer.eneloop/Amazon

While plenty of devices are rechargeable themselves, others still require batteries to buzz, whir, and change the TV channel—so it’s good to have some rechargeable batteries on hand. In addition to AA batteries, AAA batteries, and a charger, this case from Panasonic comes with tiny canisters that function as C and D batteries when you slip the smaller batteries into them.

Buy it: Amazon

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

What Is My Turkey Wearing Frilly Paper Hats On Its Legs?

All dressed up and nowhere to go.
All dressed up and nowhere to go.
Matt Cottam via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Donning a chef’s hat while you cook Thanksgiving dinner is one thing, but sticking a tiny one on the end of each crispy turkey leg seems like it might be taking the holiday a bit too far.

Over the years, these traditional paper coverings have been called many creative names, including turkey frills, turkey booties, and even turkey panties. And while they’ve fallen out of fashion in recent decades, they originally served a very specific purpose. According to 19th-century writer John Cordy Jeaffreson, paper trimmings gained popularity in the 17th century as a way for women to keep their hands clean while they carved meat.

“To preserve the cleanness of her fingers, the same covering was put on those parts of joints which the carver usually touched with the left hand, whilst the right made play with the shining blade,” he explained in A Book About the Table in 1875. “The paper-frill which may still be seen round the bony point and small end of a leg of mutton, is a memorial of the fashion in which joints were dressed for the dainty hands of lady-carvers, in time prior to the introduction of the carving-fork.”

When etiquette books started encouraging "lady-carvers" to use carving forks, the paper didn’t become obsolete—it just got frillier. During the 19th and 20th centuries, chop frills were a cute and classy way to conceal the unsightly leg bones of roast turkey, lamb, chicken, or any other bird. “Dress up any leggy food with them for parties or the children’s birthdays,” Iowa’s Kossuth County Advance wrote in 1951. “They will be thrilled.”

If you’d like to dress up a leggy food or two this Thanksgiving, here are some instructions for making your own chop frills, courtesy of HuffPost.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.