Cooking for a crowd at Thanksgiving – 6 useful tips

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WOW! This year went by FAST!

I was spending some time last weekend going over the menu for the next few months.  I can’t believe we’re already in the 4th Quarter.

The HOLIDAY SEASON is HERE, and Thanksgiving is only a few days away.  How is that possible?! Do we already have to plan Thanksgiving dinner again?

Don’t get me wrong… I love the holidays! Cooking for a crowd is my thing.

When I’m in the kitchen getting ready for a holiday dinner or a family party I get into a zone.

I put on some music, go over a checklist in my head and I GO!

It’s almost like meditation for me I guess.  My head is clear, I don’t worry about anything else and I just focus.

Chuck happily holding a lot of Calabrian chili peppers

Anyway, I know there are a lot of people out there who don’t feel the same way about cooking for a crowd.  

They don’t know where to start.  They get stressed.  They get overwhelmed.

So, I’m going to share a few of MY SECRETS with you. If you pay attention I can promise you that cooking for Thanksgiving (or the next upcoming party) won’t have to be a nightmare for you anymore.

I can’t promise you that you’ll love doing it the way I love it.  I’m just a nut. However, you’ll be able to impress your guests with as little effort as possible. 

It’s not brain surgery…it’s just cooking.  LFG!

Plan your Thanksgiving menu and write it down

Ok, let’s write a menu. 

Coming up with a Thanksgiving menu for your big dinner is the first step and the most important. So, get organized – grab a pen and a notebook to write it down!

Of course, our menu is going to list some traditional Thanksgiving dinner foods: roasted turkey, sweet potatoes, gravy… the usual stuff. But how do you choose what else to do? Here’s how I do. 

1. You can make it ahead of time.

I always make sure that there are certain things I can cook in advance. This helps ease the pressure on the day of the party. It doesn’t have to be the whole dish you are cooking in advance, but that’s perfectly fine most times.

A good example is when I make eggplant parmigianaWho wants to be frying eggplant right before a party? Not this guy.

I’ll usually fry all of my eggplants a couple of days ahead. Now, on the day of the party, I just have put it together with the tomato sauce and cheese and bake it in the oven.  

Another great main course that you can make in advance with as little effort as possible is baked ziti.

2. The dish can be cooked in batches.

I like to avoid things that need to be made separately for each individual guest.  

For example, I probably wouldn’t have filet mignon on my menu.

The idea of cooking each steak to temperature for each guest seems like a pain in the ass. You probably don’t have enough room on your stove or enough frying pans in your cabinets to make that happen.

However… you can whip up a huge batch of meatballs and bake them all on a big sheet pan in your oven at the same time. And here’s your boneless meat dish. You get it now, right?

3. The dish can sit out at room temperature and still be really good.

Let’s be honest. When you’re having a bunch of people over, not everyone shows up at the same time. Some people will make the rounds and stop at other houses on their way to your party.  

I like food that you can serve hot, but it’s just as good if it’s been sitting out on the kitchen table for a couple of hours.

Things like roasted vegetables and trays of lasagna are great at room temperature. And if someone shows up late and wants to heat it up, they can just toss it in the microwave. 

4. The dish will make great leftovers

I love my leftovers! I always cook too much. 

Part of the reason is I don’t want to run out of food at the party.  The other reason is I know it won’t go to waste.

I always tell people to take food home with them when they leave.  But if there is anything in the fridge the next day I’ll get rid of it myself.

I wouldn’t make anything that isn’t great reheated or would have to be tossed out at the end of the night.

I'm sure your turkey will taste great... but what will you serve along with it?

So, let's see some Thanksgiving menu ideas...

With that in mind, here is what I might cook this Thanksgiving. 

I think I’m gonna start eggplant parmigiana and lasagna. You can make both ahead of time and bake them together before your guests arrive. 

Then, of course, I’m going to have roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy. I’ll tell you later how to make ’em easily. 

I’m also going to make a big batch of meatballs. Everybody likes them, and they’re very easy to make. 

And for my vegetable side dishesI’d probably make broccoli rabe, roasted Brussels Sprouts with pancetta and balsamic, and roasted carrots with onions, garlic, and honey. 

Now, let’s see how to organize your shopping and cooking time.

It's time to do some math... grab your calculator

Figuring out how much to buy and how much to cook is always a little confusing.

You don’t want to buy too much and you don’t want to buy too little.

Here are some rules of thumb to follow when cooking your Thanksgiving dinner:

1. Whole turkey: how big of a turkey do you need to feed 10-12 people? An average person eats about one and a half pounds. In other words, if you’re having 10 people over, get a turkey that’s about 15 pounds.

2. For boneless meat, like turkey breast, roast beef, or pork roast, plan for about 6-8 ounces per person. If you are cooking 2 kinds of meat, figure 3-4 ounces of each type of meat per person.

3. I like making my meatballs about 2 ounces each. I plan for about 2-3 meatballs per person if I’m serving another meat dish with them. If I’m just making meatballs, I prepare 3 meatballs per person.

4. If you’re making a vegetable side dish, like broccoli rabe or mixed roasted veggies, you can do about 5 ounces per person.

5. Make about 5 ounces of mashed potatoes per person.

6. Go with about 2 cups of salad per person.

7. A full hotel pan of lasagna or eggplant parmigiana makes about 24 pieces that are 3 inches by 3 inches.

8. Make about 6 ounces of cooked pasta per person.

9. If you’re starting off with dried pasta, one pound should feed about 4 people as a main course or 8 people as a side dish.

10. For dessert, I get 3-4 pieces of mini pastry per person.

Half-trays and Full-Trays are perfect for feeding a crowd. But again, don’t do anything that isn’t great reheated or would have to be tossed out at the end of the night.

thanksgiving weekend shopping tips

Strategize your shopping

Don’t wait until the last minute to go to the supermarket. Remember, everyone is doing the same thing you’re doing. You don’t want to get there the morning before your Thanksgiving dinner and find out your favorite ricotta cheese is sold out or there’s no fresh basil left.

Go to the supermarket a couple of days before. That gives you enough time to figure out if you forgot anything. It also lets you source ingredients at different places if you need something that is hard to find. 

Here is a list of things I do to make grocery shopping for the party easier:

  1. Clean out your fridge before you go shopping. Throw out any empty pickle jars, bottles of salad dressing you haven’t touched in months, and anything else that’s taking up valuable space. You have a big load of groceries coming back with you and you need space to store it.  
  2. Strategize before you go shopping. Get your menu and list out the ingredients for each dish you’re making. You may find that some dishes call for the same ingredients. You might save time and money buying bigger quantities. 
  3. Make your list. Write your shopping list based on the notes you wrote down on your menu, and organize it by the types of food. For example, group all of the vegetables together, all of the meats together, all of the pasta together, etc. This will help you be efficient and fast in the supermarket.  Get in and get out!
  4. Check your list a few times to make sure everything is on it.  Make sure you match it up to the notes on your menu so you don’t forget anything.

Call the caterer early. If there’s anything that you’re ordering from your favorite restaurant or catering company, get your order in early so you make the cut-off. These places are busy this time of year and may only be taking a limited number of orders.

Schedule your cooking

Be a smart cook. Don’t wait until the last minute and try to get everything done on the day of the party.  

Remember, your menu was designed around things that you can cook in advance.  

Is it all coming together now? You cleaned out the fridge. You’re cooking things in advance. You’ll have plenty of room to store them in the fridge.

It’s almost like you planned it! Just kidding. We did plan this!

Since Thanksgiving is just around the corner, here’s how I would tackle the cooking at my house.

Tuesday Night

If you were about to make the same menu I wrote above, you could start cooking as early as Tuesday.

Here’s something you can do to better organize your cooking time.  

  • Peel, slice, and fry your eggplant for the eggplant parmigiana and store it in the fridge;
  • Make your meatball mixture ;
  • Make your ricotta mixture for the lasagna.

Wednesday Night

Use Wednesday night to prepare in advance most of the things you’re going to cook on Thanksgiving:

  • cook your tomato sauce;
  • layer your eggplant parmigiana in a baking pan and put it in the fridge;
  • layer your lasagna in a baking pan and put in the fridge-brine your Turkey;
  • make your vegetable side dishes;
  • make your stuffing;

Thanksgiving Day

So, Big Day has come. It’s time to finish what you’ve started in the last two days. If you did everything right, it shouldn’t take much.

Here’s what you should schedule for Thanksgiving Day:

  • cook your turkey;
  • make your mashed potatoes;
  • make your gravy;
  • cook your meatballs in the oven and toss them in the sauce while it simmers on the stove;
  • make a nice charcuterie and cheese board for an appetizer;
  • Bake your lasagna;
  • Bake your eggplant parm;
  • Re-heat your vegetable side-dishes.

Remember: strategize – don’t stress!

It’s only cooking!

Mis en place... learn some French!

The term is “Mis en place”. It sounds fancy, doesn’t it?

It’s French and it means everything in its place.

What it really means is: “have all of your sh!t together before you start cooking!”

Picture how the cooking line is set up in a restaurant.  Everything the chef needs for each dish is at his fingertips.

That’s how he can cook a hundred dishes every night and not completely lose his mind.

If you need garlic for a few dishes, have it all peeled, chopped, and in front of you ready to go. Do the same thing for all of your onions, olive oil, and spices, and whatever else you’ll need.

It makes the whole process so much easier and organized.

You don’t have to stop what you’re doing, find an ingredient and prepare it in the middle of cooking.

Here’s a PRO TIP… go to the restaurant supply store and buy a case of deli-style quart and pint containers with lids. They are great for storing your ingredients before you cook and your leftovers when you’re done eating. They’re stackable and easy to organize too.

Set yourself up for success. This is easy!

Clean while you cook

Don’t be a SLOB in the kitchen!

One of the most important things to remember when you’re cooking for a crowd is to stay neat and organized.  

I don’t know about you, but a messy workspace screws with my head and stresses me out.

It makes it feel like there is more going on than there actually is.

Here are a few things that I do to make sure I don’t blow a gasket in the kitchen:

  1. Keep cleaning your area.  Every time you complete a step in the cooking process, take a minute to wipe down your area and put things back in their place.  
  2. Clean your tools as you use them.  There’s no need to use 25 pots, 17 mixing bowls, 8 knives and 11 pairs of tongs.  When you’re done using something, take a minute, wash it and use it again or put it away. I can’t stand a sink full of dirty dishes.  It drives me crazy.
  3. Only use cooking equipment that you’ll need.  I try my best to use as little equipment as possible when cooking for a crowd.  

Here are the things I feel are the essentials when I cook: 

  • chef knife;
  • medium size mixing bowl;
  • saute pan;
  • stock pot;
  • hotel pan;
  • large spoon.

Stay clean.  Stay organized.  It makes the job easier.

Summary

If you try following the tips that I shared in this article, cooking for a crowd will be much easier for you.

Let’s recap…

  1. PLAN YOUR MENU AND WRITE IT DOWN
  2. USE MATH
  3. STRATEGIZE YOUR SHOPPING
  4. SCHEDULE YOUR COOKING
  5. Remember the MIS EN PLACE
  6. CLEAN WHILE YOU COOK!

I hope this article helps you get ready to cook for your next party or holiday.

We have plenty of recipes on our blog that you can use if you want. Go check the recipe page and find what’s best for you.

Good luck!

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