There is a picture of my mother that was taken in 1984, right after she cooked the first Thanksgiving dinner she and my father ever shared. She was used to cooking for a big family, so that coupled with her excitement over sharing the holiday with her new husband for the first time resulted in her totally overstretching herself. She refused to let my dad pitch in and cooked enough food to last them both a week – which was a good thing, considering the fact that she was so tired at the end of it all, she fell asleep at the table. My father, true to form, snapped a picture.
Thirteen years later, history repeated itself in my on-campus apartment. My boyfriend at the time and I were celebrating our first Thanksgiving together a day early, both having had plans to go home and see our families the next day. It was the first time I’d cooked anything more involved than a box of macaroni and cheese for him, so in my mind, everything had to be perfect. He laughed as I pushed him out of the kitchen time and time again, refusing to let him help, choosing instead to overcook myself into a state of exhaustion. As I rested my head down on the table full of food while waiting for him to sit down and eat, he – like my father before him – laughed and snapped a picture. So much for not turning into my mother.
Hosting your first Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be as exhausting as my mother and I decided to make it. Especially in college, when most of us have plans with their families anyway, there’s no real need to use Thanksgiving as a test audition for “Top Chef.” However, those who can’t get home for the holidays would definitely appreciate eating something that wasn’t previously frozen or part of a super value meal for once. Here are five simple rules for doing Turkey Day the college way:
1. Plan ahead
I started seeing cans of cranberry sauce pop up on supermarket shelves right after Halloween – I swear, the holidays get closer and closer every year. While you can typically find some sales, holiday themed food can get pretty pricey – and tend to disappear quickly. Case in point: if you’ve never tried (unsuccessfully, I might add) to find a graham cracker pie crust in three different Walgreens stores on Thanksgiving (or, God forbid, Christmas) morning, you have never known true desperation. Or the multifunctional value of animal crackers. Planning your meal in advance can save you time and money – trust me, the only thing you want to be searching for on the morning of is a measuring cup.
2. Try your pot-luck
If you have several people coming, commit to a few big dishes then have everyone else sign up to bring smaller ones. It’ll save you time, money and will make your guests feel less like they’re intruding and more like they’re contributing. It may be a good idea to watch out for duplicate dishes, however. I’ve heard tales of some really passive aggressive moves involving competing deviled eggs.
3. Keep it Simple
Just because your great aunt made a killer five layer upside down cake that was lighter than air every year doesn’t mean that your beginner’s level cheesecake or green bean casserole is any less of a contribution. Don’t feel like it’s necessary that you spend hours in the kitchen baking every single thing from scratch just like Mom used to – this mindset tends to end in dozens of discarded dishes, and nothing short of a meltdown. The patron saints of your Thanksgivings past had years of experience under their apron strings. Most college girls our age are lucky if they have a toaster in their kitchen – my roommate and I don’t. We also don’t have a tool box. Or a mop.
4. Go classic on the entertainment
Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade? Check.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown? Check.
Football (or, as we do in my house, Dog Show) games of your choosing? Check.
For many people, it’s not just the food that makes the holiday, it’s the sights, sounds and smells as well. There’s a reason why the Macy’s parade has been running for as long as it has – it’s just a tradition. Poll your guests for their Thanksgiving favorites, and have those (along with plenty of movies) on tap to keep everyone busy while you’re cooking up a storm.
5. Not everything has to be perfect!
I’m a perfectionist when it comes to entertaining. I have to have the right mood, right music, right drinks, right snacks, right decorations…you get the point. I have to moderate myself when it comes to getting ready for a party, because I tend to go overboard. Just try to remind yourself that nobody will die if you don’t have five types of pies, six types of cookies and enough salad dressing choices to rival a restaurant. Your guests are there to eat, drink and be merry – let some of the little things go, and do the same!
Cooking for the holidays doesn’t have to be catastrophic. All it takes is a little organization to keep the holiday from becoming a horror story. Above all else, remember what we’re celebrating – being thankful for the ones we love….along with Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima, and at the end of it all, Captain Morgan. Or Jack Daniels, if that’s your thing.