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November 20, 2013

How to survive cooking for a large group at Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a wonderful time of the year to celebrate family and friends while enjoying a delicious meal. But for some, it can easily turn into a high-stress situation when it comes to preparing a meal for a large group.

This Turkey Day, leave the stress behind with some helpful tips and resources for pulling off dinner for a crowd.

Prepare in advance

Procrastinators, beware. The last thing you want to do is put off planning your Thanksgiving meal.

"The absolute key to a successful Thanksgiving meal is advance preparation," says David Dial, a New York food blogger at SpicedBlog.com. "Make a list of everything that needs to be done, and then put that list in order by date. I recommend starting about two to three weeks early, although most of the tasks can't be completed until closer to Thanksgiving."

Use the extra time to select which dishes you want to include, the recipes that you will use, and how much food you will need to prepare. Confirm the number of attendees as early as possible to determine food quantities.

"The number of dishes to make is purely based on personal preference," Dial says. "Part of the fun with Thanksgiving is the leftovers, so I always err on the side of making too much food rather than running out."

When it comes to selecting a turkey, a good estimate is eight ounces per person, according to Julie Jones, a catering manager at Hy-Vee supermarket. She estimates a group of 25 to 30 will consume a gallon each of sides like potatoes, gravy, stuffing and a vegetable. Dinner rolls are estimated at one and a half per person and since not everyone likes cranberry sauce, Jones says a quart will serve 25 to 30.

Starting early will also help to ensure that nothing gets forgotten, including seemingly smaller things like drinks and decorations.

Make a meal plan

Once you know how many guests you will be feeding and what types of dishes you want to prepare, map out your offerings in a detailed plan. List what you will be making and when--including recipes and cooking times and temperatures--organized by date.

"With a list prioritized by date, the Turkey Day chef can at least maintain some sense of sanity," states Dial. "There will be a lot of work to do to plan a large meal for friends and family, but breaking the meal preparation into many smaller tasks will make the job seem less daunting."

In addition, Dial says the list should take into consideration food allergies and the dietary needs of your guests. 

Some items can be prepared well in advance, depending on your personal preference.

"To save stress, when I've cooked Thanksgiving for my family, I've prepared all the dishes 24 hours in advance and reheated them Thanksgiving day," says Jones. "And it tasted better than doing it the day-of."

Dial also encourages preparing items well in advance, like pie dough, which can be frozen until it is needed.

Recruit helpers

Unless you're determined to be a one-person show, recruiting others to help with the meal prep will also save stress.

An arsenal of helpers is invaluable to Claude Williams, an Iowa City, Iowa, resident who helps organize an annual Thanksgiving meal that his church provides to the community. For nearly 30 years, River Community Church has sought to reach a community need during the holiday and now feeds over 500 people a free Thanksgiving meal.

"We have quite a network of volunteers from the church and the community that come over and help," says Williams. "We have six to 12 people who participate in actually preparing the food, then sometimes between 80-90 people who help by serving, bringing people in or taking meals out."

Granted, you may not be serving guests in the triple digits, but you can't go wrong with getting as much help as possible. Assign different portions of your meal plan to your helpers, or ask guests to bring specific items to share. If you're serving up more than one turkey but only have one oven, find a guest who is willing to prepare a turkey at their home.

If multiple people are helping with your meal plan, you may want to post an electronic copy online where everyone can access it. The app Evernote can help as it can be accessed by smartphone, tablet or computer and makes sharing a document easy. Helpers will be able to instantly see any changes you make to the plan.

Stay organized

As Turkey Day approaches, remember to stay organized. It will help you save money, eliminate stress, and make sure everything gets done.

Before heading to the store, make a complete shopping list of all the items you will need to purchase to avoid unnecessary repeat trips.

"Make sure you have collected all of your recipes in one place, and then compile a list of all of the groceries you will need," adds Dial. "Nothing is worse than having to stop and go to the store in the middle of making a recipe."

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