In my travels as a caterer, I've often encountered a phenomenon I like to call Party Panic. It's the seizing fear that many people have when they so much as think about hosting family or friends in their own home. Symptoms of Party Panic include, but are not limited to: sweaty palms and heart palpitations; sleepless nights spent obsessing over the number of slices a pecan pie will yield; compulsive over-apologizing; and a pervasive sense of doubt about your own cooking, how your home looks and your ability to get it all under control.
This is a shame, because there is no greater pleasure than spending time with your loved ones in the comfort of your own home.
Don't succumb to Party Panic. Here are a few tips to help you get through this holiday:
1) Skip the last-minute mania. If you leave everything to the last minute, you'll only have a minute to do everything. Dear procrastinator, I'm quite sure you are very busy. But don't doom yourself to the sorry fate of the harried host. Make a do-ahead gravy and plan to serve at least one room-temperature dish. Map out a full weekend (preferably the 21st and 22nd) to organize your kitchen, shop and start cooking. You'll be surprised at how much these little steps will help.
2) Let yourself off the hook. Despite what some glossy magazine covers will tell you, you're not here to make a five-star meal. After all, your guests could've easily booked a table somewhere professional. They're coming back to your house because you offer something that a restaurant can't, and that's soul.
3) Make space. I often hear about the "tiny kitchen" conundrum from anxious hosts. Barring a last-minute renovation, you can only work with what you have. If your kitchen is the size of a postage stamp, think about other spaces in your home that can be annexed for party use -- for instance, a garage can be used to store food that needs to be cool, such as your brining turkey. A home office can be a good space for setting up a dessert spread. Clear your counters as you cook and again before your guests arrive. Organize your refrigerator, anticipating that you may need shelves for storing large trays and platters. Friends may have some extra refrigerator real estate you can borrow, if needed. You can also consider temporary relocating unneeded dishes to free more space in your cabinets.
4) Find easy ways to offer options. While it may be true that you can never please everyone, your efforts to include those of all dietary persuasions will always be deeply appreciated. As a general rule of thumb, there should be at least one dish on the table that everyone can eat. Thanksgiving is actually a wonderful holiday for accommodating different eaters because the meal is meant to be a cornucopia. You can't go wrong with simply prepared vegetables -- hold the bread crumbs and butter. A substantial secondary entrée for vegetarians (rice-stuffed squash, say) is a lovely addition if you have the time. If time is tight -- and believe me, I know that it usually is -- you should always feel free to engage in what I call "hybrid entertaining" and order something from a nearby market or restaurant. Whether or not you reveal its source is really up to you.
5) Keep it simple, sweetheart. Take it from an overachiever -- the desire to impress is a blessing and a curse. That impulse can motivate you to do something really special for your guests (perfectly turkey-shaped slices of cranberry sauce for an unexpected garnish), but it can also send you down the path of frustration (scraps of impotent pie dough flung around the kitchen). Keep in mind that your guests will enjoy whatever you serve, and that for many of them, a nicely roasted turkey in and of itself is an impressive achievement. If you must do something fancy for extra credit, choose one dish -- and one dish only -- and if possible, practice making it ahead.
6) Give the people what they want. The only hosts that had to come up with an original Thanksgiving menu were the Pilgrims, and I can guarantee that they didn't obsessively page through cookbooks for the right recipes. The truth is, most families enjoy the familiarity of the same dishes on their table, year in and out. And a well prepared turkey will elicit far more oohs and aahs than an iffy grouse. But if you start small, you can bring a bit of novelty and interest to the proceedings, without offending your guests' sense of history. Focus on introducing one new thing to the mix -- maybe it's a relish, a new side dish, or an unexpected cocktail.
7) Get out of the kitchen. For many people the biggest drawback to entertaining at home is the perception that if you host, you won't really have time to spend with your guests. I would argue that if you prepare properly -- organize your menu, shop and cook ahead, take advantage of room-temperature dishes, and enlist the help of others, both for cooking and cleanup -- you will have not only one relaxed hour before guests arrive but plenty of time to enjoy company. Of course, if you're looking to avoid certain family members, the kitchen is a great place to hide out.
8) Clean early and often. While it's true that cleaning up after a hefty feast for 12 or more people is no picnic, there are many ways to minimize the pain of this task. For starters, clean a bit as you go. Begin the evening with an empty dishwasher and sink. Never stack your dirty dishes in the sink -- use a dishpan. Where possible, rinse and stack them neatly. Have your leftover containers ready to go (leaving out a few for doggie bags is a nice and thoughtful touch) ahead of time. When the meal is finished, allow guests to help you clear the table, wash and dry pots and pans, and/or put food away. On this holiday of gratitude you will feel especially thankful for an orderly kitchen.
9) Breathe. Party Panic is a normal response to entertaining at home. The first thing we emphasize in our new home entertaining guide At Home is that you're already a good-enough entertainer. This isn't the culinary Olympics or Iron Chef meets Main Street. Your primary role here is to provide a warm, comfortable environment for your guests, a place where they can enjoy one another's company. Everything else -- yes, even your juicy turkey -- should be secondary. Now take a deep breath, remind yourself that the world is an imperfect place, and get going!