As my family’s Thanksgiving host for almost 25 years, remembering last year’s “just us” celebration – complete with drive-by visits, drop off meals for my mom, and toasts over Zoom – is bittersweet. While many of us are excited to welcome back more traditional gatherings with family and friends, it can also bring a pang of panic. Do I even remember how to do this? Planning a holiday meal is a lot, especially if you feel out of practice like I do.
Well, today I’m offering up some Thanksgiving dinner help! Since we have access to many delicious store-bought options, savvy shortcuts, and part-scratch items to help us out, why not use them? But also, are there any dishes that are just better, and in some cases just as easy, to make from scratch?
Here are my top picks that are absolutely worth the work, along with items I think you can easily buy ready-made from a local grocer, bakery, or restaurant. And while my choices may generate heated holiday debates like talking politics with Uncle Ted, remember: your holiday, your rules. So focus your energy on the dishes that are most important to you and your guests. – special guest and friend of Cool Mom Eats, Karen Quinn.
Thanksgiving dinner help: What to make mostly from scratch
A few friends hand-to-heart swear that frozen or prepared mashed potatoes – like the Bob Evans brand in the dairy section of your grocery store – are just as good. And while I may be intrigued to try them on a weeknight shepherd’s pie, this holiday calls for the real deal: fluffy potatoes made creamy with lots and lots of butter.
Why not? Everyone likes them, and honestly, mashed potatoes are the easiest side. To save time on the big day, peel and cut potatoes into large chunks the night before, cover with cold water and store in the fridge. The next day, drain, add fresh water, salt, and boil as you would normally. (You can also prepare sweet potatoes and squash in the same manner, but avoid any vegetables you plan to roast or fry.) To serve the vegans and dairy-sensitive guests in our household, all or some of the boiled potatoes can be divided and prepped with a butter alternative, almond or oat milk (make sure you use an unsweetened, unflavored one), or even cashew cream.
I follow the advice of Martha Stewart and her mom and add a block of softened cream cheese along with the milk or cream and butter. Keep potatoes piping hot in a crock pot until dinner, and you are already one side dish down.
Whether you opt for simple, crisp, steamed green beans, grandma’s sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping, or this gorgeous Apple Squash Gratin, I always think freshly made vegetables are the way to go, and definitely worth the effort on a holiday. Potatoes, stuffing and squash have a similar soft texture, so fresh-made vegetables are a great way to add some crunch, variety and color to your menu.
Try a colorful fall salad, dress up some autumn roasted vegetables with holiday flair, or check out three simple ways to serve up brussels sprouts, one vegetable my mother never served and is amazed my children enjoy.
Love it or hate it, and people really do love it or hate it, our holiday calls for green bean casserole. While it may be a stretch to even call it a scratch recipe, nothing could be easier than opening some cans to make the classic French’s Green Bean Casserole recipe. A few years ago I dared to buck tradition and try Alton Brown’s Best Ever Green Bean Casserole recipe, and I’m glad I did. I found the onions to be a bothersome step, so I prep everything else as directed and substitute canned fried onions. Delicious.
My kids would revolt if I didn’t serve that giggly log of jellied sauce straight from the can, and there’s nothing better on leftover turkey sandwiches. Still, I always make a batch of fresh cranberry sauce, because it adds a pop color and tart flavor to the plate. And dare I say that fresh whole cranberry sauce is even easier than mashed potatoes?
You can spice things up with fruits, nuts and spirits in these easy cranberry sauce variations, but honestly, you can’t go wrong with the recipe printed right on the Ocean Spray cranberries bag – simply cranberries, sugar and water – but I like to add a pinch of salt and a few scrapes of orange zest. And cranberry sauce can be made ahead and stored in the fridge for up to a week, checking another dish off your to-do list.
Stuffing remains the one dish my family has strong opinions about. I prefer my grandmother’s bread stuffing with ground beef recipe, while my husband favors his mom’s French-style pork and potato dressing. So, we have both! Add a vegetarian or vegan option and everyone is happy.
These stuffing recipe ideas are delicious, and start with baking homemade cornbread or toasting the sourdough bread cubes for the base. But I think there are plenty of good package mixes, like Pepperidge Farms Herb Seasoned Classic Stuffing mix. Sauté some celery and onion in butter, add chicken broth and stuffing mix, and you are done. If you wish, toss in some dried cranberries or toasted pecans. Put in a buttered casserole dish, and reheat as needed to serve. And prepping at home makes it easier to substitute vegetable broth or dairy-free butter as needed.
Thanksgiving dinner help: What to buy ready-made from the store
Most holiday celebrations wouldn’t be complete without a few key dishes, but if you don’t have hours to spend in the kitchen, or admittedly not the best cook, there are ways to skip scratch and still make everyone happy. And remember, if your aunt’s cornbread recipe is a family favorite, it is okay to ask if she would be willing to bring it. After all, the first celebration was considered a potluck.
Hear me out! In our home, serving turkey is essential on Thanksgiving. But I cheat. My husband does all the heavy lifting – from making the turkey brine, hoisting it out of ice cold liquid before the coffee is even on, seasoning, prepping, and popping into the oven – which frees me up to handle everything else. But for many families, turkey is just okay, or there are dietary restrictions that make it unnecessary to have a large bird. With that in mind, consider roasting just a turkey breast, which is far easier than a whole bird, or have a local butcher spatchcock or butterfly a smaller bird to speed up cooking time.
Or … just serve something else as the main dish. Really. Think roast chicken. Or ham. Or roast beef. (Especially since there is apparently a turkey shortage!). And, if that’s still a no-go, farm it out. Find a local restaurant or supermarket and order a precooked turkey. No one will mind when presented with all the other tasty sides you had time to make, and served by a more relaxed, happy host.
For years my mother-in-law would purchase gravy from a local restaurant, and it was so delicious, I did the same for Thanksgiving. Both Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods have a solid pre-made turkey gravy. Pro-tip: if you cooked a turkey, add the drippings from the roast pan to give store-bought gravy an even richer flavor.
Pie and Dessert
This hurts my heart a little, because baking is my thing, especially at the holidays. I fondly recall the year the number of desserts outnumbered the guests almost too full to eat them. But if you have access to wonderful bakeries, there’s no reason you can’t leave it to the experts. It’s a great excuse to splurge on that luscious tiered cake in the case you’ve had your eye on, or support a local baker by grabbing a pie from a local farmer’s market. One easy, homemade item elevates everything you serve: a large bowl of lightly-sweetened, vanilla-scented, fresh whipped cream. Guests can dollop on slices of pie and treats, or as my mom likes to do, plop into a steaming cup of black coffee.
Rolls and bread
I love to bake. And still have jars of yeast left over from pandemic baking therapy to prove it. But since I have so many other things to bake on Thanksgiving, I pick up fresh rolls from the local bakery. Pop them into the still-hot oven to warm right before dinner, or brush with melted butter. And always order extra for those late-night turkey sandwiches.
But I just came across King Arthur’s tips for Freeze and Bake Rolls (above) – which you pull from the freezer, let rise while the turkey roasts, and pop in the oven right before serving – that may change my mind completely. Stay tuned.
So whether you are feeling a bit tentative about this big meal, or excited to jump in and make up for lost time, remember that a few ready-made items and shortcuts can save time for the dishes – and people – that deserve your attention the most.