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Essential Thanksgiving Cooking and Hosting Hacks You Need to Use This Year

Simple tips to use so you can actually enjoy your holiday.

thanksgiving turkey on table
These tips are vital to get through Thanksgiving with your sanity intact. 
Shutterstock

This story is part of Home Tips, CNET's collection of practical advice for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.

I'm not sure about you, but in my family Thanksgiving is a three-day event more akin to a boozy marathon than a relaxing holiday. We take our Thanksgiving meals very seriously. But even though the hours and minutes leading up to the main event can be chaotic -- one year, the family cat licked every pie -- the stress is worth the beautiful spread that eventually takes up the entirety of the dining room table. 

With this experience, I've nailed down a few cooking and hosting tips that are vital to get through Thanksgiving with your sanity intact. Below you'll find nine essential tips you can add to your arsenal this upcoming holiday. (Even your in-laws will be impressed.) 

For more ways to navigate Thanksgiving like a pro, explore our Thanksgiving cheat sheet to prevent making common mistakes

1. Make a detailed list well in advance 

Personal Diary Thanksgiving To Do List

A detailed list will keep you organized. 

Annabelle Breakey/Getty Images

Maybe not a hack, per se, but it's one of the most foolproof ways to prevent a would-be disaster. Preparing in advance will guarantee you don't let something slip, and it can help ease your anxiety about the bid day. 

I recommend writing at least two lists. One should be a grocery list, itemizing every food, beverage, spice, dishware or decoration you'll need to purchase. The next list should actually be your plan of attack. List out everything you'll need to do, how long each task will take and what order you should do each task. You can even type out your list if you want to feel like a pro. 

2. Hit the grocery store early

Don't put yourself in a nightmare position where you head to your favorite grocery store and the shelves are cleared out of the sweet potatoes, cranberries and pecans you need. The key is to buy your groceries -- especially nonperishables -- ahead of time. (This year, you should probably go by Monday). 

This tip isn't just to beat the rush, but because some supermarket items may be harder to find or more expensive, including turkeys. Turkeys have been more expensive this year due to an avian flu killing millions of birds. The price of whole turkeys was up 73% to $1.99  per pound in October. The good news is turkey prices have dropped right in time for Thanksgiving. The average price for a whole frozen turkey is now 96 cents a pound, according to the US Department of Agriculture. That's still up about 8% from a year ago, but it's much more manageable. 

To guarantee you get a great turkey, buy it early. 

3. Defrosting early too

Do it early! I mean it. Don't wait and don't even think about putting your glorious, frozen turkey in the microwave. 

Thawing a turkey really is simple, you just need time. To make sure you take it out in time, set a reminder on your phone for when you need to switch the turkey from the freezer to the fridge. Here's our full guide on safely defrosting your Thanksgiving turkey. 

thawed turkey

Proper thawing is essential.

Chris Monroe/CNET

4. Create counter space 

This is always an issues, isn't it? Even if I had a gigantic mansion with a 1,000 feet of counter space, I'd bet I'd run out of areas to prep, chop, mix and marinate. 

The trick is to create counter space. Yeah, yeah, matter can't be created or destroyed, but it can be if you bust out that tailgating table you have in the garage. If you have any sort of foldout table stored away somewhere in your home, dust it off and move it to your kitchen for extra counter space. 

5. Print out your recipes and tape them on the cabinets 

While maybe you don't mind pulling up the recipe on your phone every few minutes to check the directions, I get frustrated by the constant need to stop what I'm doing only to get greasy smudges all over my phone screen. 

By printing the recipe on paper and keeping it securely taped to the kitchen cabinets, you'll always know where to look without toggling through different screens and you won't be taking up any of that sparse counter space. If you have a recipe in a cooking book or a family recipe handwritten, I recommend quickly typing it up on a computer to print, or tape the recipe card itself to the cabinet.

If you prefer a more modern approach, you can have your Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant device help with the recipes. 

recipe card next to ingredients

Write out your recipe card and tape it onto the kitchen cabinet, so it's out of the way. 

Cavan Images/Getty Images

6. Prechop everything you can

Chopping vegetables is known to be therapeutic, but it's time-consuming. With the fray of everything going on Thanksgiving day, spare yourself the agony. Wash, prep and chop the day or night before. This goes for all your vegetables, fruits and nuts. 

Simply seal everything into separate containers and take it out when you need it. 

woman's hands cutting vegetables

Chopping veggies can be time-consuming, so do it beforehand. 

RuslanDashinsky/Getty Images

7. Don't be afraid to make dishes ahead of time 

Unfortunately, it's hard to do everything in one day even if you chop veggies ahead of time. That means you'll have to do some pre-Thanksgiving cooking. Luckily, there's lots of dishes that you can make ahead of time and will still be delicious by dinnertime.

For example, the all-important mashed potatoes. Between scrubbing, peeling, chopping, boiling and mashing, this dish can be an unexpected time-suck. You can keep mashed potatoes up to two days ahead of time and they'll still be fluffy, creamy and yummy.

Here's several other dishes that will fare well overnight in the fridge:

  • Gravy can be refrigerated or frozen days in advance and then whisked back to life in a saucepan before serving day-of.
  • Stuffing will need to be popped back in the oven for a few minutes or under the broil to re-crisp the top, but with all the chopping and mixing involved, it would be worth your time to pre-prepare. 
  • Desserts tend to keep well for days. Pumpkin pies, pecan pies and apple pie bread pudding, will thrive in the fridge overnight. 
  • Booze is always a no-brainer for preparing ahead if there will be drinking at your party. Throw together a fun and fabulous large-batch cocktail and keep it in the fridge until you're ready to serve. 
three thanksgiving pies on a table

Desserts, especially pies, are no-brainers for making ahead of time. 

Beth Cagnoni/500px/Getty Images

8. Hack the turkey 

The holiday is literally nicknamed Turkey Day. It's kind of important. 

While turkey is perhaps the single most important item, there's ways to "hack" it so it's not so difficult. If you have the time and the energy, I recommend following this guide on the best way to roast a turkey perfectly.

If you really want to get creative this year, you can try turducken

Go dry

Cooking snobs may turn their noses up at me, but use a dry brine instead of the more classic wet brine. Brining is the technique of coating the turkey in a salt mixture to keep the turkey meat flavorful and tender, and to prevent dryness. 

A dry brine (vigorous salt rub) is a much simpler endeavor than the classic wet brine, requiring fewer steps, less time, space and equipment. Dry brines also result in a very salty, crispy skin. 

Go high

Much can be said for high-heat cooking with it resulting in crispy skin and moist meat and, of course, taking much less time to prepare. The high-heat recipe calls for just a two-hour roast at a scalding hot 500 to 525 degrees Fahrenheit for a 16- to 18-pound bird. Adjust for time and weight as needed. 

Spatch me if you can

Spatch cooking, a popular method of roasting, in which the turkey's backbone is removed and the breastbones are cracked so the turkey can lay flat, can really help save time if you're in a pinch. Plus, the risk of drying out decreases greatly. To save even more time, ask your butcher to spatch the turkey for you and remember, you should still brine your bird. 

9. Don't be afraid to be the boss

Don't be afraid to delegate dishes and tasks to your family and guests (but be careful to gauge their capabilities in advance).  Your nephew might love to pitch in on peeling potatoes, and your niece might be better at setting the table. If you are going to ask for help, do it nicely and try to make the workload even per person. 

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