There are plenty of small steps you can take to reduce holiday stress.
1. Arm yourself with a plan: Sit down and make a guest list. From the number of guests, plan your menu. Then you can create a complete shopping list and decide if you're doing all of the cooking or if others will be bringing dishes. Take inventory at least two weeks out of your dinnerware, kitchen tools, and gadgets, spices and other staples in your pantry, and don't forget to count chairs!
2. Shop early: Grocery stores get more packed the longer you wait, plus you run the risk of some of your needs being sold out. Try to do your shopping early morning or late evening at least one week before the big day.
3. Make-ahead magic: Plenty of side dishes, desserts, and breads can be made ahead of time. This frees up your counter space and your to-do list. If you do have to make several dishes on Thanksgiving, try to distribute them evenly between the stovetop, the oven, and the microwave.
4. Perform a test flight: If you're making a side dish for the first time or using ingredients that you aren't familiar with, try them out beforehand so you'll be prepared for success on Thanksgiving Day. Ditto if you're serving a new wine or using new equipment, like a brand new oven.
5. Manage the little ones: Keeping the kids occupied takes time as well. Having a group of kid-friendly DVDs on hand is a no-brainer, but don't stop there. Kids can help in the kitchen with cookie decorating or in the dining room with setting the table.
6. Shrink the menu: With the size of the feast on most of our tables, it really isn't necessary to load your guests up on dips, snacks, or appetizers. A platter of cut fresh vegetables should do the trick.
7. Turkey duty: As the place where all eyes are focused, preparing a perfect Thanksgiving turkey carries a huge amount of stress. The most important thing: don't forget to thaw the turkey. In the refrigerator is the best method, but will take longer. You can also submerge the turkey in cold water to speed thawing. Keep the bird basted as it cooks and let it stand for at least 30 minutes after it comes out of the oven to keep it moist.
8. Quick fixes: Purchasing store-bought desserts and adding your own flair is a great timesaver. Defrost a frozen pumpkin pie, top with streusel, and bake. Or simmer cranberries in orange juice and a little sugar just until they pop and spoon over purchased pound cake.
9. Plan an after-dinner activity: Plan something for the family to do after dinner. Pre-purchase movie tickets for the opening blockbuster and fold them in your napkins. Have your yard staked out for a game of flag football. Your guests will love having the planning done for them.
10. Don't sweat it: The true secret to being a gracious host or hostess (and keeping your own sanity) is to not let small problems ruin the day. If one of your side dishes burns, simply toss it out and enjoy the bounty you do have. If the turkey burns, order take-out. And don't forget to laugh.
Ready to get started on your best Thanksgiving ever?