Thanksgiving Mistakes You're Making—and How to Fix Them
For generations, Thanksgiving dinner has been like the Super Bowl for home cooks. However, with fewer people cooking regularly at home—a Nutrition Journal study found that when comparing 1965 to 2007, as many as 30 percent fewer meals are cooked at home—and semi-homemade hacks like meal kits on the rise, the biggest food holiday of the year has become more like the Olympics. Less common, more stressful, and with more (seemingly) on the line.
So we turned to two apron-clad all-stars, Sue Smith, co-director of the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, and Tucker Shaw, editor in chief at Cook's Country magazine (a part of America's Test Kitchen) for their pro-level fixes for the most common Thanksgiving cooking mistakes. These solutions are sure to help you earn gustatory gold this year.
Mistake: Not making a shopping list.
A week in advance, make your list and check it twice. Survey your spice cabinet to ensure all necessary herbs and spices are less than six months old (pro tip: mark the date you open on the bottom). Score bonus points by sorting your supermarket needs by department and/or aisle to streamline the cart quest. Sure, the extra steps are good, but is the extra stress of fighting the crowds worth it?
Mistake: Only skimming the recipe.
Give the ingredients and instructions a good gander so you don't have to go back (and back again) to the grocery store. You'll also catch any questionable terms that you can research (say, julienne), so you can prep what you can ahead and nail the recipe on Thanksgiving day.
Mistake: Underestimating thaw time.
Smith and Shaw agree: The biggest and most common Thanksgiving mistake is forgetting to defrost your turkey. "Thaw your bird in the refrigerator and allow one day of defrosting time for every four pounds," Smith says.
That means for the average frozen Thanksgiving turkey (which is around 12 to 15 pounds), plan for three or four days. "Put it on a sheet pan or platter to catch any drips, then switch it to the fridge. This is such a basic thing, but it's easy to forget! Tell Siri now to remind you the Monday of Thanksgiving week to make the move," Shaw says.
Mistake: Skipping breakfast.
Yes, there's a multi-course meal coming later. But arrive in the kitchen starving, and you're at risk for getting hangry … or snacking on far too many "samples" of the candied yams before dinner. Plus, eating a high-protein breakfast daily makes you way more likely to keep weight off, according to the National Weight Control Registry.
Try a cup of Greek yogurt with berries, enjoy a couple of poached eggs on a slice of avocado toast, or sip a shake made with unsweetened almond milk, plant-based vanilla protein, frozen berries, and a spoonful of peanut butter.
Mistake: Forgetting the meat thermometer.
Don't just guess. Guarantee. Smith and her 49 Turkey Talk-Line compatriots counsel over 100,000 calls every holiday season and field the "how hot is hot enough" question often. They say to always use a meat thermometer to know when the turkey is done.
The USDA says you're A-OK to eat at 165 °F. Keep in mind that the internal meat temperature will continue to rise about 10 degrees after you remove the turkey from the oven, so pulling it out at 155 to 160 °F should get you to a safe temp after resting.
Mistake: Thinking the bird should stay whole.
Everyone from Martha Stewart to Food Network stars swears by "spatchcocking." Mastering this method is easy: Slice out the backbone and press to flatten the turkey, with skin-side facing up, on a pan to roast. This helps the meat cook quicker, and the skin crisps up more evenly.
Mistake: Stuffing the turkey.
Plan on dressing cooked in a casserole dish, instead of stuffing cooked in the turkey's cavity. "Don't stuff your turkey with anything you plan to eat. Stuffing can't reach the temperature it needs to inside the bird without you overcooking the turkey itself," Shaw says.
If you want to stick something inside your bird, try onion quarters, garlic cloves, or lemon halves, Shaw recommends. Just know that this will perfume the oven air, but not really do too much to infuse the meat with flavor.
Mistake: Basting the turkey.
Shut the front door. "Basting won't help the turkey stay juicier—we've tested this many times," Shaw says. "It might add color, but opening and closing the oven to baste will significantly add to the cook time without really impacting the flavor."
To achieve that nice golden brown color without delaying dinner, "brush the breast of the turkey with vegetable oil right before you put it in the oven," Smith says.
Mistake: Using drippings from your roast to make gravy.
Get a head start on the quintessential Thanksgiving condiment by roasting turkey thighs or wings (both cook much quicker than a whole roast) and whisking up gravy a day or two in advance. This way, you can focus on the texture, using a roux to avoid lumps, and cross one item off your table to-do list.
Not sure where to start? You can't go wrong with this homemade gravy recipe.
Mistake: Skipping the roasting rack.
A roasting pan big enough to hold your turkey is clutch, as is a rack to elevate the bottom of the turkey so its skin crisps up, too. "If you don't have a flat rack, you can use carrots or an aluminum 'foil coil' to elevate the turkey off of the pan," Smith says.
Once you have the roasting pan ready, try this 90-Minute Roasted Turkey With Orange-Cranberry Relish Recipe.
Mistake: Cooking too little turkey.
Everyone loves leftovers. Everyone hates fighting over the last bite—or worse, going hungry. "Buy one and a half pounds of turkey per person," Smith says, and expect everyone to eat about a pound at dinner itself. The rest can be put to good use as leftovers.
Mistake: Cooking too much turkey.
On the other hand, you don't want to make so much turkey that you'll have an inordinate amount of leftovers. If you're only having dinner with a few people, consider making roast turkey breast or these baked turkey wings, rather than cooking a full bird.
Mistake: Tossing the giblets.
Step 1: Remove the giblets from the cavity. (Some people forget or don't realize they're there!) Step 2: Employ the heart, liver, and other organs to add flavor to gravy or stuffing.
"Simmer giblets in salted water for 90 minutes to two hours, adding the liver during the last 20 to 30 minutes. Then, chop the meat and toss it in your bread stuffing or in the pan as you simmer gravy," Smith says.
Mistake: Mashing potatoes instead of ricing them.
Riced is nice. Most people bust out the potato masher to prep the spuds for supper, but for uber-creamy results, try a ricer. It works similar to a larger-scale garlic press, turning boiled potatoes into thin shreds of starch. Stir in a bit of butter and milk, then season to taste.
Mistake: Thinking everything needs to be served piping hot.
"Most of the Thanksgiving meal is delightful at room temperature," Shaw says. "Turkey shouldn't be piping hot because it needs to rest."
Remove the bird from the oven, then tuck in the turkey while you polish up prep for the rest of the meal. Use the extra moments to refill wine glasses and enjoy your company!
"A turkey can be held warm for an hour while all of the sides are put into the oven. Simply remove the turkey from the oven, cover with foil, and use clean towels to hold in the heat. The turkey will stay tender and juicy, while the side dishes are heating," Smith says.
Mistake: Putting your side dishes out too early.
Yes, room temperature is fine for many Thanksgiving dishes. But if you leave your sides sitting out for more than an hour, they'll be cold, and you could reach some food safety risks. Food shouldn't sit at room temperature for more than two hours. So if you make a dish in advance, you'll want to keep it in the fridge and reheat it closer to serving time.
Mistake: Only seasoning the outside of the turkey.
Don't make this common Thanksgiving cooking mistake. Crispy, perfectly-salted skin is good, but juicy, flavorful meat is even better. "Salt the inside the cavity of your turkey and rub it around to season the meat's interior. This makes a big difference in the flavor," Shaw says.
Mistake: Overcommitting on the sides.
"I get it: The temptation is to have a lot since Thanksgiving is about abundance and tradition matters," Shaw says. But know your limits.
"Many don't have enough room in their ovens to make the sides," Smith says. "There are many different ways to roast the turkey so that the oven is available, such as grilling or smoking." You should also consider how much everyone can actually eat.
Mistake: Adding a new dish to the menu without removing another.
In related news, frame your menu like a stylish outfit: Assemble, then remove one accessory.
"Edit your menu so you can attend to the dishes you do make," Shaw says. "If you add something new, take another item off the menu. Be willing to break a heart or two. This mindset will help the meal happen seamlessly without staff."
Mistake: Underestimating the number of serving vessels needed.
Before guests arrive, select your serviceware and label each with a sticky note with the name of the recipe it will hold. This way, you won't be left scrambling—or scrubbing dirty dishes you used for prep—to get the mondo meal on the table.
Mistake: Thinking everything needs to be cooked in your oven.
Step up to the sous vide trend, engage your Instant Pot, or crank up your countertop convection oven. Because the oven and range are often at full capacity, these alternate tools will help you multitask.
Mistake: Not considering no-cook dishes.
Think fresh—it's more than just a sandwich chain slogan. Not everything needs to be cooked!
"A salad is really refreshing at the table. Something that has a lighter flavor profile and is made with a lighter hand is so welcome. Try a combination of leaves, fresh pears, walnuts, and goat cheese," Shaw says.
Mistake: Serving guests too much before dinner.
It's a bummer if guests arrive at the table stuffed from snacks, and it's a soap opera waiting to happen if guests arrive at the table too tipsy to carry on a conversation.
"Don't let everyone eat or drink too much before dinner itself. A bowl of nuts is just fine, rather than a big appetizer spread," Shaw says. Aim for one drink per person before the main meal.
Mistake: Letting the leftovers sit out.
Follow this food safety rule of thumb: "Put any leftovers into the refrigerator within 2 hours," Smith says.
Portion them into shallow containers to help each bite cool off quicker, the USDA suggests, and freeze what you don't think can be polished off within three to four days.
Mistake: Not telling guests to bring reusable containers.
Speaking of leftovers, ask guests to arrive with their own takeout or Tupperware containers so you can share the wealth. The benefits are many: You'll cut down on potential food waste, you'll avoid the fridge Jenga required for oodles of casserole dishes, and you'll extinguish extra Black Friday to Cyber Monday temptation.
Mistake: Trying to make pie on Thanksgiving day.
Now that we've wrapped up the details about the main, let's deal with dessert.
"Pie is critical to get done early since the recipes require craftsmanship and attention. A make-ahead pie recipe is a must in my opinion," Shaw says. He's a proponent of the Cook's Country Make-Ahead Pumpkin Pie with Maple-Cinnamon Whipped Cream. "You can build and bake it up to a month in advance, then wrap it up and freeze. All that's left to do is defrost and serve," he says.
Mistake: Letting pastry ingredients get too warm.
The key to flaky, just-like-grandma-made crust is ice-cold pastry. Keep your butter or shortening in the fridge until the last minute prior to cutting the fat in, or freeze it for a few minutes. For the water element of the pie dough, make a glass of ice water, then scoop out spoonfuls to add until the flour-fat combo reaches a consistency that forms a ball.
Mistake: Filling your pie with raw ingredients.
Avoid soggy bottoms (of pie crust, that is), by roasting apples, fresh pumpkin, and other moisture-rich ingredients before mixing them with the other pie filling ingredients. This way, they'll release fewer juices onto the crust itself.
Whatever the condition of your dessert as it departs the oven, remember Shaw's words of wisdom: "Don't apologize for the appearance of your pie. Whipped cream is your friend, covers up everything, and everyone loves it. Aim for rustic and homey. Imperfection is good!"
Mistake: Not making homemade whipped cream.
Whip it good! You can handle a DIY version, and it's way wiser than opting for imitation whipped cream. It's easy: Place the beaters from your hand mixer and a glass bowl in the freezer for 20 minutes. Pour a carton of whipping cream in the chilled bowl, and mix until stiff peaks form.
Mistake: Not making a week-of plan.
Many dishes, especially pies and desserts, can be made days in advance. Make a schedule of what you'll be cooking in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, so you can ease your stress levels on the holiday itself.
Mistake: Not asking for help.
Be a winner, but don't be a hero. "Being so busy on the day of Thanksgiving with work and juggling my own three little Butterballs, I always have my guests bring their favorite side dish," Smith says. "This takes off the pressure of making as many items in advance, and it also allows my guests to bring in their favorite dish to share. This way we have plenty of variety—and I can really focus on hosting like a boss!"
Shaw seconds this. "You don't want to sit down on the edge of sanity," Shaw says. "I've been there!"
Mistake: Overlooking what the holiday is all about.
"When it comes down to it, Thanksgiving is about the people, not the food," Shaw says. "If it's not the most beautiful meal, dim the lights, open another bottle of wine, and toast your friends. Time together trumps the look of the food!"
Mistake: Sweating the small stuff.
WWYFNMT? Okay, we'll translate that mess: What would year-from-now-me think? In the grand scheme of things, it won't really matter if your cranberry sauce is a touch too tart or if your green beans don't turn out just right. Your friends and family like traditions. They love you—no matter what your Thanksgiving traditions are.