Your Advice For a First-Time Thanksgiving Host

Okay, so my husband and I live too far away from family to go anywhere for Thanksgiving. I have some classmates who are international students from Taiwan, therefore also far from home. I thought it would be a great idea to invite them over for Thanksgiving dinner so that we would not be lonely. They agreed and I will pick them up at noon. They will be staying the night at our place.

There will only be four of us altogether, but this seems like a big deal to me. I have never hosted Thanksgiving before and I’ve never cooked a turkey. My friends have expressed an interest in helping in whatever way they can, so it sounds like I will have some kitchen aides in the very least. I really want to give them, you know, the authentic Thanksgiving experience.

I was hoping those of you with more experience could impart your wisdom. Got any good recipes for the holidays? Holiday movies that will culturally translate? I think we’re totally up for experimentation!



I don’t know about recipes that will ‘translate’ as you put it, as I know nothing of Taiwanese custom.

I will say this: put out some appetizers and drinks the guests (and you!) can enjoy while finishing touches are being put on dinner! At my house last year, this meant cheeses, crackers, cold sausages and sangria, as well as soft drinks and ice. All set out, with disposable plates, so guests could help themselves.

Also, if they (or you) are dead-set on a “traditional Thanksgiving feast”, try to keep it not only traditional, but simple. A turkey is not hard to roast (be sure to remove the innards before roasting!); there is nothing wrong with expanding your turkey drippings with gravy from a jar! Mashed potatoes are simple and impressive, just don’t skimp on milk/half and half, butter, salt or pepper! Stove Top stuffing can be surprisingly good if you add some finely diced onion and celery; canned cranberry sauce is fine! It’s perfectly fine to use frozen pie crusts and canned pumpkin filling for your pie.
The new generation of steam-in-the-bag frozen veggies are surprisingly tasty and easy. They beat the hell out of canned, and are hella easier than fresh!

Finally, remember: Thanksgiving is more about being thankful (and the company you share dinner with) than it is about the food itself!

Have fun! Enjoy!

You will remember the failures long after you’ve forgotten the successes!

There’s nothing wrong with sticking to the basics! Some mashed potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, maybe corn in some form.

Cooking turkey is not inherently more difficult than roasting a chicken. It’s basically just bigger, and takes longer. There are a lot of methods to choose from, truthfully they all work fine barring some extreme catastrophe.

I would not stuff the turkey on your first go - stuffing is just way too easy to undercook (nom nom nom salmonella), and it makes the turkey take longer to cook as well. You can easily cook and serve stuffing on the side.

Make sure you utilize everything your kitchen has to offer. You can make stuffing in a crock pot, heat up pre-cooked sides in the microwave, and make some good stuff on the stovetop.

You don’t necessarily have to do an entire whole turkey. You can get just a breast, and it’ll be quicker and easier to roast up. You may want to consider brining the turkey to make it extra-moist.

For a traditional Thanksgiving, you’ll want turkey, cranberry sauce (which is remarkably easy to make fresh–just use the recipe on the side of the bag of cranberries), mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing (which doesn’t necessarily need to be cooked in the bird, and probably shouldn’t be if you’re a beginner), sweet potatoes, green bean casserole or some other green vegetable, and pumpkin pie. Anything else is just extra.

As far as the rest of the experience, after the meal everyone sits in front of the television watching football and trying to stay awake.

Bake all your pies the night before. They’ll keep in the refrigerator, and it’s one less thing you’ll be scrambling to do on the big day itself. For that matter, most dishes that require preparation can be assembled the night before and kept in the fridge, and then popped in the oven the next day.

Know how long everything will take, and some time beforehand, calculate when to start each of them. It’s annoying to be smelling wonderful food, but have to wait for 45 minutes after everything else is ready for that one last thing to be done.

Just remember, the only thing that needs to be piping hot is the gravy!

Thaw the turkey NOW!

If you are going to buy a frozen turkey, you better all ready have it or buy it today. They take longer than over-night to thaw. Don’t panic if you have to get one tomorrow, thaw it in the sink filled with water, the water will disapate the cold faster.

Good mashed potatos require salt, more than you might think. People who scream about salt should not be allowed to watch the potatos being prepared. If you leave salt out you get really bland mashed. Use a whole milk or half & half, condensed milk, or cream. That 1-2% milk people drink is not fit for cooking.

You can make gravy in the pan you cooked the turkey in, the turkey should rest for 15 minutes before you cut it anyway. So remove the turkey to the cutting board. Drain most of the fat out of the pan, leave a half cup or so, add a couple tablespoons of flour, pour in a little chicken stock or even water and wisk over med-high heat. Add more liquid until you have the consistancy you want, remember you can’t take the liquid back out, add a little at a time. That way you get all the tasty crumbles from the cooked turkey in the gravy. If you haven’t done it from scratch before, add a couple packages of turkey or chicken gravy mix. If you fail to make a thick enough gravy, add a couple spoon fulls of corn starch to cold water, mix it well and then add that to the gravy, it will thicken.

People get impatient and starved while smelling dinner being prepared, have a veggie tray, dips, etc. on hand. Celery stalks filled with pineapple-cream cheese, olives, carrot sticks, deviled eggs, etc.

My stuffing is this: sauted onions and celery, cooked and crumbled Italian sausage, sliced mushrooms either fresh or canned, some crispy crumbled bacon. Franz bread cubes with sage flavoring. Moisten with chicken stock. Pretty simple. The Italian sausage is the key, adds just the right amount of spicyness.

Good luck. Turkey dinner is really basic. As long as the bird is done and not over cooked, you have some potatos, stuffing, maybe some pie, you can’t go wrong.

Scale down the food if you find yourself adding too many dishes. It’s really easy to start adding family or traditional favorites and end up with three times as many offerings as you have eaters. Turkey, gravy, dressing, potatoes, cranberry sauce and something with yams or sweet potatoes are pretty much a given. Add a veg or salad and you’ll have more than enough.

Movies about Thanksgiving itself or just good movies to watch? A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving would be fun, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Pieces of April or Miracle on 34th Street.

You could play Alice’s Restaurant for them, although watching the movie might be a bit much.

Personally, I’d say the essential dishes are:

It’s certainly a good idea to add others, like mashed potatoes, pies, stuffing, pies, venison, pies, green veggies, and pies, but as long as you have turkey and pies, you’re fine.

Olives, what you are doing is wonderful!

The good thing is that international students from Taiwan probably don’t have a preconceived notion of Thanksgiving. Whatever you do will be authentic!

I think norinew is right on the money. Assess what you’re good at/like to do and let the supermarket fill in the rest with packaged mashed potatoes, gravy in a jar (really pretty darned good) and/or Stovetop Stuffing.

Plan ahead, and jot down a list of what you need, the prep time for each dish, and oven temps and times for each dish. (Wow, have I ever gotten myself in the weeds when I needed to put five dishes in the oven at different temps, and they didn’t all fit!)

Take stock of your pans and baking dishes, ahead of time. I once had to send my husband out on Thanksgiving morning to buy another roasting pan, which was no easy feat.

For four people, I’d just roast a turkey breast, rather than a whole bird. It’s hard to find a turkey under 12 lbs, and that’s quite a bit for four.

For stuffing, I just dry about 3/4 of a loaf of whole wheat bread in the oven (300 for 10-15 minutes, checking often), then hack it into little pieces. Sauté a diced onion and two stalks of celery, diced, in butter, until soft. Mix in baking dish with a little salt, some fresh ground pepper, about 1/2 tsp. of sage, and about a can of low-sodium chicken broth. Bake this at 350-400 for about 45 minutes.

I don’t like cranberry sauce, so I have a can of it for my husband, who requires it.

Deviled eggs are necessary appetizers. I use only mayo, salt and pepper in mine, because I loathe mustard, pickles, capers, and other oddities that some feel the need to add. (Do these the night before.)

I find sweet potatoes more trouble than they’re worth, as I hate peeling the things. If you’re motivated, peel, cut into 1" chunks, boil until slightly tender, drain. Dump into baking dish, dot with about half a stick of butter and about half a cup of brown sugar (light or dark, doesn’t matter). Bake at 350-400 about 45 minutes.

Macaroni and cheese is a must-have, because my Mom always made it. I also serve steamed broccoli and carrots, and sometimes Brussels sprouts with a little celery salt.

And pumpkin pie. I’m lazy, and use the frozen pie crust. But the canned pumpkin pie filling is vastly inferior, so use a can of pumpkin, and buy a little jar of pumpkin pie spice. (Or just buy a pumpkin pie – there’s not much difference, IMO.)

Do not deep fry your turkey.


As others have said, Thanksgiving can be incredibly simple.

The Basics:
Mashed Potatoes
Green Bean Casserole
Cranberry Sauce
Pie (Pumpkin, Sweet Potato, Apple, Pecan…doesn’t matter, but cake won’t do.)

You don’t have to make everything yourself either! The cranberry sauce in a can is just fine, as is a store bought pie. Gravy is easy, but I always get a back-up can (and I’m not ashamed of it). The recipe for Grean Bean Casserole is on the can of French’s Fried Onions and it’s easy. Mashed potatoes may be the hardest part, because as long as your turkey is thawed and you remember to remove the “goodie bag”, the bird is easy too. Really make sure you get all the “goodies” out. I had a turkey once with two bags and one of them was wedged in the neck area. Really check in there good.

For the mashed potatoes, just peel and chunk some white potatoes and boil them in just enough salted water to cover them until they are fork tender. Drain and return to the pot and shake them around over the heat to dry them a little. Add butter, salt, pepper, and milk or cream and just mash with a hand held potato masher until you have the consistency you want. My mother and granny both whip theirs with a handheld mixer. I like lumps in mine.

I make a timeline so I know when I have to start each thing so that everything is done at the same time. And if something doesn’t turn out so well, don’t worry about it. Just have fun with your guests.

I’ll second (or third, or fourth) the notion of just doing a turkey breast. They cook much quicker and take up less room in the oven, so you don’t have to worry about scheduling sidedish oven times. The only downside is that you don’t get that whole experience of carving up a bird. I usually do that in the kitchen before serving, so it’s kind of lost on the guests anyway.

If the intent is to give some foreigners a taste of our tradition, there’s no need to fancy it up. Give them the most basic version of the tradition, in the same way that if you went to a foreign country they’d probably give you a watered down or sentimentalized version of their traditions instead of trying to spice it up for you, since you won’t understand or appreciate the spice. Turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy with pumpkin pie afterwords is pretty much thanksgiving encapsulated. No need to extend much further than that.

Note: you do not have to cook the stuffing inside the turkey. The problem with doing it that way is that stuffing has to get hot enough to kill salmonella and other bacteria that can be in raw poultry (or frozen poultry, freezing doesn’t reliably kill them). Cooking the stuffing before it goes into the turkey won’t help, because it will cool off after you put it in the turkey to a temperature that can support bacteria. If you cook the stuffed turkey long enough that the stuffing is at a safe temperature, the turkey itself will probably be overcooked and dry.

The solution here is to cook your turkey and stuffing separately. You can do the stuffing in a glass baking dish. You can put the stuffing into the cooked turkey at the end and even brown it with a blowtorch, if you really want to. My grandmother (who did cook the stuffing inside the turkey, she didn’t know from salmonella) always took the stuffing out and put it in a dish on the table anyway when the turkey got carved in the kitchen (we never did the whole carving the turkey at the table thing, either), so I think this is entirely unnecessary.

Deep frying the turkey is probably best left to those with experience with cooking turkeys and deep frying, and with a good outdoor location (ie, NOT on a wooden deck) for doing the deep frying.

How to brine a turkey. If you’re going to do this, you should start this afternoon.

I used to live in Taiwan. Your Taiwanese classmates will probably be overjoyed to celebrate an authentic “Turkey holiday” and could care less on the details or the food. Most Taiwanese have never had turkey but like it. The will probably enjoy the giblets if you cooks those (heart, gizzard, neck, liver, etc).

Taiwanese are big on fowl such as pigeon, chicken, duck, goose, etc. Turkey is just a big pigeon. :slight_smile:

They should like the turkey, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes. Possibly lukewarm on the gravy, cranberries, etc. Just let 'em try stuff and don’t sweat it if they don’t like the sweet potatoe pie with marshmellows or whatever.

Thanks everyone! I think I’m going to go ahead and cook the breast by itself as suggested. I don’t think we need a whole turkey for four people.

Ohhh, man do I have a lot of work to do…

Do every single thing early that you can - do your cranberry sauce tonight, for example. (If you’ve never made it from scratch, it’s incredibly stupidly easy.) If you’re making gravy from scratch, do everything up to the roux and the drippings now. Do the pies early. I do a butternut squash soup and will have it ready to go tonight. That sort of thing.

The main thing is: relax. Make a list to get yourself organized, determine what needs to be done when. Delegate tasks to others. Enjoy and have fun.

If you feel intimidated by making a turkey, then don’t. Make whatever you want, what you’re comfortable with. If you want to try a turkey, find a cookbook with a clear and easy recipe and do just what they say.