Thanksgiving Disasters to Avoid

Deep-Fried Disasters and Other Thanksgiving Mistakes to Avoid

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Thanksgiving Disasters to Avoid

Don't Let It Ruffle Your Feathers

Hosting a Thanksgiving dinner can be stressful for even the most experienced host. No matter what, something usually ends up going wrong, whether it's a burnt casserole setting off the fire alarm or the dog helping himself to the buffet. There are ways to mitigate potential kitchen disasters though, and most only take a little bit of planning ahead. Here are some common Thanksgiving pitfalls and mistakes, and how to avoid them. (And if it all still sounds too overwhelming, there are always these 55 Restaurants That Serve an Amazing Thanksgiving Dinner.)

You Don't Go Shopping Early

Not Shopping Early Enough

There are some things you may not be able to purchase until a day or two before Thanksgiving, like fresh rolls or delicate produce, but there are lots of items you can buy well ahead of time. Consider doing most of your grocery shopping a week or more before Thanksgiving. You'll save time by avoiding the huge crowds and long lines that start a couple days before Thursday. And if you do need a last-minute run to the store, it will only be for a few things.

Related: 55 Best Thanksgiving Buys at Costco

You Don't Plan the Logistics Ahead of Time

Not Planning the Logistics Ahead of Time

I host Thanksgiving for my family each year, and I create a timeline, shopping lists, and plan out other logistics well before the holiday. I decide what I can make Tuesday or Wednesday, figure out when I need to put the turkey in the oven if we plan to eat at 4pm, and even what serving dishes items will go in. It helps you feel in control of the situation, and a loose timeline the day of lets you mingle with guests without worrying.

Planning also helps avoid eating Thanksgiving dishes in shifts, like what happened to The (Madison, Wisconsin) Capital Times' food editor Lindsay Christians the first year she cooked Thanksgiving dinner. "I didn't know how to cook multiple things at once. So I made the green beans and I brought them out and we ate them. Then I made potatoes, and I brought them out, and we ate them," she says. "By the time we got to dessert, my partner and his friend were completely drunk and I was quite tipsy, and we all agreed it was the best dessert ever."

Formal Thanksgiving

Assuming Thanksgiving Has to Be a Formal Affair

If you prefer a sit down dinner, that's great! But Thanksgiving doesn't have to be a formal affair at all. A buffet set up might work best for your family, and sometimes it's the only good way to do it if you have more guests than you can comfortably seat. The food will look just as lovely arranged on a kitchen counter as on a dining room table.

You Don't Set the Table Ahead of Time
Sviatlana Lazarenka/istockphoto

Not Setting the Table Ahead of Time

No matter what the format of your meal, be sure to set the table or set up the plates, silverware, napkins, and other odds and ends ahead of time. It'll save you time on the hectic day of, and save your peace of mind because one thing is already checked off the list. Some people even set the table the night before Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving Disasters to Avoid

Not Taking Precautions With Deep Frying

We've all heard horror stories about house and garage fires caused by deep frying turkeys. If you're going to deep fry your turkey (and you should try it sometime, because it's delicious), make sure you do it safely. Never set up the turkey fryer near or inside the house or garage, make sure the turkey is completely thawed and dry, and always have the correct type of fire extinguisher nearby.

Frozen Turkey

Not Thawing Your Turkey in Time

Turkeys are usually purchased frozen, and they need a lot more time than you'd think to thaw before cooking. The safest way to thaw a turkey is by letting it hang out in the refrigerator, which takes one day for every 4-5 pounds. If you're in a jam and need to thaw your bird more quickly, you can do it in a cold water bath, which will take about 30 minutes per pound.

Carving Turkey

Not Buying the Correct Sized Turkey

Not having enough turkey to go around or having so much left over that you're pawning it off on strangers means you bought the wrong size turkey. Butterball recommends between 1 and 2 pounds of whole turkey weight per person, depending on how big their appetites are and if you want leftovers. You can use a handy calculator on their website to get it just right.

Related: 28 Alternatives to a Basic Thanksgiving Turkey

Opening Oven

Forgetting to Turn the Oven On

With so much going on in the kitchen, it's very easy to overlook simple things, like turning the oven on. That's what happened one year to Michele Sponagle, a food writer and cookbook author. "Guests arrived and commented that they didn't smell anything cooking coming from the kitchen," Sponagle says. "Emergency trip to Costco from pre-cooked chickens and Thanksgiving was saved."

Related: Could Buying Thanksgiving Dinner Be Cheaper Than Cooking?

Raw turkey
Raw turkey by UGA CAES/Extension (CC BY-NC)
You Don't Explore Your Turkey Options

Forgetting to Explore Your Turkey Cooking Options

Some people really enjoy having a whole, bronzed turkey as a centerpiece on their Thanksgiving table. But cooking a whole bird can be difficult and take up your oven for a long time. There are better ways to cook a turkey, like spatchcocking it — that just means removing the backbone and pressing it flat—to ensure the white and dark meat cook in the same amount of time. Or try cooking it sous-vide, or just a breast if your family doesn't like dark meat. Check out those techniques and more with these 16 Creative Ways to Cook Your Turkey This Thanksgiving.

You Cook the Turkey Upside Down

Cooking the Turkey Upside Down

This mistake is more common than you think! It's one that chef and certified nutritional consultant Ariane Resnick made the first year cooking a turkey. "Once we figured out why it was impossible to cut into and flipped it over, everyone commented that it was the most moist turkey they'd ever had," Resnick says. Even if you're in a rush, really look at your turkey in the pan and make sure the breast side is up.

You Baste the Turkey
Image Source/istockphoto

Basting the Turkey

No matter how you cook it, basting the turkey in the oven isn't going to do anything besides make the skin limp. It will also keep lowering the oven temperature every time you open the oven door, so your turkey will actually take longer to cook. Don't waste your time.

You Don't Utilize the Pan Drippings

Not Making the Most of the Pan Drippings

All the golden turkey juices and fat at the bottom of your roasting pan are liquid gold. Don't waste a drop; use them to make your gravy. All you have to do is pour them into a fat separator, cook the fat with flour, then add the drippings and supplement with chicken or turkey stock.

Turkey Giblets

Not Using the Giblets to Make Gravy

Most people throw away the giblet bags (assuming you remembered to take them out before cooking the turkey!), but the neck, heart and gizzards hold lots of flavor. Use them to make a giblet gravy that's even more flavorful than just using the drippings alone.

You Stuff the Turkey

Stuffing the Turkey

Though it can look lovely, stuffing a whole turkey can actually be dangerous. Stuffing is pourous and can hold on to salmonella from the turkey unless it's cooked to 165 degrees. The problem is, once the very middle of the stuffing is 165 degrees, the turkey is going to be way overcooked. Just cook the stuffing separately to avoid problems. (Watch out for these Scary Cooking Hazards, too.)

Overcooked Turkey
Sami Hajjar/istockphoto

Overcooking the Turkey to Oblivion

Some cooking methods, like using a crockpot or cooking in an oven bag, tend to overcook a turkey so much that it barely resembles a turkey anymore and can't be carved traditionally. That's what happened to Eddie McNamara, a chef and author, when attempting a turkey-in-a-buttered-paper-bag method. "It lived up to the hype in producing the moistest, juiciest, most delicious bird I've ever eaten, but the meat was literally falling off the bone. I tried to plate it from the kitchen, away from the guests because the slices just fell apart into an unappetizing mound of turkey shreds. The meat and bones looked like a scene from a horror movie. It made perfect BBQ pulled turkey the next day, though."

Related: 15 Ways to Spice Up Thanksgiving Leftovers

Thanksgiving Side Dishes

Focusing Too Much on the Turkey and Ignoring the Sides

Sure, the turkey is the centerpiece. But the sides are what makes the meal on Thanksgiving. What's turkey without cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and gravy? Don't focus all your energy on creating the perfect turkey at the expense of the side dishes.

Mashed Potatoes

Overworking the Mashed Potatoes

A weird thing happens when you mix mashed potatoes too much, especially if you use a food processor or hand mixer: They get gluey and stringy. It's because too much of their starch has been released. To avoid the problem, use a potato ricer or a hand masher. If you already have gluey potatoes, try turning them into a casserole with cheese and breadcrumbs on top to mitigate the texture.

Pets in Kitchen

Not Keeping Pets Out of the Kitchen

We all love our pets, and they deserve some turkey too. But it might be best to keep them out of the kitchen on a busy day like Thanksgiving. Even if they don't swipe the whole turkey, they may still get ahold of something they shouldn't, like oven mitts covered in turkey grease. That's what happened to Anita Crotty, a food writer and editor, one Thanksgiving. "At some point, we all realized one of our two dogs had disappeared — unusual, given that she was almost guaranteed that some drunk person would drop an hors d'oeuvre or two," Crotty says. "After a very brief search, we found her squirreled away in the mudroom, slowly devouring the turkey-soaked mitt. Thankfully, the mitt was natural canvas stuffed with cotton batting … but she was pooping strings and padding for a week."

You Serve Only Hot Foods

Only Serving Hot Foods

Serving dishes that should only be eaten hot is a logistical nightmare at Thanksgiving. When you're planning your menu, seek out recipes that are served cold or at room temperature, like vegetable salads dressed in vinaigrette. Not only will that probably allow you to make the dishes ahead of time, it'll free up space on your stove and in your oven, too.

You Don't Make What You Like

Not Cooking What You Like

Just because Aunt Bernice doesn't like marshmallows on her sweet potatoes, it doesn't mean you have to leave them out. If you absolutely love marshmallows on those sweet potatoes, go for it. You're the one cooking. Make sure you are doing what you love, and not just trying to please everyone, because it's not possible.

You Don't Taste Your Food as You Cook
FG Trade/istockphoto

Forgetting to Taste the Food as You Cook

You can't do this for some things (like the turkey, obviously), but take a cue from chefs and taste what you're cooking as you're cooking it. You'll be sure to get the seasoning right, and you'll avoid any disasters like accidentally swapping salt for sugar in the candied yams. Just make sure that you use a clean spoon everytime you taste.


Not Making Enough Food Ahead of Time

You should be making as much food as possible ahead of time so that the day of is less hectic. Pies, bread or cornbread for stuffing, cranberry sauce, salad dressings, and most appetizers like meatballs or dips can all be made a day or two ahead of time. Some prep work can be done early too, like chopping onions and celery for stuffing, or roasting sweet potatoes for a casserole.

Slow Cooker

Forgetting to Utilize All Your Appliances

Your stove and oven space will be at a premium for the day. Consider other ways to cook and keep food hot until you're ready to eat. I always look for one or two slow cooker recipes, like this corn casserole, so I can make it in the morning and forget about it. You can also keep food like mashed potatoes hot in the crockpot for a few hours. Look specifically for recipes that you can cook in your Instant Pot, air fryer, or other appliances to free up oven space.

Everything On the Side

Forgetting to Ask Guests to Bring Dishes

Even if you're an old pro at hosting Thanksgiving, your guests will want to bring something with them. Take advantage of their willingness, and plan ahead for it. Can your sister-in-law, who always shows up early, bring the spinach dip everyone loves? Maybe someone can bring rolls that you'd have bought anyway, or things you can never have too much of, like desserts or bottles of wine.

Bring Take-Home Containers
Amy Newton-McConnel/istockphoto

Not Asking Guests to Bring Take-Home Containers

Everyone loves Thanksgiving leftovers, but it's practically impossible to own enough containers to send everyone home with all that they want. So make it a rule at your dinner that if someone wants to take leftovers home, they need to bring their own containers. That way, no one is worrying about getting containers back, and you don't end up with 50% fewer containers than when you started. Just make sure to let everyone know beforehand. (Remember these 50 Food Storage Tips to Help Cut Waste.)

Pre-Meal Snacks
Alex Gombash/istockphoto

Failing to Plan Pre-Meal Snacks

Thanksgiving is a big meal, but you'll probably be having guests over for a couple hours before dinner is ready. Chances are, those guests will be imbibing, watching football, and just general merry-making. It's best if you have some snacks or appetizers during that time to keep guests busy and satisfied, especially if you have kids or guests with special dietary needs. Plus, don't forget to eat some yourself so you're not famished by the time dinner is ready.

Fridge Leftovers
Taking Shortcuts

Feeling Ashamed for Taking Shortcuts

If you're hosting a big dinner, there can be a lot of pressure that goes along with it. It may be in your best interest to use a frozen pie shell, or make cornbread for your dressing from a box of Jiffy. Calculated shortcuts to save you time and effort are just fine and well deserved, and don't let anyone else shame you into thinking you're cooking isn't as good because of it.

Allow Help in Kitchen

Not Allowing Helpers in the Kitchen

You may feel that the kitchen is your domain, and that you can make an amazing dinner all by yourself. While that's likely true, why not accept help? Willing participants can easily help do prep work like peeling potatoes, chopping vegetables, and even doing the dishes throughout the day. Accepting help doesn't make you any less capable.

Delegate Kitchen Tasks
Wojtek Skora/istockphoto

Failing to Delegate Kitchen Tasks

That said, sometimes helpers can be a little overzealous and they might not understand that you already have everything planned out. Make sure those hovering relatives have specific tasks to keep them busy, even if it's something like drying dishes or keeping children busy and out from underfoot. If you're into planning, you can even ask guests ahead of time if they'd help with certain tasks, and some might appreciate the opportunity to be helpful.

You Obsess Over Unimportant Details

Obsessing Over Unimportant Details

Nothing is perfect, and your Thanksgiving will not be, either. That's okay, because you've planned, prepared, and done the best that you could do, and the day will turn out fantastically, whether the pecan halves make a perfect pattern on the pie or not. It can be easy to spend an inordinate amount of time on a single task, and if you find that happening, ask yourself if it's really that important. Chances are, a little perspective will get you back on track — and the pie will taste great whether it looks like the magazine's photo or not.

Thanksgiving Perfection

Worrying Too Much About How Thanksgiving Is Going to Turn Out

Thanksgiving may mean a lot to you and your family, but it shouldn't be something that gives you anxiety or turns into something you dread. If that happens, take a step back and evaluate what Thanksgiving really means to you — you know, the touchy feely stuff. As long as everyone has a great time together, who cares if the turkey is dry? Remind yourself that your self-worth is not dependent on a single meal.

Make Time to Relax

Forgetting to Make Time to Relax Afterward

And on that note, once the pressure is off and the kitchen is cleaned up, make concrete plans to relax. That means something different to everyone, from putting some mint schnapps in the hot cocoa before bed, to scheduling a massage the next day. Whatever your choice for relaxation after hosting Thanksgiving is, do it and don't compromise. You deserve it.