Your First Time? Tips From Another Thanksgiving Virgin

Jennifer L. Nelson

Bad puns about being stuffed aside, your first time laying out appetizers, rubbing a turkey, and whipping up side dishes for a Thanksgiving feast can be as overwhelming as your first time in the sack.

This year, the nerve-wracking task of planning and preparing a holiday meal has been delegated to yours truly, a health nut with mediocre cooking chops ... and a Thanksgiving dinner virgin.

As the panic sets in (less than one week left!), I find myself asking friends for advice and scouring the Internet for recipe options that won't leave me busting out of my jeans come 5 p.m. -- and, oh, that are straightforward enough for even a first-timer to prepare.

Here are some things you can do to get Thursday's holiday dinner on the table. Without having a panic attack. Or setting the house on fire.

1. Get protection.

In the form of a plan so you can prevent major meltdown. Ensure that everything's at your fingertips on the big day -- nothing's worse than fighting the masses at the supermarket the night before a holiday. That means you should already have your recipes and most of your ingredients (or at least a completed shopping list) ready to go. Prepare as many appetizers and side dishes as possible in advance (this cranberry sauce will be chilling in my fridge for at least a day or two), so that with any luck you can manage to sneak in at least a few blissful moments with a glass of vino next week.

2. Don't be experimental ... yet.

Your ability to seamlessly prepare a gourmet holiday meal with all the trimmings will come in due time. But for right now, there's no reason to run yourself ragged attempting to learn everything there is to know about turkey brine and wine pairing. Evaluate your abilities and try not to bite off more than you can chew. Personally, I'm looking for recipes labeled "easy" with positive ratings from holiday hosts just like me -- and I can promise you that I won't be wasting my precious time on designing the perfect centerpiece.

3. Dominate.

Know your strengths. Focus on the aspects of holiday hosting you know the most about, whether it's wine selection or home decor. That way your guests will be too busy imbibing a vintage bottle of bubbly or oohing and aahing over your flower arrangements to notice that the turkey is just a bit overdone. I'm much more comfortable kneading cookie dough than basting birds, so I plan to exploit my baking chops with an array of delectable -- and at least somewhat healthy -- dessert options. Well, except for these turkey cupcakes ... because they're just so darn cute.

4. Use some electronic toys.

Before this month, I didn't know which side of a turkey was up. There's no shame in using technology to your advantage -- YouTube is home to hundreds of videos on how to do everything from roast veggies to boil potatoes, and your last-minute questions can be answered in minutes with a quick post on a cooking message board. Go ahead, I dare you to try Googling "How to Cook Thanksgiving Dinner."

5. Have a back-up plan.

In a perfect world, I'll serve an impeccable Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings next Thursday. My turkey, whole-wheat stuffing, green beans, and sweet potato-pecan casserole will be served piping hot and look (and taste!) just like the recipe. But just in case things don't go exactly as planned, you can bet that I'll be hoarding an extra can of cranberry sauce and a box of Stove Top. And the phone number of the nearest Boston Market.

What are some of your tips for Thanksgiving dinner virgins like myself? (Seriously, I need all the help I can get!)

Image via Matt McGee/Flickr

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