7 Tips for Hosting Your First Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is my absolute favorite holiday. There are no gifts to buy, no cards to mail out—it’s all about being with family and, of course, eating! When my son was born right before the holiday in 2020, it gave the day even more meaning. And the following year on his first birthday, my husband and I hosted our very first Thanksgiving dinner.

Although I had hosted other holidays, this was a big one. It’s all about the food and there is a lot of it to serve. That first year, everything went well except the turkey. It took forever to cook and I worried we wouldn’t eat until 10pm. I eventually got it all together and the holiday was a success—but that first time was stressful. With November upon us, I started to think about those who are gearing up to host their very first Thanksgiving. So I asked both professional cooks and real life foodies to share their best tips on planning your first Thanksgiving dinner menu.

1) Plan Your Menu Early

The turkey is a given, but there’s plenty to think about when it comes to side dishes and dessert options. Use DinnerTool’s free meal planner and printable grocery list to help you in meal planning. Once you decide what you want to make, you them need to figure out your guest list to make sure you have enough food, says Jamie Yahne, owner of Glitzee Glee, an online holiday dinnerware store.

2) Do a Test Run

“Never cook a recipe that you haven’t prepared before on the actual holiday,” says Yahne. “Avoid disaster by preparing food you are comfortable cooking and you already know tastes good.” If you want to try out something new, be sure to do a trial run a couple of weeks before. This way, if it doesn’t work out—or if the recipe needs to be tweaked at all—no one knows but you.

3) Prep Early

“Cut all of your vegetables a couple of days in advance,” says Chef Stephanie Driggs, St. Regis Monarch Beach. “Chop all of the carrots, onions, and celery for your stuffing and store in small containers in the fridge until right before you make it. Peel and chop your potatoes the day before and then store in a container of water or they will oxidize. Drain the day of and cook in fresh water until tender.” She says you can also make pie dough a week in advance. “Roll it out and put in pie dishes. Wrap the whole dish in plastic wrap and store in the freezer until you are ready to make pies. Pull out to defrost, fill and bake,” says Driggs.

4) Take Wednesday Off

If you can, take the day before the holiday off so that you can clean the house, wash down the plates and glasses, polish the silver and set the table. “On this day I also pick up any last minute items I need from the market,” says Gay Pinder, a former producer at HGTV. Get the turkey in on time. Read the directions that come with your turkey carefully, as it will tell you precisely what temperature to set the oven and how long the bird needs to cook so you can have dinner on time. “I have it in the oven by 9:30am/10:00am for a 3:30 or 4pm dinner,” says Pinder.

5) Skip the Basting

“It will take longer to cook if you keep opening your oven,” says Driggs. “Instead, make sure there is plenty of seasoning and butter on it before you put it in and it will be delicious.”

6) Ask for Help

Instead of preparing all of the sides and desserts on your own, have friends and family bring their own signature dishes, says Pinder. “This is a tradition in my family and it relieves a lot of stress on the host. My mom brings homemade bread, my sisters bring corn pudding and another vegetable, and other relatives bring dishes. It’s kind of a high-end pot luck.”

7) Watch the Oven

You’re going to have so many different items coming in and out of the oven it’s likely to be on most of the day, which can impact the temperature. According to Food Network Chef Claire Robison, “always keeps a second oven thermometer hanging from the oven rack to know the accurate temperature inside the oven so you can adjust accordingly.”

Was hosting your very first Thanksgiving dinner stressful? How did you manage?

 

How to Cook a Ham

Lookin’ to ham it up over the holidays? Ham is a popular centerpiece at many holiday tables. Easy to cook and budget-friendly, ham can be a surefire crowd-pleaser. Different cuts of ham require specific cooking techniques. Read on for ham cooking tips to help you make the most succulent and delicious ham for the holidays.

Cuts of Ham

Ham is a cut of pork that comes from the hind leg of the animal. A whole ham—the largest type of cut—includes both the butt and shank of the leg and can weigh 10- 20 pounds, similar to the size of a large Thanksgiving turkey. Whole hams are generally sold in halves. The butt end of the ham is the upper cut of the leg and contains more fat than the shank end. Since whole hams can include the hip and pelvic bone, it may be a bit harder to carve. Find out more about pork cuts here.

The shank end, or lower leg cut, contains less fat and is not as meaty as the butt end, but is easier to carve because it only contains leg bone. Each of these cuts should be available at your local butcher or grocery store and are available bone-in, semi-boneless or boneless.

Types of Ham

There are several types of ham including fresh, cured and smoked hams. Fresh hams are cuts from the hind leg that aren’t cured or smoked. They can be cooked using the same methods you’d cook any other type of fresh pork cut and are similar in flavor to a pork roast.

Cured hams can be dry or wet cured, depending on if they’re being cured with the injection of water. Wet or brine-cured hams are most common in national grocery stores and are cured by soaking the meat in water with brining ingredients including spices, seasonings and some artificial flavorings. Wet hams are ready to eat within a week of curing and are most recognizable by their pink coloring and moist flavor.

According to Home Shopping Network chef & food writer, Chris Kohatsu, hams are easy to cook if you do it slowly. “You can poach a ham in Coca-Cola (rumor has it this was Elvis Presley’s favorite meal!) or you can slowly roast it in an oven. Just remember to score the ham with a knife–do a criss cross pattern if you like–and give yourself plenty of time. And don’t mess with the ham while it cooks!”

Smoking a ham takes place after it has been cured. Not all hams are smoked, but many are since smoking ham adds color and flavoring to the meat. Smoking ham doesn’t cook it necessarily, but assists in drying meat that’s been wet cured and imparts additional flavors and aroma to the meat.

Water Content

How much water that remains in a ham after it’s been cured and/or smoked will impact its taste and price, and can be labeled several different ways, including:

Product labeled “ham” has no water added and is very intense in flavor (think ham prosciutto). This is the priciest type of ham.
“Ham with natural juices” has a small amount of water added and is the most popular choice for a holiday meal or large family dinner.
Ham with “water added” or “water products” is more commonly used for slicing and deli meats and is the most inexpensive type of ham.

Cooking Ham

Hams can also be cooked to varying degrees before purchase. A fully cooked ham has been heated to a temperature above 147 degrees F during its processing and generally labeled “fully cooked” or “ready-to-eat”. These types of hams only require a quick reheat in the oven before serving.

A partially cooked ham has been heated to temperatures exceeding 137 degrees F but not up to 148 degrees and does require additional cooking. Most commercially processed hams are partially cooked and need to be heated to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F before cooking. The size of the ham you’re cooking will depend on how long you need to roast it for, so be sure to have a meat thermometer handy if you’re planning to purchase and serve a partially cooked ham.

Meal Planning: A Key for How to Eat Healthy

If your goal is to eat more healthily, one great tip that you can follow is to plan your meals in advance. Meal planning can help you can determine how much money you’ll need to spend on groceries and ensure that you get plenty of healthy foods like fruit and vegetables in your diet.

Planning Ahead Versus Preparing Food Last Minute

When you leave your meals until the last minute, you are more likely to choose something unhealthy, since many unhealthy foods are actually faster to prepare. This is because they are likely processed and packaged instead of being fresh. There is even a chance that you will opt for a takeout instead of cooking a meal. We know that the thought of cooking after a hard day at work is often not very appealing, and it can be difficult to motivate yourself to do so if you haven’t planned in advance.

An advantage of planning in advance is that you will always have the ingredients that you need. When you don’t plan ahead, there is a chance that you may not have everything that you need to create the meal of your choice. That would lead to an extra shopping trip that can often result in impulse buys. Meal planning can help you eat healthy and keep food costs down.

Take the Time to Choose Proper Foods

When you plan your meals in advance, it gives you a chance to select proper foods. You can write don a list of healthy foods that you enjoy and then plan meals around them. Consider involving kids in the meal planning process–when kids have a say in what to eat, chances are they’ll actually eat it without a fuss!

Another benefit to meal planning is that it can save you money. When you go grocery shopping, it is easy to impulse buy. Oftentimes, the food that you buy on impulse ends up being thrown away. Make a shopping list and to stick to it!

Other Benefits of Planning Ahead

There are many benefits to planning your meals in advance. Not only will it improve your general health, but it can also prevent added stress, too. You won’t need to worry about what to feed your family when you get home from a busy day. You can even cook your meals in bulk at the start of the week so that you can simply warm them up in the microwave or oven during the week. When planning ahead, it is always worth including one make ahead meal.