The Dad’s Guide to the Perfect Thanksgiving (PHOTOS)

I remember the good old days, back when I was in my 20’s.

Around 11am on Thanksgiving morning, I used to wake up in my mom’s house on the hairy dog’s bed next to the washing machine, a dazed victim of my own annual ‘Night Before Thanksgiving Pub Crawl’. I’d stare at the ceiling for a while before I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to recycle any of last night’s tequila shots (why-oh-why?) and then I’d make my way downstairs to a wonderful meal being prepared for me.

My biggest contribution to the day would be flicking through the channels on the TV remote and devastating every cocktail olive and cheese chunk that came within thirty feet of my face.

My, how times have changed.

Still, as a dad to two young kids and another on the way, I kind of like the way that things have turned out. These days, I find myself reveling in the fact that Thanksgiving is now MY responsibility, it’s MY stage. My wife participates in all of the prep work and everything too, mind you, but I let her know a long time ago that I wanted to take Thanksgiving and run with it.

Of course, she was down with that idea.  In fact, she thought I was nuts. And maybe I am. Heck, go ahead and call me ‘crazy’; I know I’m not alone.

See, there are lots of guys like me out there who grew up in the shadow of a grandma spinning around the house on Thanksgiving morning like some Tasmanian Devil all hopped up on mashed potatoes and giblets. Guys like us, we might not have been too proactive at the time, but believe me:  we were soaking up all of that tradition and ritual and love and gravy-making that made our holiday magic, year in and year out, hangover after hangover.

Now many of us understand that the future of Turkey Day is in our hands.

It is up to US to make sure that Thanksgiving is perfect for our sons and daughters, for our wives or husbands, and for whatever other Once-a-Year Freeloaders show up on your couch and spend the day watching football on your flat screen and glugging your wine until the food is ready.

So, enough pep talk.

Just come along with me now as I share my very valuable secrets for Dads (and Moms!) who want to be crowned the King of Thanksgiving instead of collapsing in a stressed-out, quivering heap on the kitchen floor.

  • Make Thanksgiving Count 1 of 20
  • Rise and shine 2 of 20

    Thanksgiving does NOT have to be a super stressful holiday, even if you are handling most of the planning yourself. I intend to help show you how to do that. Yet, there are some things in life where you simply cannot cut corners. This is one of them. So, the first step to pulling off a fantastic holiday is to skip the wild partying the night before (if any of your childless friends still even bother to invite you anywhere), and get yourself out of bed bright and early Thanksgiving morning. Not 10am either, sir. Get up at like 5 or 6.

    Image: M. Bielanko

  • Special Breakfast 3 of 20

    Chances are that your kids will be waking up on the earlier tip too, so after you have some coffee or whatever, and your juices are flowing, congratulate yourself for taking the steps to making sure Thanksgiving is going to be awesome. You started defrosting the turkey two or three days ago (otherwise go back to bed), you've already made your first pumpkin pie (advance work is everything), and you've got things under control. So, before you start the serious cooking, break out whatever it is that you picked up to make the kid's Thanksgiving breakfast something cool and memorable. Need an idea? Try funny drinking straws or Dunkin' Donuts that you secretly stashed in the fridge last night.

    Image: M. Bielanko

  • The Cooking 4 of 20

    Look, the key to making sure that your Thanksgiving isn't some chaotic omnishambles is to concentrate on what matters most. Remember, some of the greatest meals of all time were pretty basic; basic is often best; but if you are someone who really wants to make a big old gourmet spread, that's fine too. Your kids won't really care at all, but you like that sort of thing and so be it. Either way, make sure you have done a bunch of the work ahead of time. Have vegetables cut and potatoes already boiled from last night. If you're making your own stuffing or dressing, that can be all mixed together ahead of time too. Make it so that come Thanksgiving morning, all you really have to do is recruit your helpers to help you chuck all the stuff in the right pots and pans.

    Image: M. Bielanko

  • The Kids 5 of 20

    Incidentally, as you're getting everything mixed and in the oven there might be a temptation to clear everyone out of the kitchen so you can really get things done. Don't do it. Remind yourself that these kids of yours are going to remember it forever if you let them help mix and mash and stuff and stir. Believe me, I know as good as any dad that it definitely makes things messier and slower, but whatever. It's Thanksgiving. Embrace the very critters you're most thankful and include them as much as possible.

    Image: M. Bielanko

  • Thanksgiving Chatter 6 of 20

    Now that things are rolling out relatively smoothly (hey, a messy kitchen means you're doing it right), throw in some Thanksgiving conversation with your kids. Do they understand what the holiday is all about? If so, maybe play that old game of naming stuff that you're each thankful for. While you're chopping some last minute onions or whatever, mention the Pilgrims and the Native Americans to your kids if they're old enough to get it. They will probably surprise you with some of the Thanksgiving stuff they've been learning in preschool or school and today is the day to break it all out.

    Image: M. Bielanko

  • Places! 7 of 20

    Here's a little something cool that we just started doing with our kids last Thanksgiving. After the food is in the oven, or lined up on the kitchen counter waiting it's appointed time to cook, break out a box of Do-It-Yourself-Edible-Place-Settings. These things are great; I think I got mine at Walmart for like 6 bucks for 8 of them. None of that Level 7 Difficulty from Pinterest or whatever. Just surprise the kids with the colorful box and help them assemble these easy place settings. You get to frost them and stick on gumdrops, too. In full disclosure: even if my kids didn't love this, which they do, I'd still probably do this on my own every Turkey Day.

    Image: M. Bielanko

  • The Parade 8 of 20

    Unless you're in Manhattan on Thanksgiving morning, you probably won't be an eyewitness to one of the best American holiday traditions around. Yeah, I'm talking about the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. I've never been there myself, but still. Ever since I was about 3 or 4, I have watched at least a portion of this big city spectacle come Thanksgiving morning. Do yourself a favor. Even if you think you're too cool for this thing (trust me: you're not) try and turn your kids on to it at a young age by hanging together on the couch and just watching a half-hour or so of Snoopy, Santa, and, more than likely, Regis Philbin. Use it as a chance to chug another cup of coffee. And watch you kids get excited about something that has been exciting us for a long long time.

    Image: M. Bielanko

  • Down Time 9 of 20

    By now, if you've played your cards right, the meal is sort of making itself at this point, so even though you need to be around to make sure things are okay, you don't necessarily have to hover over the oven. What I like to do come around 10am (remember: you got an early start today) is head up into the attic and return with my trash bags full of Christmas lights! My daughter, Violet, 4, and my son, Henry, 2, both start doing back ninja flips when I clear my throat and announce, "Okay everyone! Time to put coats on so we can go out on the porch and HANG THE CHRISTMAS LIGHTS!!!!" I know that seems kind of Clark Griswold and all, but it really is pretty thrilling. It's usually cold in my neck of the woods, so the kids might not last too long, but I stick it out and after maybe two hours (with many oven checks) we have something festive to look at later tonight.

    Image: M. Bielanko

  • Together 10 of 20

    Maybe Christmas light hanging sounds like the worst idea possible to you on Thanksgiving. No problem. In between  the food slowly being cooked and the time when it'll be served is still wide open, so make your own rules here. Start your own little tradition during this semi-lull in the action. If your kids are older and like football, watch some together. Or better yet, head out into the yard and toss one around. Play a board game, build a blanket fort, listen to grandpa tell the same deer hunting story he's been telling since the dawn of man. Just make sure you're doing something together if you can, because you're traipsing across serious Memory Making country right now. Make that count for something.

    Image: M. Bielanko



  • Turkey Man! 11 of 20

    You see this hat? That's the kind of thing where you disappear into the pantry or the garage  and you come back out wearing it and any young kids in your life go absolutely bananas. I got myself something similar to this one at Target this year for three bucks and, although it will be a new gag for me come this Thanksgiving, I have a feeling it will be such a hit with my kids that I will be wearing it for the next 30 years. My kids will probably be adults exchanging uncomfortable glances at each other when senile, old dad comes dancing out from behind the basement door with his bizarre, ancient gobbler hat. Oh well! Tradition is tradition!


  • Santa Appears 12 of 20

    While I'm up pulling the Christmas lights out of the attic on Thanksgiving morning, I also always make sure to grab a certain plastic Santa Claus out of one of my 10,000 boxes of Christmas decorations. I stash him in my bedroom on the way back downstairs and then, later on, when the kids are busy doing something, I grab him and quietly place him on a table in our dining room.  After a bit, I put on one of my holiday records (probably Frank Sinatra Christmas) and act all crazy excited and call the kids in and holler," Look! Look! The Magic Santa is back again! That means the holiday season is officially begun!" Of course, they have no idea what the heck is happening or where that Santa came from, but they do get very excited and that's what counts.

    Image: M. Bielanko

  • The Checking of the Food 13 of 20

    Don't underestimate how even the littlest thing can be made into a very big deal when young kids are involved. Starting sometime in the late morning, and then continuing periodically all the way up until the dinner is just about ready, I announce to my kids that it is time to march into the kitchen and check on our feast-to-be. They love it, too. We stand back from the oven and feel the heat blast out in a delicious burst when I open it to check on the bird. I let them stir a thing or two, maybe nibble a sample. We put the oven light on so we can peek inside. It's simple and seems inconsequential, but I really dig it. And so do my kids.

    Image: M. Bielanko

  • A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving 14 of 20

    This ought to go without saying, but at some point during the long and winding Thanksgiving road, you need to make sure that you sit the whole family down on the couch and watch A Charlie Brown ThanksgivingIt's a true holiday classic that perfectly captures the real meaning of why we all gather together once a year. You can get a copy for like a tenner just about anywhere that sells DVDs. Introduce your kids to it now, and I bet you they watch it with their kids someday down the road. I really look forward to this one.


  • Set the Table! 15 of 20

    Soon enough, your home will be filled with the smells of roasted turkey and sweet potatoes and sixteen kinds of pie (what can I say? I like pie). That's when you know you are getting close to 'Go Time'. At our place, at this point, all of those delicious colliding scents call for one very special event. You guessed it. It's time to set the dining room table! Now, we don't typically have a lot of folks over to eat, so we don't really bother with fancy china or anything like that, but if you do, then by all means bust it out and get working. Put on a Christmas record (okay, I start early) or maybe some nice dinner music and have the young ones divvy up silverware and napkins. My kids absolutely love to help out with things like this; I think it makes them feel like they are really in on a very important mission. Which, come to think of it: they are.

    Image: M. Bielanko

  • Thanksgiving Dinner 16 of 20

    You made it. Have a little glass of wine if you like. Steal a few moments for yourself in the kitchen. The food is ready, the day has been epic, unpretentious, and ultra-family oriented. You have a lot to be thankful for at this point, so even though you're naturally nervous and hoping that the meal turned out great, take a second or two to relax and enjoy what's going down. You have juggled all your duties and traditions, indeed. But you have a had a really good day doing it, and that's just plain perfect.

    Image: M. Bielanko

  • El Photo 17 of 20

    Have someone take your picture holding your fresh-out-of-the-oven masterpiece. It's no different than if you landed a 700lb tuna, believe me. You made magic happen and someday your kids are going to dig looking at all the silly pictures of Dad and his prize Thanksgiving birds.

    Image: M. Bielanko

  • Have Seconds 18 of 20

    I don't care what anybody says, if you don't have (at least) seconds, and maybe even thirds and fourths at Thanksgiving dinner then you are a coward and a traitor. One plate of Thanksgiving food is simply un-American, people. C'mon! You spent a lot of time and effort making sure that this was a great meal for you and your family and your kids are watching you closely, whether you know it or not. What will they think to themselves if they see Dad pushing his plate away after just one giant, heaping, gravy-soaked swamp of turkey and cranberries? Do it for you kids, man. Eat another plate for the future of our USA.

    Image: M. Bielanko

  • After Dinner 19 of 20

    After dinner, it's kind of  hard to move around. Here at my house we all waddle out onto the front porch so we can finally see my Christmas light tradition come alive for another year. We 'oooh' and and 'ahhhh' and take in as much fresh air as we can before we all lumber back in to the warm house, loosening our belts when we think no one is looking, and slump down in front of the TV while we force down a piece of pie or three. Why?  It's tradition...that's why.

    Image: M. Bielanko

  • The Perfect Ending 20 of 20

    Congratulations. You've just had yourself about as perfect a Thanksgiving as anyone ever had. And now that you're an expert, we both know exactly how this story has to end, now don't we? Sweet dreams, pilgrim.

    Image: M. Bielanko


Article Posted 3 years Ago

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