Thanksgiving Shortcuts and Recipes

Let's Talk Turkey!

Balsamic and Honey Glazed Turkey
Balsamic and Honey Glazed Turkey. Linda Larsen

Whether you are hosting your first Thanksgiving or your thirty-first, these hints, tips, menus, recipes, and shortcuts will make hosting this traditional American dinner effortless. Well, almost! Let's face it, this is the big meal of the year for Americans. And your family expects the traditions to continue year after year. Still, you can cut corners on quite a few of the traditional recipes, and nobody will notice.

Get organized with Thanksgiving shortcuts and recipes, menus and dinner plans so you can enjoy the holiday too. Read on!

Thanksgiving Shortcuts and Recipes

Each of the following pages has suggestions for Thanksgiving recipes with different levels of complexity and preparation time. First I'll give you the recipes for traditional foods that take a long time to make (but are so satisfying!), then some easier recipes and ideas, and finally the easiest shortcuts of all.

  • Turkey 101
    Learn how to make a traditional stuffed turkey roasted in the oven, an easier unstuffed turkey (dressing in the crockpot), and information on brining, deep frying, and grilling your turkey. And find my new favorite way of cooking turkey: from the frozen state!
  • Stuffing 101
    Find the recipe for my great-grandmother's stuffing, along with tips for getting perfect results and other great stuffing recipes.
  • Gravy 101
    Do you know what the secret ingredient for the best gravy is? Find out, and make the most delicious gravy ever after reading this article.
  • Potatoes 101
  • Mashed potatoes are necessary for soaking up all that wonderful gravy! Learn why the order in which you add ingredients to the potatoes makes them fluffy and light.
  • Holiday Appetizers
    Appetizers for the holidays can be a bit more decadent than those you serve the rest of the year. These ten recipes are delicious and easy. For even more ease, see my Make Ahead Holiday Appetizers.
  • Holiday Salads
    Salads may be secondary to the big ticket items in a Thanksgiving meal, but I feel they are necessary to balance the meal with something cool and crunchy. These are the salad recipes I like best.
  • Pumpkin Pie 101
    Find different ways to make pumpkin pie, starting with roasting your own pumpkin if you're so inclined. Also, a crockpot pudding turns into a pie when it's served with my special tips.
  • Thanksgiving Desserts
    There are many desserts besides pumpkin pie, including pecan pie, cakes featuring the flavor of fall, refrigerated desserts, and trifles.
  • Basic Cooking Lessons
    And for instructions about how to cook and bake just about everything, turn to my cooking lessons for a refresher course.

The best way to make changes in a traditional Thanksgiving or other holiday dinner is to decide which recipes and foods absolutely have to be the same, and which ones you can change. In my family, the turkey stuffing and my grandmother's Parker House Rolls have to be on the table, no matter what. Salads and some side dishes are secondary and can be changed.

Go to the next page for the plan to make your Thanksgiving easy!

Thanksgiving Dinner Plan


Everything starts with a plan. And Thanksgiving dinner needs a well-organized, detailed plan! The more you can spread these chores out over the days and weeks ahead of Thanksgiving, the more relaxed you will be. Gather your cookbooks, traditional recipes, guest list, and pencil and paper. Sit down in a quiet spot and:

  • Plan and write down the menu. Think about including some crockpot or pressure cooker recipes, some cooked on the stovetop, and some oven recipes too, so activity isn't concentrated around just one appliance.
  • Plan a theme for your Thanksgiving dinner table so you can start thinking about the plates, decorations, and serving pieces you want to use. This can be as simple as a cheery primary colored table, or more elaborate, using heriloom china and crystal, flowers, vegetables, and decorations from your yard and garden. I like to use my deep gold tablecloth along with my grandmother's amber Depression glass and gold-tinted goblets so the dining room glows. I also like my mother-in-law's silver luster china with a silver tablecloth and mercury glass candlesticks.
  • Read over each recipe to make sure it's complete, with good instructions, and make your grocery list from the recipe card. You may need to order some items ahead.
  • Plan a cleaning schedule, and assign duties to family members other than yourself! Clean a few days ahead of time, then assign a task to each family member (Rachel vacuums, Michael dusts) to keep on top of so the house stays clean.
  • Write down the days you plan to shop, listing the stores you need to visit for various items.
  • Write out a cooking schedule and timetable. Indicate the dishes you can make ahead, those that can be frozen, those that cook in the crockpot or the microwave, and those that must be cooked at the last minute.

    Now go into your kitchen and dining room and gather all your serving dishes and cooking utensils. Think about which ones you will use for the menu and table theme you have selected. I like to stick a post-it note on each serving piece and cooking utensil, pot and pan with the name of the recipe that will be cooked in it and served on it. Check off the recipes on your menu list as you work. If there are any recipes that don't have an assigned cooking or serving dish, think about borrowing or buying some to fill in the gaps.

    Get everybody in the family involved in the preparation. Cooking is a great way to get kids interested in science, math and physics, not to mention history and tradition. Children also will be more enthusiastic about Thanksgiving if they have a part to play. Just pick the task(s) best suited to their age and ability.

    Now go to the next page for more hints and tips!

    Here's my first tip for handling Thanksgiving dinner: accept help if it's offered! I love Thanksgiving celebrations where guests bring part of the meal. The easiest meal of all (outside of going to a restaurant) is where one person hosts the gathering and cooks the turkey, stuffing and gravy, and everybody else brings a dish. Not only does this recreate the spirit and intent of the original Thanksgiving, but it's just more fun.

    Really think about the dishes that everybody loves, and those that just aren't touched. Cutting back on the number of dishes you serve will also help everyone's waistlines. How many pies do you need, anyway? And even if Grandmother's creamed onions are a tradition, are they eaten and enjoyed?

    On your last run to the grocery store, think about buying extra rolls, some frozen veggies, and a frozen pie or two just in case something goes wrong in the kitchen. You'll be much more relaxed knowing that you have backups available if the rolls burn or the pie is runny.

    And eat a good breakfast on Thanksgiving morning! You're going to be working really hard on this meal; make sure you have the energy to pull it off and still be able to enjoy yourself.

    If Thanksgiving this year is just the two of you, make Turkey Breast with Cranberry Stuffing and serve a salad, rolls and pie. Your house will still have the flavor and aroma of Thanksgiving, with less work - and leftovers!

    Or take a look at my Alternative Thanksgiving Ideas, or try An Elegant Thanksgiving Dinner.

    Make sure to clear (and thoroughly clean) your refrigerator a few days ahead of Thanksgiving Day to hold all the make-ahead recipes and groceries.

    Set your table a day or two ahead of time. This is a fun and creative project - don't rush it!

    Enjoy using your grandmother's china or your new Fiestaware according to your table theme. Think about centerpieces and decorations, candles and serving pieces to make this Thanksgiving your own. Ask your kids to make place cards.

    Use disposable roasting and baking pans. Nothing spoils the Thanksgiving spirit faster than facing a huge sink of dirty dishes. On the other hand, some of the best conversations can take place while generations are washing dishes after a big holiday meal.

    And finally, make sure to think about those Americans who are less fortunate. Donate your time or money to charitable organizations serving holiday meals this year. This past year has been very difficult for tens of thousands of families, and your contribution will make a difference. Nothing makes you feel better about yourself than helping others.