I come from a family that viewed cooking Thanksgiving dinner as a last-minute chore instead of a long-term strategy. No matter which relative was hosting, the hour before the meal was a study in angry Irish women cramming their bodies into a small kitchen, offering unsolicited advice and demanding to know where the gravy boat had gotten off to.
Mashed potatoes, especially, were the ultimate à la minute dish (not that my family would have been familiar with that fancy term). The spuds were timed to be prepared in the brief minutes leading up to “go time” for eating, and the whir of the hand mixer, accompanied by the gnashing of anxious teeth, was the soundtrack to every holiday meal.
One year, my sister called us all with a revelation: She had a friend who made her potatoes in advance. Like, a couple days ahead, then chilled in the fridge and warmed in the oven. Initially skeptical, we became make-ahead converts, at least as far as potatoes were concerned. Part of me missed that specific moment of pre-meal chaos, but my family happily provided plenty more chaos throughout the rest of the day, so we were good to go.
Advance prep has many fans and some detractors
These days, many people have gotten smarter about which dishes will do best being made in advance — whether they’re frozen months ahead or made a few days out and stored in the fridge. Andrew Zimmern, host of “Andrew Zimmern’s Wild Game Kitchen” and author of the Spilled Milk newsletter, says that advance cooking is done all the time in restaurants: “Even in the best professional kitchens, vegetables are partially cooked, sauces are made and held, and meats are partially roasted,” he explained. “As orders come in, food is finished and plated.”
Of course, there will always be traditionalists who see Thanksgiving as a day that’s as much for cooking as for eating, and who welcome the hurry-scurry of getting everything cooked together, right on time. Christopher Kimball, president and founder of Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street, is a fan of prepping, but not cooking, in advance: “I guess that the whole make-ahead thing doesn’t resonate with me. Ninety percent of cooking is prep, so just get that out of the way the day before, and then the actual cooking is quick and easy. Make-ahead is never as good as cooked and served, period.”
Kimball seriously embraces the hubbub. “The idea of having a peaceful, make-ahead Thanksgiving meal is pure fiction,” he said. “There is always a ton of stuff to do last-minute, since you want to serve hot food, not a groaning board or reheated casseroles.”
But for many of us, cook-ahead is the only way to make it through
If you’re looking at your Thanksgiving to-do list and realizing you’ll never get through it all on the big day, many chefs have suggestions for several dishes that can be cooked ahead of time and still taste good.
“If you don’t like to cook, making ahead and freezing is a must, especially since very few people have enough burners and ovens to do everything on the day,” Zimmern said. “My cranberries, gravy and pie dough went into the freezer in September, and they don’t experience a loss in quality. The night before, I make whipped cream, whipped sweet potatoes, salad dressing and appetizers. I mix up the stuffing but keep it out of the bird. Almost the only thing I cook on the day itself is the turkey.” (He offers more tips in his downloadable Thanksgiving guide.)
Stephen Chavez, chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education, offered these pro tips: “I suggest preparing vegetables in advance by doing all of the cutting, peeling and trimming days ahead of time. A classic dish like green bean casserole can be made or layered up in advance, so all you have to do is throw it in the oven.”
“Yams or sweet potatoes can be put together in advance and reheated in the oven, maybe even finished with marshmallows, if you like. If you love the taste of turkey drippings in gravy, you can still make the gravy ahead and then add those drippings to increase the flavor.”
When it comes to baked goods, he said, “I think bread and pies can be made in advance and then reheated easily, with great-quality results. I’ve had no problem at all freezing bread-based stuffing/dressing, then baking it to reheat.”
“Even mac and cheese is fine to cook the day before,” said Emilie Berner, chef-instructor of Online Plant-Based Culinary Arts & Food Operations at the Institute of Culinary Education. “When reheating things, just add a little splash of water to them so they don’t dry out, or add milk if you’re reheating mashed potatoes.”
How to store in-advance dishes safely – and the one dish you should NEVER make in advance
Wes Martin, director of culinary production at Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street, said that proper temperatures are key for food safety. “Cool cooked dishes completely to room temperature before refrigerating them,” he said. “If you cover hot food and refrigerate it, it can take a long time to cool down to the proper storage temperature, and that’s when bacteria can grow.
“Putting hot food directly into your probably crowded refrigerator can raise the interior temperature, which puts uncooked food into a higher temperature zone that can cause spoilage until the refrigerator cools back down. A hot pan of food can raise the interior refrigerator temperature 10 to 15 degrees for several hours.”
Chef Adrianne Calvo suggested “tasting before you store,” adding: “Wrap pre-cooked dishes so they’re airtight, which ensures they’re in the best state to reheat. If you’re putting dishes in the fridge, they’ll be safe four days ahead of time.”
When it comes to the freezer, Chavez said, “Frozen dishes can be kept safely frozen for up to three months, provided the items are properly wrapped prior to freezing.”
Calvo also noted that there’s one dish that should never be made in advance: “You shouldn’t make any fresh greens or salads ahead of time, because they’ll lose their body, texture and flavor.”
What’s it all about, anyway?
A key part of hosting is being good to yourself, as well as your guests. Chef Sandy Davis of New York’s Roxo Events offered this wise advice: “Make everything you can ahead of time, and do not — repeat, do not — plan a meal where you have to get up at 5 a.m. to start the arduous task of cooking. The beauty of Thanksgiving is that about eighty percent of the entire event can be accomplished ahead of time. Having everything already done takes a huge amount of pressure off the chef du jour and relieves some of that pent-up nervous energy. Then you can start the day by telling yourself to have fun.”
Chef Anna Klimmek offered these parting thoughts about the bigger reason for all that advance work: “I can participate in the day more fully if I’ve made nearly all of the food in the days prior and just have to focus on reheating and presentation,” she said. “I can sit with my family and not feel like I need to clean up.”
Reflecting on the nature of a family dinner, she noted. “I used to want everything piping hot and perfectly presented, but I’ve found that relinquishing that control has allowed me to enjoy the day so much more.”