Though it seems counterintuitive to bring the kids into the kitchen while you’re negotiating stuffing, squash and your mother-in-law’s running commentary, giving eager children a job lets them feel like they’re part of the action. Hand little ones a potato masher or an eggbeater, older ones an immersion blender, basting brush or rolling pin.
“If you can give them a dish to be in charge of, maybe you have two kids, and you say, ‘Guys, can I leave the salad to you?’” says Katie Workman, blogger and author of “The Mom 100 Cookbook” (Workman Publishing, 2012). “There’s always enormous value in giving kids that sense of ownership.”
If you just can’t bear to have them in the kitchen — or when they’ve exhausted all their skills — send them to something else they might find attractive. Before everyone arrives, set up a craft table full of crayons, markers (you might want to stay away from paints), jewelry making kits or anything that’s engrossing but not messy. Game tables stocked with board games appropriate for the age of the attending kids can keep a group quiet. You also can send them outside to collect sticks and leaves for a centerpiece, or have them create crafts for the celebration.
“It’s a great opportunity to get kids decorating or setting the table,” says Aviva Goldfarb, founder of the family dinner planning service The Six O’Clock Scramble. “They can make fall oriented place cards, or even a giant table cloth. Get some big fabric and have kids decorate it with fabric markers. Or send them outside for acorns and leaves and pine cones to scatter around the table.”
Keeping hunger at bay also will be a critical part of avoiding meltdowns. No one wants the kids (or the adults!) running into the kitchen a half hour before dinner whining about hunger pangs. To keep everyone sane, but not full, Workman suggests creating a beautiful basket of crudite — bell peppers, carrots, celery and cherry tomatoes with store-bought dip — that people can nibble on throughout the afternoon. Goldfarb packs a cooler of sandwiches and drinks for her crowd so they can help themselves.
But when it comes to cutting down on stress, the experts say cutting back on the work — and your expectations — may be the most important element.
“The key is streamlining,” says Kelsey Banfield, author of “The Naptime Chef” (Running Press, 2011). “A successful and enticing Thanksgiving meal does not have to include 20 dishes. I’ve never heard anyone say there wasn’t enough on the table.”
And Thanksgiving is one meal where even the pickiest child is likely to find something he or she likes, without any special effort on the part of the host. “Why wouldn’t a kid enjoy roast turkey and sweet potatoes and stuffing?” Goldfarb says.
That said, Workman suggests putting bells and whistles — streusel for the sweet potatoes, chives for the mashed potatoes — on the side so people can take what they like and leave what they don’t.
And finally, as with so much about parenting, embrace imperfection. Every dish does not have to be a culinary wonder, these experts say, and does not have to arrive piping hot. And every child does not have to be a perfect angel.
“The younger the kids are, the more you have to build in flexibility so you don’t get disappointed,” says Banfield. “You just have to be flexible and go with the flow. The more you can do that, the happier everyone is.”
Flustered by Thanksgiving math? Keep reading
For turkeys less than 16 pounds, estimate 1 pound per serving (this accounts for bone weight). For larger birds, a bit less is fine; they have a higher meat-to-bone ratio. But if your goal is to have very ample leftovers, aim for 1½ pounds per person no matter how big the turkey is.
* For 8 people, buy a 12-pound turkey
* For 10 people, buy a 15-pound turkey
* For 12 people, buy an 18-pound turkey
* For 14 people, buy a 20-pound turkey
THE BIG THAW
The safest way to thaw a frozen turkey is in the refrigerator. You’ll need about 24 hours per 4 to 5 pounds of turkey. For speedier thawing, put the turkey in a sink of cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes, and plan for about 30 minutes per pound.
A good brine uses kosher salt and sugar in a 1-to-1 ratio, and usually no more than 1 cup of each. Feel free to add any other seasonings. Brines typically are made by heating the salt, sugar and seasonings with a bit of water until dissolved. This mixture then is diluted with additional cold water (volume will vary depending on the size of your bird). Be certain the brine is completely cooled before adding the turkey.
Turkeys should be brined for at least 8 to 10 hours, but can go as long as 72 hours. A good rule of thumb is, the longer the brine, the weaker the brine. So for a 10-hour soak, use 1 cup each of salt and sugar. For a longer one, consider backing down to ¾ cup each.
Always keep the bird refrigerated during brining. If the turkey is too big, an ice-filled cooler stored outside works, too.
Roasting temperatures vary widely by recipe. Some go at a slow and steady 325 F. Others crank the heat to 400 F or 425 F for the first hour, then drop it down for the rest of the time.
However you roast, use an instant thermometer inserted at the innermost part of the thigh (without touching bone) to determine when your turkey is done. The meat needs to hit 165 F for safe eating, though some people say thigh meat tastes better at 170 F.
If the outside of the bird gets too dark before the center reaches the proper temperature, cover it with foil.
The following roasting time estimates are based on a stuffed turkey cooked at 325 F. Reduce cooking time by 20 to 40 minutes for turkeys that are not stuffed (estimate total roasting times at 15 minutes per pound for unstuffed birds). And remember, a crowded oven cooks more slowly, so plan ahead if your bird needs to share the space.
* 12-pound turkey: 3 to 4 hours at 325 F
* 15-pound turkey: 4 to 4 ½ hours at 325 F
* 18-pound turkey: 4 ½ to 5 hours at 325 F
* 20-pound turkey: 5 to 6 hours at 325 F
Basting the bird with its juices helps crisp the skin and flavor the meat. Do it every 30 minutes, but no more. Opening the oven door too frequently lets heat escape and can significantly slow the cooking.
The turkey never should go directly from the oven to the table. Like most meat, it needs to rest before serving for the juices to redistribute. Cover the turkey with foil and a few bath towels layered over that (to keep it warm), then let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes.
* Carrots: a 1-pound bag makes 4 to 5 servings
* Cranberry sauce: a 12-ounce package of fresh cranberries makes about 2¼ cups of sauce; a 16-ounce can has 6 servings
* Gravy: plan for 1/3 cup of gravy per person
* Stuffing: a 14-ounce bag of stuffing makes about 11 servings
For food safety reasons, leftovers should be cleared from the table and refrigerated within two hours of being served. Once refrigerated, they should be consumed within three to four days. Leftovers can be frozen for three to four months. Though safe to consume after four months, they will start to taste off.