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13 Thanksgiving cooking mistakes to avoid

Don't let your hot meal become a hot mess.

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Skynesher/E+/Getty Images
This story is part of Holiday Survival Guide 2019, featuring tips on the best ways to manage the holiday season.

Hosting Thanksgiving dinner can be stressful even for seasoned experts. It's a complex task that takes planning both in and out of the kitchen: How many guests will you have, do they have dietary restrictions, do they have other gatherings to attend and do you have enough space at your table?

Avoid common cooking mistakes to prevent a Thanksgiving day disaster. But remember, mistakes do happen. Whether you dropped the turkey or forgot to cook the rolls, Thanksgiving is mainly about spending time with loved ones. Stop worrying and enjoy the indulgence!

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Mistake No. 1: Not planning ahead

This is absolutely the most important advice of all. Thanksgiving day can be hectic, especially depending on the family or friends joining you. Do yourself a favor and double- or triple-check that you have all your ingredients ready for the big day. Take out a pen and paper and plan out each of your dishes, and be sure to pick those with varying prep times -- you'll be thanking yourself later when all you have to do is pull the cranberry sauce out of the fridge to serve.

Read more on Chowhound: A beginner's guide to tackling Thanksgiving dinner

Planning ahead extends to many of the other areas below, but a couple more specific things to call out here: Pick some Thanksgiving recipes you can make ahead and freeze, and be sure you start defrosting your turkey with plenty of time to thaw.

Mistake No. 2: Forgetting the appetizers

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Chowhound

When trying to roast the perfect turkey while also cooking up your variety of side dishes, it can be easy to forget those starter snacks. Reduce the pressure on yourself to get food on the table as soon as your guests arrive and allow them to snack on some easy-to-prepare hors d'oeuvres while you focus on the main event. Pick something light and easy such as stuffed peppers or squash bites.

Mistake No. 3: Making dinner too late

Thanksgiving feasts are typically served as a dinner. Between running around to prepare, mingling and waiting for more guests to arrive, sometimes mealtime gets pushed off into the later hours. Bewarel of serving too late and tempting your party to miss out on quality time and give in to tryptophan-induced slumber immediately post-dinner.

Read more on Chowhound: How to host a Thanksgiving brunch

Mistake No. 4: Serving all hot dishes

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Chowhound

This goes hand in hand with planning ahead -- if all of your dishes are to be served hot, you likely won't have enough burners or oven space to allow them all to be kept hot before serving. Do yourself a favor and serve a room-temperature dish such as kale salad or prepare a make-ahead dish such as roasted acorn squash with wild rice stuffing.

Mistake No. 5: Buying the wrong turkey

Luckily, the internet has resources aplenty for this difficult decision. The typical recommendation is to allot 1.5 pounds of turkey per person at your table. You may also prefer a heritage or pasture-raised bird, and while it will cost you, it's possible to order one online.

Mistake No. 6: Stuffing the turkey with stuffing

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Chowhound

Of all the Thanksgiving disasters that could happen, getting your guests sick would be one of the worst. To make it less likely, the USDA recommends cooking stuffing outside of the bird. So, cook your "stuffing" in a casserole. Try our apple and sage stuffing recipe or our sausage-currant stuffing recipe.

Mistake No. 7: Not brining the bird

In the hustle and bustle of planning for the big day, this is a vital step that's easily overlooked. Brining is key to avoiding a dry and flavorless turkey. Plan ahead for which type of brining you want for your meal: a wet brine for juicier and more tender meat, or a dry brine for a crispier skin and more turkey flavor (and the bonus of not having to deal with large amounts of liquid). If you do want a wet brine, though, here are some pointers:

Mistake No. 8: Not cooking the turkey enough (or overcooking it!)

Get a meat thermometer! Even if you've cooked 50 turkeys in your lifetime, it's worth double-checking that the meat is 170°F in the inner thigh of the bird. Make sure the juices run clear, as well. Follow our guide to an easy roast turkey for tips.

Mistake No. 9: Carving the turkey incorrectly

Once you serve your perfectly roasted bird, the work isn't over. You don't want a turkey butchered the wrong way to depreciate your hours of preparing a perfectly cooked bird. Have no shame in using a carving guide or outsourcing this task to your uncle's expertise. But before you carve, let it rest! Transfer the turkey from the roasting pan to a platter and let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes while you make your gravy.

Mistake No. 10: Throwing out the pan drippings

You can (and should) make a batch of gravy ahead of time, but you should also definitely be planning to use your turkey drippings for more gravy on the big day. It's simple and takes about 15 minutes, but don't throw out one of the most important ingredients: the pan drippings!

Mistake No. 11: Not setting the table ahead of time

If you have energetic kids in attendance at your event, this might be a good task to keep them occupied, or you can do it in the morning, if not the night before. The important thing is, don't let the food get cold (or burn) while you run around setting out silverware at the last minute. We recommend making a seating chart as part of your planning and setting the table the night before -- especially if you have any guests you might want to keep separated.

Read more: The proper way to set a formal table for Thanksgiving

Mistake No. 12: Not accepting help

Hosting is no easy task. You'll be running around all day ensuring that all of your guests are comfortable, happy, and well-fed. If you get offers to contribute dishes or clean up after the main event, don't be shy about accepting. After all, it's your holiday, too. Confirm contributions with guests a few days before the feast, so you can properly plan ahead. If grandma's stuffing needs some oven space in the morning, you'll want to make sure you're able to accommodate.

Mistake No. 13: Getting too ambitious

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Michael Maes/Photodisc/Getty Images

We recommend saving the inventive dishes for your role as contributor to a feast, not host. No need to create more work for yourself by planning complicated and creative dishes to impress your guests -- they're there for the tradition, and your company! If you do want to include a memorable dish that's a little out-of-the-box, practice the recipe a few times before the day comes. You'll be able to work out the nuances of the dish before it's shared with all your loved ones. Similarly, don't feel like you need to tackle a dozen dishes plus five pies all from scratch; in addition to letting guests bring some things, explore your store-bought options, like Trader Joe's Thanksgiving desserts.

For more Thanksgiving tips, hacks, and recipes, check out our Ultimate Thanksgiving Guide and our Ultimate Guide to Friendsgiving.