Thanksgiving Cooking Mistakes: Solved!

Avoid Thanksgiving Day disaster with a few simple (and delicious) tips.

Citrus-Roasted Turkey with Lemon Aïoli
Seasoning with a citrus-salt rub and stuffing the cavity with lemons and oranges imparts fresh flavor and citrus fragrance and keeps the turkey extra juicy. Photo: Photo: Iain Bagwell; Styling: Caroline M. Cunningham

Now that it's November, we're gearing up for the annual cooking marathon known as Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving dinner is easily one of the most memorable and delicious meals of the year, but there are hidden pitfalls in the preparation of most classic dishes. Before you can get to the scrumptious, table-worthy final result, you have to navigate ingredients, shopping, preparation, cooking times, and so much more. Thanksgiving cooking mistakes lurk around every mixing bowl, but with a few helpful tips, Thanksgiving dinner will be on the table—gleaming with unmarred holiday splendor—in no time at all.

  • The Mistake: You forgot the salt (or vanilla extract, French fried onions, cranberries, etc.)
  • The Solution: Be prepared and pre-stock.
  • Before doing your holiday grocery shopping, take an inventory of your pantry. Line up all of the recipes you plan to use, and make a comprehensive shopping list of the ingredients you still need. A little preparation goes a long way toward making your Thanksgiving cooking a smooth and painless process (and ensuring you only have to make one Publix run. Those day-of holiday crowds are no joke).

The Mistake: There are too many cooks in the kitchen.

The Solution: Strategize and enlist help when needed.

The kitchen can be a dangerous place on Thanksgiving Day. Everyone wants to pitch in, and you'll be elbow-to-elbow when cooking tensions are running high. Prep as many foods as possible in advance so that kitchen time is at a minimum when friends and family are arriving at your home. Plan out-of-kitchen activities for guests, but also enlist their help pouring drinks, setting the table, and plating foods. It's essential to prepare yourself so that you can assign duties as soon as your guests ask, "How can I help?"

  • The Mistake: Stomachs are rumbling, and there are no nibbles.
  • The Solution: Offer a few well-chosen plates for snacking.
  • You don't want guests loitering in the kitchen, sneaking squares of cornbread and single green beans while you're finishing up the final touches on dinner, so choose one or two light appetizers and—this is key—place them anywhere but the kitchen. Alternatively, you don't want guests filling up on heavy apps after you've worked so hard on the main meal, so offering just a few small plates of something light, such as Chili Roasted Black Eyed Peas, will keep guests happy but not too full for the imminent feast.
  • The Mistake: The sides are on the table, but the turkey is still in the oven.
  • The Solution: Create a Turkey Day game plan.
  • Pay attention to prep times and cooking times in your Thanksgiving recipes. If you thrive on organization, create a detailed schedule for Thanksgiving Day, and include each dish, plus when it needs to be prepped and cooked. Organizing your cooking plan will allow you to make the most efficient use of your time in the kitchen and the limited space in the oven. Plus, a schedule can help to ensure that every dish gets to the table while it's hot—which your guests will be thankful for.

Related: Spectacular Thanksgiving Sides

  • The Mistake: You neglected the gravy.
  • The Solution: Make it ahead, and attend to the texture.
  • Making your holiday gravy ahead of time ensures that all it needs on Thanksgiving Day is a reheat and a pour into your best gravy boat. (This should be the very last step so that it arrives at the table piping hot.) The gravy is a friendly condiment; it makes its way to every corner of the plate, so you'd better make sure that it's good gravy. Too thick or too thin? Add broth or whip up more roux to alter the texture to your taste. Try our Ultimate Make Ahead Gravy for the perfect addition to your turkey and mashed potatoes.
  • The Mistake: The desserts are uninspired.
  • The Solution: Try something new.
  • We love classic Thanksgiving desserts. They are sweet shortcuts to nostalgia, and there should always be a pumpkin or sweet potato pie represented in the dessert spread—in fact, we're sure that Grandma would have a few words for us if they were missing. However, Thanksgiving is also a great time to try something new and have fun with holiday treats. Try Pumpkin-Pecan Cheesecake and Pecan Pie Bars for new twists on seasonal classics.

Related: Splurge-Worthy Thanksgiving Desserts

If you're still planning your Thanksgiving menu, check out our favorite dishes, spectacular sides, and irresistible desserts. If you need to brush up on preparing the bird, our Thanksgiving Turkey Primer will be your go-to. The biggest mistake of all is not having fun and enjoying the day, so appreciate the good food and great time with family, and you'll be on your way to the best Thanksgiving yet.

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