5 Things You Can Do Now for Thanksgiving

5 Things You Can Do Now for ThanksgivingI’m a little bit giddy about Thanksgiving this year, but not for reasons you might think. Yes, I’ll get to spend it in the company of friends, of people I love, and yes, there will be delicious things to nibble and drink, games to play, and fun to be had with some of my favorite faces. But this year, Thanksgiving, or Friendsgiving as it really is, is the first time in five years that I’m not responsible for the meal – and I’m pretty thrilled about it!

Don’t get me wrong, I love to cook for my friends, to feed them delicious treats, to decorate my home and make it super inviting, but it’s a lot of work that starts weeks in advance. This year, I only have to bring two vegetable side dishes, my best beau, some board games…and that’s it! That’s all that is required of me! I’m so excited to spend time enjoying my friends and being very present in the moment, as opposed to running back and forth to the kitchen like I normally do when hosting. I’ll be the girl on the couch with her feet up and a glass of rosé in her manicured hand – and I can’t wait!

5 Things You Can Do Now for Thanksgiving
But all of my years of hosting in the past have taught me a lot about how to have a beautiful Thanksgiving and what you can do days, even weeks, ahead in order to make the day itself less busy and more enjoyable. Let’s take a look at the 5 things you can do now for Thanksgiving!

1. Prepare your Lists
I’m no one if not someone who loves a list. And while it can get borderline neurotic any other time, if you’re hosting any big event or holiday gathering, organization is key. So get yourself situated early on by preparing your four main lists: guest list, menu, shopping list, and your day-of agenda.

  • Several weeks in advance, you should have a firm sense of who is attending the fête and what they’re bringing. Lock in folks on one item or another based on their strengths. Once you know that one person is responsible for wine and another for their famous pumpkin cheesecake, you’re well on your way to organizing your menu and filling in the gaps.
  • Having a menu in place early on should give you a sense of calm as the day gets closer because you know what’s ahead of you. Building in old reliables that you’re comfortable with executing and the rare new recipe or technique allows you the ability to foresee how to structure your time before and the day itself. You’ll know where you need to build in extra time for your first-time making a meringue-topped dessert for instance versus the mashed potatoes you whip up once a month, that feel like old hat.
  • Planning your menu in advance also allows you to buy responsibly. Thanksgiving – and all holidays – can be expensive for the person hosting. If you take time ahead of time to plan a potluck or to designate specific items or dishes to others, it can alleviate some of the financial strain. If you’re going it alone and intend on not asking your guests to bring anything, planning your menu in advance also gives you time to take stock of what you have already. You’ll know if you’re down to half a bag of confectioner’s sugar or have four pounds stacked up in the back of the pantry.
  • A little planning prevents overbuying as much as it helps you to not miss any key ingredients as you head to the store. Organize your shopping list based on the layout of the spot where you plan to do your shopping. You’ll move through your list faster this way and will be less likely to forget something integral. I always make sure to mark on my shopping list what I have a coupon for or what the sale/deal is so that I’m also certain I’m buying the specific item (the 10oz box versus the 12oz box) that is actually on sale.
  • A day-of agenda for executing the meal itself is where many folks would draw the line with list-making, but I promise you that it’s worth doing – especially if you’re new to planning or cooking a big meal for a crowd. Doing so will allow you to have a schedule to keep yourself to – one that has already considered that the stuffing can go in the oven at the same temperature as the sweet potatoes, but 20 minutes after. A day-of agenda also comes in handy once you’re ready to put all the food out to confirm you haven’t forgotten to warm something or put out the dinner rolls. Consider it a little blueprint to get you through the day.

5 Things You Can Do Now for Thanksgiving
2. Ready your serveware, your place settings, and your tools
A week or two before the event is the time to make sure you have everything you need in terms of your tools prior to the event. Take down your platters from the tops of your cupboards, pull out your box of extra wine glasses, dig through your utensil drawer and find the baster and meat thermometer, sharpen your knives. The worst thing is a stressful day before the holiday when you’re scrambling around trying to finish cooking and prepping and you still have to gather together all of the serving pieces you’re going to need the next day. Be good to yourself and take the time to plan so that on the night before, you can order a pizza, maybe trim some veggies, and take it easy. I like to gather all of my plates together, wash anything that got a little dusty during the year in the back of the closet, and then wrap everything in a clean, spare table cloth and keep them on an empty closet shelf.

5 Things You Can Do Now for Thanksgiving
3. Wash and press your linens
If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that I have a thing for cloth napkins. Do Bear and I use them every day? No, of course not. Laundry isn’t free, nor is it in our apartment, and we’re not jerks. That said, though, I love a cloth napkin when I’m entertaining people, so the week before, I figure out what my table is going to look like and what table cloth and napkins I’m going to use. You know what you don’t want to be doing the night before Thanksgiving? Laundry. Two hours of work weeks ahead of time will save you last-minute annoyance and anguish closer to the holiday. Of course, if you’re thinking of using paper napkins for your event, I say there’s no shame in that. Easy clean-up where you can get it is totally respectable in the face of cooking a huge meal. If linens aren’t where you think your precious time needs to be spent, I get it! No shame!

5 Things You Can Do Now for Thanksgiving
4. Plan your table decoration and layout
A beautiful table doesn’t have to be difficult, elaborate, or expensive. A simple bouquet of flowers separated into smaller, shorter bouquets with a few small tea light candles won’t put you back much and will make you and your guests feel truly special. Pinterest, of course, is a great source of inspiration, so I recommend browsing around in your very early planning stages and getting some ideas. Two things I like to keep in mind as I plan what I’ll have on my table: 1) It’s important for your guests to be able to see each other, so I tend to put together items that aren’t very tall. For Thanksgiving, think pumpkins, gourds, candles shaped like maple leaves, pine cones, etc. An arrangement that includes lower-profile items will be beautiful and won’t risk interfering with conversation. 2) Remember that you’re going to have other things on your table aside from your centerpiece. Be sure you allow room for everyone’s place setting, rogue drinks that make it to the table, extra serving dishes of sides if you’re not buffeting your meal, and elbows! Don’t sacrifice you or your guests’ comfort and ability to stretch out a bit for a really elaborate table design. The whole point of getting together is to enjoy your time together and that’s not possible if you’re getting pushed out by too many wicker turkeys.

5 Things You Can Do Now for Thanksgiving
5. Look to make-ahead dishes
After my first two years of cooking Thanksgiving, it took me about two to three days to fully recover from the amount of work and stress it was – and I was still in my 20s then! But all of that changed as I started to plan better and learned from experience that there were several key parts of the meal I could prepare ahead of time to save me such valuable time. The first? The gravy! Every Thanksgiving I’ve ever had includes this incredible gravy from the one and only Ina Garten. For me, there’s no turkey without this gravy. But you know what? Making gravy in the final moments before your meal goes to the table is hella stressful. It is the worst! So what do I do? I make my gravy two weeks ahead of time and keep it in my freezer. On the morning of Thanksgiving, I thaw it and warm it on the stove (or gasp! In the microwave!) right before we dig in. Sometimes it needs a little whisk or a quick buzz with the immersion blender to bring it fully together, but that’s nothing. Making the gravy in advance is such a time-saver and the result is piping hot, which is never the case when you’re whisking gravy together at the last minute. I make the gravy with drippings from a chicken I roast for dinner a few weeks prior and you’d never know that it didn’t start with a turkey. Take this tip and run with it, seriously!
Cranberry & Clementine Conserve
I also make my cranberry and clementine conserve weeks ahead of time and freeze it as well. For Thanksgiving prep, these containers are your best friends, allowing you to make several different pieces of your meal in advance, and strong enough to withstand the chill of your freezer for a few weeks. Last year, I even made my mashed potatoes a day or two prior (don’t freeze these – the texture will never be the same), smoothed them into a 9×13 pan, covered it tightly with foil, and about 40 minutes out from the meal, I put them oven covered and let them get nice and hot. They fluffed up beautifully as I added them to the serving bowl and there was no last minute mashing and whipping of potatoes either. If you plan a menu in advance, with the possibility of doing some of it ahead of time, you can really take a lot off your plate for the day-of, allowing you to do what you’re meant to: enjoy your friends and family and reflect on how to improve, or contribute more to, our various communities.

Whether you’re hosting your first big meal, bringing a pie, or staying home with take-out and Netflix, I wish you a wonderful, stress-free day of entertainment and one hell of a big piece of pumpkin pie. Enjoy, everyone!

DIY Sparrow Place Cards

DIY Sparrow Place CardsI mentioned in my recent Coconut Chocolate Dipped Peeps post that, for me, Easter is a celebration of friends, family, and spring rather than anything religious. So while I’ve made these place cards for my Easter table, they would be a welcome addition to any springtime, or even summer, event that calls for some table flair.

DIY Sparrow Place Cards, SuppliesLook, the reality is that I’m only having 6 people over for Easter dinner – finding a seat is not going to be a real Olympics of the mind situation. That being said, though, I think a beautiful table is as important as the food you put on it when making a memorable day. In this case, that means having adorable sparrow-shaped place cards adorning everyone’s spot. My goal any time I host a meal or a party for friends, whether it be a small brunch with a bestie or a larger gathering to welcome a friend in from out of town, is to create the feeling that this day is special and that the people attending are cared for.

DIY Sparrow Place CardsEspecially for the queer folks among us whose family situations may be tenuous at best, gathering around a table with others specifically on a holiday can bring up a lot of conflicting feelings – including sadness and even relief. Surely, it’s all a process, but if taking the time and effort to make the day beautiful and the atmosphere warm gives someone a sense of home in the meantime, creating that is important to me. How could anyone see this pretty little thing perched atop their plate and not feel welcomed?

DIY Sparrow Place Cards

What’s nice about these place cards is that while they’re festive and, in many ways, seemingly elaborate, they require little skill and once the parts that involve tracing and cutting are done, they come together quickly. My dear friend, Katie – my co-host for our Easter/Springtime Celebration of Friends – and I knocked these out in about an hour after everything was cut out and ready to go. Another fun fact: they cost only about $1.50 each to make!

We chose sheets of scrapbook paper that coordinated with our color scheme in a variety of patterns – floral, polka dots, and plaid – so that regardless of gender or personal taste, everyone will have a place setting that appeals to them along those lines. Not that I expect the gents among us to really hold on to their tiny bird place cards afterward, but you know, thoughtfulness is next to godliness or something.

DIY Sparrow Place CardsWe really saved here in creating our own nests out of tiny vine wreaths that were about 50 cents at our local craft store, as opposed to pre-made nests of similar materials which were upwards of $3 each. For added realness, we added Spanish moss and tiny eggs to our DIY bird nests, which we would have used to decorate the $3 nests too, so we really did save quite a bit without sacrificing the look we were after or a bunch of extra time.

DIY Sparrow Place CardsWith several days left before Easter and many more days of spring and summer ahead of us, there’s plenty of time to add these sparrow place cards to your dining decor. Whether you’re a table of two, 12, or even 100, these are the perfect way to welcome guests and, simultaneously, tell them where to park it. Two birds, one stone.

DIY Sparrow Place Cards
Yields one place setting

Supplies
1 sparrow template, re-sized, printed, & cut out; I used this.
1-2 sheets of sturdy scrapbook paper; 1 sheet if you don’t mind the back having the same pattern as the front, 2 sheets if you want to combine patterns
Glue gun & glue sticks
Craft glue or Elmer’s glue
Small vine wreath
Spanish moss
One sheet of plain, white printer paper
Sharpie or other thin marker, color of your choice (you can also use the printer for writing names if you’re not great with handwriting; more on that below)
Scissors
Small, plastic bird eggs
Pencil

Directions

Step 1: Plug in your glue gun and allow it to heat up on the high setting.

Step 2: Using a pencil, trace the outline of your sparrow template onto your scrapbook paper so that you have a front and back with the pattern(s) facing outwards. The two cut-outs should be facing the same direction so that when glued together, they match up giving the bird weight and stability to stay upright in the nest.

Step 3: When you have both pieces cut out, use the Elmer’s or craft glue to adhere the front and the back together, but leave the beaks unglued for adding the name banner later. Set aside to dry.

Step 4: Free a small handful of Spanish moss from the bag. With the wreath on a flat surface, apply a ring of hot glue to its top edge and, working quickly, gently apply the Spanish moss to edge of the wreath concentrating the bulk of the handful into the center, creating a bit of a well. Be careful not to burn yourself. Once the glue is more warm than cool, press the moss more firmly into the setting glue along the top edge of the wreath. Allow to dry.

Step 5: Place a small bead or two of hot glue into the middle of the well of Spanish moss and place the feet of your sparrow into it, holding the bird part upright until it has dried and can support itself standing.

Step 6: Add some hot glue into the well in front of the bird, as well as behind and fill any holes or spaces with small bunches of the Spanish moss. You’ll want to partially obscure the feet so that it seems they’re nestled in the nest. Trim stray Spanish moss pieces with a scissor, as needed.

Step 7: Use a bead or two of hot glue to secure two eggs onto the rim of the wreath within the Spanish moss and allow to dry.

Step 8: Lastly, create and adhere the name banner. You can do this one of two ways. Initially, I cut out small banners made of white printer paper and hand-wrote the names, but later chose a font and color I preferred more, printed each of the names out on one sheet of paper, and cut out the banners from there. It’s up to you which option you choose. When envisioning your banners be sure to consider that about 1/4″ of one end will be between the the two sides of the beak, so make sure you cut the banners long enough. With the banners printed, apply a small dot of Elmer’s or craft glue between the two sides of the beak and insert the beginning of the banner. Press the two sides of the scrapbook paper together to adhere them together, setting the banner between the beaks. Allow to dry.

Step 9: Trim any stray pieces of Spanish moss or strings from the glue gun and store until ready to use.

Coconut Chocolate Dipped Peeps

Coconut Chocolate Dipped PeepsAt this point in my 30s, every holiday I host feels like the most special of days. I iron tablecloths, set out cloth napkins, plan a menu weeks in advance; all things my early-20s self would have scoffed at. But making home – and holidays always feeling like an important part of that process – means throwing myself into them fully, striving to make it a really special day for those who choose to share it with me.

While Easter has no religious significance to me, it’s still as good an excuse as any to gather with friends and welcome in spring over good food and drinks. What this means for Easter 2014 is a menu set, with a grocery list already growing alongside it, and place cards being prepped this very weekend. It feels extra loving to dedicate these efforts to loved ones even if it winds up being quite a bit of work.

Coconut Chocolate Dipped Peeps

Dipping them in chocolate is yet another step in the right direction, but coconut & chocolate? Divinity! I dipped these little jewels into white or semi-sweet chips that have been melted down with a little dot of coconut oil. The oil thins out the chocolate for easier, smoother dipping and adds the additional flavor of fresh coconut. What’s not to like? A few sprinkles or unsweetened coconut flakes (they were gone before I even got to taking pictures!) and you have a satisfying and festive treat absolutely worthy of spring and a houseful of your favorite peeps.

…See what I did there?

Coconut Chocolate Dipped Peeps
Yields 12 Peeps

Ingredients
12 Peeps
4 ounces of semi-sweet chocolate chips
4 ounces of white chocolate chips
1 Tablespoon of solid coconut oil, divided in half
Sprinkles
Unsweetened coconut flakes

Directions
Line a baking sheet or cutting board with waxed paper or a silicone baking mat. In two separate bowls add the white chips and the semi-sweet chips and half a tablespoon of coconut oil each. Put each bowl in the microwave and cook for 30 second intervals until chocolate is melted. Stir the contents of each bowl really well to thoroughly combine the oil and the chocolate. Dip each Peep halfway  in the chocolate, allow to drip off into the bowl and then place on the lined surface. For the white chocolate, you may want to do a double dip to get a more opaque finish. Immediately after dipping, shake sprinkles onto the chocolate portion of the Peeps or dust with coconut flakes. When finished decorating, pop the Peeps into the refrigerator for about 30 minutes and when time has passed, check to see if the chocolate has hardened. If not, given them another 10 minutes or so. Once the chocolate has solidified, they’re ready to eat or be stored in the refrigerator for about 7-10 days. The Peeps will be a bit firm when they come out of the refrigerator after a few hours or overnight, so you may want to give them a few minutes to soften before consuming.