How to Delegate Just About Everything for Thanksgiving
Call it task-giving. You’ll handle the main event—then nominate your family members, friends and relatives to pitch in on the rest. (It takes a village.)
For years, you’ve tirelessly shopped and chopped and tablescaped your way through the month of November, culminating in an epic all-day feast for your nearest and dearest. And surprise! Not once has anyone ever awarded you a Thanksgiving medal—much less scoured the crud from your roasting pan. Which is why this year, we suggest you finally lean into the idea of asking for help—and lots of it. Just picture it: If you focus solely on the turkey and gravy—and your spouse, kids, relatives and guests handle anything else—you’ll end up feeling truly thankful. And isn’t that what this celebration is all about?
“The key to a successful Thanksgiving potluck is a shared Google doc,” says Emily Stephenson, author of The Friendsgiving Handbook. Divide it into categories—starters, starchy sides, veggies, desserts—and send the link along with your evite. (This way, you can avoid a dinner of, say, six kale salads.) Include how many portions you’re looking for. And when it comes to getting your own household to pitch in? “I write out a list of everything that needs to be done and ask my kids to pick three things,” says L.A.-based cookbook author Pamela Salzman. “It’s more pleasant for all of us than having me order them around.”
Pass Off the Bar
Teri Turner, of the No Crumbs Left blog and cookbook, has adapted the catering concept of “beverage manager” for her feast. “This person must text all the guests, figure out what they like to drink and get it. They can subcontract different parts—ask someone to get the ice or buy the beer—but the manager is the boss of the beverages, which also means setting up the self-serve bar.”
Delegate the Wine
First, tap the die-hard wine buff in your crew. “We wine nerds looove that kind of thing,” says Elizabeth Schneider, author of Wine for Normal People. But it’s also fine to arm one or two guests with basic shopping clues: Rather than specify brand, which can turn into a wild goose chase at the store, request a wine from a particular region. Here are Schneider’s top budget-friendly picks.
- Spanish Cava “is proof that good sparkling wine doesn’t have to be expensive; they sell a $10 bottle at my Whole Foods that’s lovely.” Plus, “the bubbles and acidity cut through all the butter.”
- French Demi-Sec If there are a lot of sweet things on the table (yams!), go for a demi-sec Vouvray from France’s Loire Valley, which is a touch sweet and follows the golden rule dictating that the wine should be at least as sweet as the food. Good vintages include 2010, 2016 and 2017.
- Spätlese Riesling, from the Mosel or Rheingau in Germany, is another sweet white. For a dry style that can stand up to savory food, try a dry Riesling from the Pfalz region of Germany or the Alsace region of France. Great German vintages are 2012, 2015 and 2016.
- Beaujolais “A wonderful option for red wine—but stay away from Beaujolais nouveau, which can taste like bubble gum.” Try Beaujolais-Villages from 2011, 2015 or 2017.
- American Zinfandel can handle a lot of flavor. Look for one from the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma or from Amador County. Great years are 2015 and 2016.
Assign the Cheese Board
Who wouldn’t want to be in charge of the cheese? You might save the job for your niece who’s perpetually snapping pics of her food.
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- The Cheese. “You want variety—a soft, a hard and a funky cheese,” says Marissa Mullen, the creative force behind @thatcheeseplate, an Insta feed for fromage fans. That could mean a Brie, a sharp cheddar or Gruyère, and a blue.
- The Meat. “I like to make a ‘salami river,’ ” Mullen says. Not only does this make the board look cool, but the folded pieces are also easier for guests to pick up. Fold a slice of Genoa in half, fold it again—then bunch up several of the little wedges and snake them across the board.
- The Produce. “Create ‘produce ponds’—circular piles—throughout.” Blueberries, pomegranates and dried apricots are all good for color and sweetness.
- Crunchy Items. “Put in a handful of crackers to get people started, then fill in gaps with candied walnuts, pistachios, almonds.” Pro tip: Have an extra cracker plate or bowl on the side.
- The Dip. “Fig jam is easy to find in a grocery store and goes really well with any cheese.” Same with honey.
- The Garnish. “Stores sell poultry herbs around the holiday: sage, rosemary and thyme—my herb trifecta. They smell great and tie into Thanksgiving.”
Ask for the Sides
Your teens are smart enough, capable enough and (so very, very) opinionated enough to actually tie on an apron and help out with the meal. Depending on their skill level—or grade—assign them one of these sides:
- Freshman: Green Beans Amandine
- Sophomore: Glazed Delicata Squash
- Junior: Chard and Sausage Stuffing
- Senior: Potatoes Anna
Outsource the Pie
Dessert is the perfect category to hand off to non-cooks because there are so many good store-bought options. It pays to do a little research at your local bakeries up front, says Turner, of the No Crumbs Left blog: “Then, when someone asks, ‘What can I bring?’ You can say, for example, ‘An apple pie from Bittersweet Bakery. You need to order it by this date.’ ” Word to the wise, “people want two things for Thanksgiving dessert: pie and finger foods like cookies, bars or brownies,” says Annie Campbell, an event planner in Los Angeles. “If someone brings cake, it plays second fiddle.” And don’t forget the go-withs! “Ask someone to bring whipped cream and ice cream,” she says.
Make the Gravy
Dress Up the Table
You’ll feel extra grateful if you outsource the zhuzhing to someone else. Our suggestion: Tap your Pinterest-obsessed sibling who has an entire board on autumnal entertaining (or your spouse who was an art major a jillion years ago).
- Maurice Harris, the floral designer behind L.A.’s Bloom & Plume, suggests a tablescape made with squash, gourds and white mini pumpkins, mixed in with herb sprigs and/or lemon leaves. The greenery dresses the scene up a bit, “so it doesn’t feel like just a pile of gourds on the table,” Harris says.
- Whoever is nominated chief table stylist can up the sparkle factor with metallic ink (or gold leaf from someplace like Michaels) applied to the stems or even ridges of the gourds. “It’s a chic little detail that bridges you from Thanksgiving into the holidays,” Harris says.
Nudge your crew members to get the table dusted and set a day or two ahead of time. And because old drooping flowers aren’t exactly a festive look, non-floral centerpieces (see below right for ideas) are often the way to go. If your kids are handling the place settings, “set one place at the table, give your kids the cutlery, plates, napkins—and tell them to copy exactly what you did,” says cookbook author Salzman.
Art of the Table
If your table assistants need some direction, floral designer Maurice Harris has some advice.
- Candles. “I like votive candles versus tapers because I like being able to easily speak across the table. It’s also just easier to pass trays and bowls. Pillars can look too chunky. ”
- Color. Keeping the palette monochromatic will ensure that the look is successful. Or do the opposite and go for contrast—if you’re using white pumpkins, use a chocolate-brown runner.
- Vibe. “The warmer the better. Thanksgiving shouldn’t feel formal like a wedding—but it should reflect that you’re grateful to be there.”
No Flowers Necessary
Some potential stars of the tablescape:
- good-smelling herbs (like oregano)
- cotton pods
- gold-leafed pears
- green gourds
- lemon leaves (these also make good place cards—write names on them with gold marker)
- pine cones
Yes, They’re Disposables
Forgo the piles of dirty plates and table linens. These are nice enough for the holiday table!
- Black stripe paper table runner, $14
- Chinet Cut Crystal stemless wineglasses, $4 for 8
- Stemmed 14 oz Vino glasses, $20 for 12
- Kraft medallion paper placemats, $14 for 12
- Paper salad plate, $10 for 8
- Premium plastic 10.25" white pearl plates, $7 for 8
- Metallic dot napkins, HomeGoods stores, $6
- All Black flatware, $10 for 12 pieces
- Paper dinner plates, $12 for 8
- Garden Lights paper cocktail napkins by Hooray Creative, $25 for 50, and Painterly Ikat paper cocktail napkins by Alethea and Ruth, $25 for 50
Get All Hands on Deck
Cooking, baking and table decorating can be pleasures in and of themselves. Washing gravy-slicked dishes? Not so much—but there are ways to make cleaning up less onerous. Tip: Ask guests to bring food in the dish it will be served in—then send that dish home with them, Campbell advises. As for leftovers: “I like the kraft paper boxes you can get on Amazon. And because I’m crazy, I also get labels for them from Paper Source.”
Hack the Cleanup
Start fresh. The most daunting scenario when it comes to cleanup is dealing with a new mess on top of an existing mess. To prevent a teetering mountain of plates and pans, sit down to the big meal with an empty dishwasher and a clean kitchen. Almost as important: an empty washing machine. “You’re going to need every kitchen towel you own at the ready,” Stephenson points out. And in the interest of stain-fighting, it’s helpful to be able to throw all the dirty table linens in the wash straight after dinner.
Use pie as an incentive. “I always make sure the dishwasher is running before we sit down for dessert,” Campbell says. “Get that first load out of the way!” If everyone knows they’re not getting dessert until they help you clean up dinner, that’s a pretty good motivator.
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Nominate a leftovers boss. “Have one person divvy everything up into the to-go containers and hand them out,” Campbell says. “In the interest of sparing the planet extra plastic, I have guests bring their own containers for leftovers,” Turner says. “As a backup, I start washing and saving restaurant take-out containers a few weeks ahead.” Also great: large yogurt tubs, peanut butter or mayo jars and those clear plastic screw-top ice cream pints.
Go assembly line. “You need someone to scrape the dishes, someone to rinse, someone to load the dishwasher,” Salzman says. If you’re handwashing, a two-person dry-and-put-away crew is a good addition.
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Follow pro kitchen rules. “Something I learned while working in restaurants and now strictly enforce at home is the no glasses or knives in the sink rule,” Stephenson says. “If you reach into a pile of dishes and get a palmful of blade or put a heavy dish on top of a glass and break it, you’re going to be really bummed. Keep the knives aside and wash them last. Wash your chef’s knife, dry it immediately and put it away.”
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Soap up. “Make sure you buy detergent that cuts through grease,” says Stephenson, who hosts the holiday without the help of a dishwasher. “Save the gentle eco stuff for the other 364 days of the year.” Don’t be stingy with your soap—buy lots. And while you’re at the store, load up on Brillo pads and Bar Keepers Friend, a scouring powder that’s safe to use on delicate cooking surfaces like enameled cast iron.
Save some for the morning. “My grandmother always used to say, ‘Don’t do your glasses or crystal until the next day,’ ” Salzman says. “You’re tired—leave those fragile things until you’ve got your energy back.” Stephenson takes the opposite tack. “Get all the plates, glasses and cutlery out of the way and save the roasting pan and other caked-on cookware,” she says. “Those will benefit from an overnight soak and seem less daunting once you’ve had a good night’s sleep and a cup of coffee.”
Just say yes. Even if it’s not your nature the rest of the year, take up those offers to help clean. (Consider a sign-up sheet where people commit to 45-minute shifts; that way, they know when they’re on duty and when they can relax.) And if there are no volunteers? “If you end up doing all the dishes on Thanksgiving and no one offers to jump in,” Stephenson says, “it’s perhaps time to reevaluate things on a deeper level.”