Plan Ahead for a Stress-Free Meal

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by Dawn Klingensmith

Knowing what to cook ahead and when to cook it can make your food taste great – and your holiday meal prep a calm affair. Here’s a guide to what to make ahead, when to make it, how to store it, and how to reheat it.

Getting Thanksgiving dinner – or any holiday feast – on the table can seem like a math word problem gone awry:

Question: If it takes 4 hours to cook a 15-pound turkey, and three of the side dishes need something done to them “just before serving,” how many times will the cook wish there were an easier way without resorting to boxed or “instant” imposters of traditional favorites?

Answer: Probably countless times, and each of them unnecessary because many side dishes can be prepared or partially prepared a day or more in advance. And certain freezer-friendly recipes can be made weeks or months in advance and still taste fresh come mealtime.

“When it comes to a traditional Thanksgiving meal, everything but a green salad and the turkey can be made ahead, frozen and reheated on the holiday,” says Michele Borboa Stafford, a personal chef from Bozeman, Mont., and author of “Make-ahead Meals Made Healthy” (Fair Winds Press, 2011). “Bread-based stuffings are especially easy to fix and freeze, but you can also freeze mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and rice dishes, so all you have to do is thaw or reheat and serve.”

It’s simply math: An earlier start plus Borboa’s step-by-step instructions equals more time for friends and family over the holidays.

2 Months in Advance

Bread-based and rice stuffings can be fully assembled, baked cooled and frozen. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator and reheat in the oven.

Or, start two days ahead to save time without freezing. Cube and bake bread until lightly toasted, cool, and store at room temperature in an airtight container. For rice stuffings, steam the rice, let it cool completely, and store in the refrigerator.

N03B4090HChop onions, celery, carrots and other vegetables your recipe calls for. Store them in the refrigerator to sauté on the holiday, or sauté them in advance, cool and refrigerate until you assemble the stuffing. If your recipe calls for nuts, toast and store them in an airtight container.

“On Thanksgiving Day, all you have to do is assemble the prepped ingredients along with broth and any other ingredients” such as herbs and spices, and then follow instructions for cooking, Borboa says.

Cranberry sauce can be made up to two months in advance, cooled completely and frozen.

1 Month in Advance

“Raw potatoes don’t freeze well,” Borboa warns, “but mashed potatoes can be made up to one month in advance. Make your favorite mashed potatoes, spread them in a greased casserole dish and cool completely. Place a sheet of plastic wrap directly over the potatoes, and wrap the casserole dish tightly with heavy-duty foil.”

To reheat, thaw overnight in the refrigerator and place in the oven for 30 minutes at 350 degrees F. “You may have to adjust the butter, milk and seasonings but the hard work is done well in advance,” Borboa says.

N0809P63022HAlso an advocate of doing as much as possible ahead of time, Chicago event planner Debi Lilly believes quality suffers for certain dishes. “Mashed potatoes absolutely cannot be made in advance. To me, the best texture is when they’re fresh off the stovetop,” says Lilly, president of A Perfect Event. “They come out warm and creamy, and they just don’t carry that same consistency when reheated. They get a little lumpier and dry out, and the texture changes.”

The gravy that goes on top of them also requires same-day preparation, according to Lilly: “It’s very fatty and tends to separate,” she says.

If you’d rather not freeze mashed potatoes, you can save time with this fix-ahead tip: Wash and scrub potatoes, cut them into chunks, and place in a large pot. Fill with enough cold water to cover the potatoes and add a generous pinch of salt and the juice of one lemon to keep potatoes from browning. Potatoes can stay covered in water, refrigerated, for up to two days, Borboa says. When ready to cook, drain the water and boil in fresh water.

2 Weeks in Advance

“I prefer fresh-baked breads and rolls since freezing them can take away from their taste and texture, but if frozen properly, they can be made two to three weeks in advance and reheated on Thanksgiving Day,” Borboa says.

Allow fresh-baked rolls to cool completely, and then place them on a baking sheet. Place in the freezer until just solid. Place rolls in heavy-duty freezer bags, squeeze the air out, seal and freeze. You can simply let them thaw at room temperature overnight and serve them or warm them in the oven.

2 Days in Advance 

“You can’t cook an entire turkey and reheat it without ruining quality and increasing your chances of food poisoning,” Borboa warns, “but you can prep a few ingredients to save time.”

A day or two ahead, cut oranges, onions, celery, carrots, herbs and other ingredients you plan to use to flavor the turkey. “I don’t like soggy stuffing so I bake stuffing in the oven and fill the cavity of the turkey with aromatics and shove herbs, spices, citrus, onions and garlic beneath the skin of the turkey,” Borboa says. “I prep the ingredients ahead of time so all I have to do on Thanksgiving Day is put them in place in the turkey before putting it in the oven.”

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1 Day in Advance

“When it comes to salads, I say fresh is best, but you can certainly chop vegetables and other salad ingredients a day in advance and then assemble them on Thanksgiving Day and allow them to chill before serving,” Borboa says. “Always put the dressing on right before serving since vinegar and other acidic ingredients will wilt salad greens.”

The Big Day

“It’s best to prep fruit salads the day you serve them because the fruit tends to turn brown,” Borboa says. “Even when you have citrus juice mixed with them, they don’t have the vibrancy of being just sliced or diced. I’d wait until right before serving to add bananas since they tend to get soggy when mixed with juicy fruit.”

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