Thanksgiving lessons learned: one mom’s (grateful) battle to enjoy labor-intensive holidays

I love that Thanksgiving reminds me to take stock and be thankful for the abundance of blessings in my life. I am blessed. I am thankful. I’m grateful for a holiday devoted to that awareness.

Thanksgiving give thanks - 1But then there is the reality of celebrating Thanksgiving in America as a mom. It involves a lot of cooking, a lot of shopping, and a lot of stress.

Let’s all keep in mind that I’m not a great cook. I can produce reasonably healthy and palatable food for my family; I don’t enjoy cooking.

Shopping the gauntlet

I start shopping right after Halloween. I buy the wine as early as possible for obvious reasons. I pick up our family celiac’s favorite gluten free stuffing mix from Trader Joe’s as soon as it arrives for the season.

Pantry goods are easy to buy ahead of the rush, and doing so helps spread out over multiple weeks the costs of a sit down dinner for 20.

I’m grateful for Amazon Fresh delivering my last minute, fresh foods on the day before Thanksgiving. Grocery stores are hellish just before this holiday! Having the items I want dropped off right to my door is a Really Wonderful Thing.

We enjoy seasonal, local bounty direct from family-owned farms in New England via Farmers To You. This year ’round service is especially gratifying as the autumn harvest rolls in. I’ve posted before about my commitment to support our regional food shed with my grocery dollars.

A humanely raised turkey from Misty Knoll Farms as the centerpiece of our feast is something I’m proud to feed my family and friends.

Cleaning the house

As we catalogue my faults, let’s remember that I’m not much of a housekeeper, either. Hosting a large meal raises certain expectations for minimizing the usual daily clutter. Having out of town relatives to stay means prepping the guest room and the downstairs bathroom, too.

I have to confess: this year, I didn’t get as much done as I’d have liked to prepare for houseguests. I struggled to forgive myself for that, but I used up every iota of energy that I had prepping for Thanksgiving in other ways, choosing to prioritize the feeding of 20 people from seven households over the immediate comforts of close relatives.

I’m grateful that I’ve gotten better at acknowledging my limits; I’ll keep working on accepting those limitations with grace.

Planning on the level of a precision strike

The only way a less-than-stellar cook is going to get a meal for twenty on the table in something resembling good time is to create a plan that incorporates all the prep and cooking times for multiple recipes and integrate them temporally.

Here’s my countdown cheat sheet.

Thanksgiving Cooking Schedule 2017

By the end of the day, the printed document is a graffito of actual times, notes to my future self, and food spatters testifying to the earthy reality of all the hard work that went into the meal. I tuck it away into my Thanksgiving folder as a reminder of where I can improve the workflow next year.

Another blessing that must be counted: I’ve gotten better at managing the Thanksgiving meal every year.

Cooking marathon

I haven’t mentioned it in this post until now, but I must reiterate the frustrating reality that I live with a chronic illness. It saps my energy which wasn’t particularly high to begin with. Thanksgiving kicks my ass!

I prep as far in advance of Thanksgiving day as possible. Shelf stable ingredients are pre-measured into covered jars and placed, with recipe print out, into appropriate cooking vessels. Produce is washed. Tasks are delegated. Oh how I delegate!

There’s simply no avoiding a boatload of work to be done in the final few hours before the Big Meal.

This may be the most fundamental objection that I have to the art and craft of cooking: there’s simply no getting ahead of it.

Anxieties must be faced, and important work will be accomplished with no time left for redundancies and back up plans. I hate this! I routinely assuage my fears with Plans B.

When all is said and done…

When all is said and done, however, or when all is prepped and cooked, in this case, every recipe is completed or it isn’t!, and the meal is served as is.

There are culinary triumphs and failures, but the food is on the table(s), and the assembled company finds its own reasons to give thanks.

The proof is in the pudding, or the pumpkin pie, or maybe it fell into the gravy boat on the kids table… I’m sure it’s here somewhere. Or maybe we didn’t need that proof after all?

As the Barenaked Ladies put it in their song Raisins:

When I make mistakes I use a lot of salt

‘Cause salt makes mistakes taste great

As for this year?

We were thankful for the food; we were thankful for the friends. I didn’t forget to turn on the potatoes (2015’s major snafu), and I only cut myself once (personal best!)

We even had every dish ready on time… but one family was running late, so we sat down a few minutes behind schedule anyway.

Just as well. Had we achieved perfection, we’d have nothing to learn for next year, and nowhere to go but down.

And that’s more reason to be thankful: room for improvement, and the chance to do it all again.

Wondering why I’m writing about Thanksgiving in December? Well, I take my time! You can read my thoughts on Winter Holiday Greetings here if you prefer more topical posts.

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