All-Star Chefs' Advice to First-Time Thanksgiving Cooks

If you're a newbie when it comes to hosting your own turkey-day feast, you can be thankful for these tried-and-true tips.

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Katie Lee

Don’t bite off more than you can chew. I remember the first Thanksgiving I hosted was so stressful, and I thought that I needed to make 10 different side dishes and have the table set perfectly. And I just wanted everything to be perfect. And it’s really not what you need. Just make it simple as possible: Make a couple of sides, and don’t be afraid to ask somebody to bring something. 

Guy Fieri

This is really, really, really the truth, and it sounds like BS, but you got to do a test run. You really do, and here’s the reason that a test run is not a bad thing. It’s not like you don’t have people that want to take home some extra turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy. It’s not like when your friends come over to your house [and] you’re the one that keeps all the leftovers and they go home and they have nothing, so the next morning when they wake up they don’t get turkey sandwiches with cracked black pepper — oh, that just made my mouth water. So do a test run. You don’t know what your stove’s like. You don’t know how your stuffing's going to turn out, and the thing is is preparation is the key to a successful Thanksgiving. 

Jeff Mauro

Don’t be too ambitious. Cook what you know first, and only make [a few] things. You don’t need to make 12 things. Make two things. Make the turkey, make the side, and then have people bring some stuff. You’re doing all the cleaning. 

Nancy Fuller

Just keep it simple. ... Do the smallest turkey that you can that takes the least amount of time, so that you can set it up. While you are letting it rest you can make your mashed potatoes, have them all ready to go. Do peas, frozen peas because it's a great vegetable and it's easy. If you are feeling fancy, do some scalloped oysters. You just buy the oysters in an 8-ounce container and saltine crackers and butter and put them in a pan and you’ll look like a hero, and they're two seconds and really easy. Pie — make a fruit pie, make a dough or even use a frozen crust, [but] don’t put yourself out. Use a frozen crust. Put it in the pan, put the fruit in, everything you’re going to make, put a lid on it, put the top crust on it, and freeze it. And then ... cook all your pies that night, so that they’re ready the next morning. That [way] they’re not in your way. ... And just keep it simple.

Marcela Valladolid

I would say don’t experiment. I mean, I know you can’t do, like, a practice run with a big, fat turkey, but I would certainly say dominate roasting a chicken for a weeknight dinner. You know what I’m saying, just so you can manage the different temperatures between the breast and the thigh so that you realize that the breast can dry out before the thigh is ready. I would just say try to stick to dishes that you have done before. I mean, it sounds so straightforward, but it just makes such a huge difference. I would never say to try anything new. And a lot of people do. And if you are an expert cook, maybe it’s a good idea, but if you are hosting Thanksgiving for the first time ...

Bobby Flay

I would say that they should make their menu, what they want to serve, and then cut it in half, because trying to be [overly] ambitious the first time you cook Thanksgiving is not a good idea, and it’s going to take longer and be more difficult than you can imagine. 

Giada De Laurentiis

Do a potluck! Do not try to do it all yourself … get help!

Alex Guarnaschelli

I think if it’s your first time, or even if it’s your second time, or you’re in a time crunch, the best thing to do is write out your whole menu and then cross off at least two things. That’s first and foremost. Second of all, you should have at least two or three side dishes that you can assemble and just bake off, or are literally ready to go, and make them in advance. And that way, even though you’re making this big dramatic spread, you’ve actually reduced the amount of stuff you’re making and it’s just kind of, like, a souped-up regular dinner.

Michael Symon

Get as much done the day before as you can. Get everything cut, prepped. If casserole-style things are done, have them ready to go in the oven. … I’ve been cooking my whole life, but the day before Thanksgiving, I make a full chart on, like, "This goes in the oven at 8, this goes in at 8:15, this comes out at 10, this comes out at 10:45" — just like a play-by-play of what’s going to happen that day so you could follow it [and] cross things off when they’re done.

Geoffrey Zakarian

I always tell people, "If it’s your first Thanksgiving host a potluck." So, do the turkey, do the gravy, do the stuffing. And then 10 friends that you really can depend on, give them two dishes each. And have them bring it the morning of, drop it off so that you can arrange it. Your life will be much easier.

Anne Burrell

Plan ahead, figure out what you can do ahead and do it. Brine your turkey and then get it all ready to go the night before, so then you just have to shoot it in the oven the next day. … Figure out what you can farm out, you know. Definitely when people say, “What can I bring?” tell them dessert. That kind of stuff, that takes a lot of pressure off as well. Have kids make place cards, 'cause that’s always fun. It gets them included. Have kids help set the table; they like to be involved. And relax.

Sunny Anderson

Two things. If people offer to bring something, say yes, 'cause usually it is something they feel will be missing at your party if you don’t have it. That’s also something they feel comfortable about making that is also delicious. Then also be OK with phoning in parts of your party. So I like to suggest to people if you are not great at baking, if someone is not going to bring the baked goods, do something like featuring a local baker and letting people know that, because I think it's really big to support small businesses not just on Small Business Saturday, which is obviously that day after Black Friday. 

Tyler Florence

I would go simple. I would say do fewer, better dishes. And really take your time and think through everything. There's pre-planning, where you kind of measure twice and cut once. Like, how long is that turkey going to take to cook? Could you maybe buy desserts instead of making everything? Simplifying the side dishes — you don’t need five side dishes, you just really need three. Make them great, you know. I think some sort of vegetable, some sort of, like, carbohydrate-potato-creamy thing, and then a cranberry sauce with turkey. 

Amanda Freitag

[I have a lot of tips that] are built into my new book, called The Chef Next Door, and it’s all about prep! Prep, prep, prep, prep, prep, prep, prep! Prep everything in the recipe before you start cooking. Put it all out in random weird containers, put it in coffee cups, put it in whatever you have, and then start. Don’t do anything until all your prep is done.

Marc Murphy

Just do it! Cooking’s all about trying and failing. And doing it again. Don’t be scared. Start cooking. 

Duff Goldman

Things freeze well. Lots of things freeze well. … Your candied-yam casserole: Make it, freeze it. … If you wrap it well, it’s going to be fine. … If you’re going to be making bread, you can make your dough and freeze your dough, and that way when it comes time to bake it, you let the dough come to room temperature, then you proof it, and then, you know, continue as normal, but the dough’s already done, you’re done, it’s finished! So your freezer’s your friend when you have to make a lot of food.

Scott Conant

I am a big proponent of ... the day of the actual event — when you’re trying to do last-minute cooking and get things together — I think you invite people into the kitchen with you. Because that way you don’t feel left out that you’re working so hard and [that] you’re not spending time with your guests. 

Valerie Bertinelli

You’re going to make mistakes. Just laugh about it. I mean, I put confectioners’ sugar in my gravy, and I’m still hearing about it 30 years later. But it’s fun. You just have to be willing to laugh at stuff. It’s not brain surgery. ... Thanksgiving is one of my favorite times of year because it’s mainly being around family. And then the food is such a huge part of it, but, I mean, if you are really stressing, have it potluck. Make the turkey [and] have it where everyone brings everything else. Or, if you really want to enjoy yourself, just start three days out. Know that you have to defrost your turkey, know that there’s all kinds of ways to plan on how to do it. And casseroles are really great, too, because you can just put it in and spend time with everybody. 

Aarón Sánchez

Make sure you do as much as you can ahead of time, obviously. And maybe have your stuffings and everything in oven-to-table dishes so you don’t have to stress out transferring stuff. Time the turkey so you can enjoy yourself. 

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