The Practical Mom’s Guide to Tackling Thanksgiving Dinner Solo


Thanksgiving is a time for family, fellowship and way too many cooks in the kitchen. But the stark reality is that it’s usually one parent who ends up doing 99.9 percent of the cooking, right down to garnishing the butter dish with freshly minced chives.

These tiny details could seem absurd, yet we willingly take on this task year after year. Throw tiny children into the mix, little people pawing at your legs and whimpering while you’re trying to top and tail six thousand green beans, and it’s enough to make even the most devoted chef call it quits (there’s a reason why gravy, stuffing and potatoes all come in a can).

I’m said chef for this year’s Thanksgiving feast. My husband’s been away since July and Thanksgiving marks his first time home in four months. His ETA is 10 minutes before dinner, so as much as I want to make our Thanksgiving feast extra special, I’m seriously questioning how I’m going to pull it off myself with two tykes underfoot.

But then the most miraculous solution appeared to me: Make (almost) everything beforehand after the kiddos have gone to bed. Behold, my Harried Solo Parent’s Turkey Day Cooking Timeline. Tear it out and stick it to your refrigerator and keep loads of alcohol on hand to guide you. We can do this together.


Plan your menu: Unless you’re Alice Waters, elaborate four-star cookery and little kids don’t mix. This year, focus on feast essentials and forget fancy extras, such as roasted walnut dusted cornbread and elaborate wilted salads with infused goat cheese dressing. In fact, do not under any circumstances attempt any recipe involving an infusion.

  • Essentials: Turkey (or meatless equivalent), mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, and some kind of vegetable side dish (or two, if you’re feeling really ambitious), cranberry sauce, pie, wine.
  • Non-essentials: Signature cocktail, bread, rolls, salad, hors d’oeuvres (see below), homemade cranberry sauce, homemade desserts.

Note about hors d’oeuvres: Some guests (or your spouse) may raise an eyebrow over the lack of finger food prior to the feast, but why invite him/her to fill up in the face of all your labor? If you must provide pre-meal snacks, stick to prepared foods. Think the good old fashioned relish tray: Pickles, olives, more pickles, more olives, cheese, a few crackers, the remote, beer—the party has been started.

Note about the lack of bread: You can always tell your spouse it’s because you’re concerned about gluten.


Go shopping: You may have to bring the kids with you. Sucks for you. Whatever the case, plan your shopping trip around non-peak shopping hours: 7 a.m. Saturday, 6 p.m. Sunday, 2 a.m. if you live near a Wal-mart Supercenter. Buy the best pre-made desserts you can find or assign a guest to make them.

Gather your tableware: I know it sounds like micromanaging, but you’re like me, you’ll end up serving the candied yams out of a red solo cup because you ran out of bowls. Assigning every dish an appropriate bowl beforehand ensures you don’t come up short and makes things much less hectic the day of.


Make the stuffing: Believe it or not, but stuffing freezes beautifully – and that includes the full works … milk, butter, sausage, herbs, and dried bread. The trick is to give it ample time to defrost at room temperature the morning of, or even the night before the big meal.


Make the mashed potatoes: Mashed potatoes that have been frozen tend to get watery when defrosted, but there is a way around this: whip the bejesus out of them (no chunks) so they’re super smooth and go heavy on the fats—butter, sour cream, more butter. In my family, we add a whole brick of cream cheese. The fat coats and protects the spuds in the freezer. Defrost and gently warm on Thanksgiving Day. Worry about weight loss in the springtime.


Prep remaining vegetables: Top and tail green beans, slice onions, peel and cube squash, mince garlic, parboil broccoli, premix a house cocktail — whatever you need to do to make Thursday in the kitchen with the kiddos less stressful.

Assemble the cranberry sauce: Unless you’re particularly fanatic about cranberry sauce, why bother making homemade? It’s a condiment. It won’t make or break the meal. Dump the contents of the can into your prettiest dish and mush it up with a fork so it looks somewhat less processed. If you must get fancy about it, gussy it with various herbs and spices, like Madhur Jaffrey’s Cranberry Chutney recipe here.

Assemble your hors d’oeuvres: AKA, cover the relish tray in plastic wrap and refrigerate.


Here we go….

Cook the turkey

Make the gravy

Defrost the stuffing and mashed potatoes

Finish off the side dishes

Pour yourself a drink

Tell your 4-year-old she has to eat something other than the canned cranberry sauce

Vow to never, ever do this again … until next year.

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