On Keeping it Simple This Thanksgiving

We're all about re-inventing the classics around here, and Thanksgiving is no exception. For example, for the last six years, I've celebrated Thanksgiving abroad with a healthy portion of gallo pinto (Costa Rican rice and beans), sand in my toes and surf in my ears. This is a move that has annoyed the parts of my family that stay state-side. So this year I threw my mom a cookie and asked if she would have us to her house in California for an early celebration.

"Let's keep it simple," was my only instruction.

For two food professionals — that's mom and me — this was a weighty exercise in restraint. The task at hand was to balance the desire to chill out while also keeping it classy. We succeeded, sort of.

Before you even embark on this task of hosting a Thanksgiving meal, ask yourself why you're doing it and what you want to get out of it. Do you want to be grumpy and stressed out? I didn't think so. I think the perfect balance is about serving beautiful food, not too much of it (why did mom and I make two different potato dishes? 5 points off for that!) and also keeping it festive. At my house, cloth napkins, good music and a little lipstick go a long way. The moment when I knew the meal came together wasn't when the stuffing came out perfectly crisped on the tops, it was when we all ended up dancing on the patio, wine glasses in hands.

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Here are a few ideas for how you can dial down the Thanksgiving stress this year:

1) Ask for help and be open to unexpected helping hands. You'd be surprised how much of the meal isn't about cooking. For someone like me who actually likes to cook, having the other elements taken care of (shoot we're out of ice! can someone fold all the napkins?) takes a huge load off.

For our dinner, my cousin Kristin, a culinary school student, carved the bird. My aunt Suzi, a whizkid with flowers, made a centerpiece. My cousin Madliene brought wine. My dad bought ice and firewood and did all that dirty work. My five year old daughter added her own flair with some foil snowflake sculptures that she hung with kitchen twine from the light fixture. They were not magazine quality decor, but yet they were perfect in every way.

2) Do as much ahead as possible. Here are some things you can do days ahead. Start now!

- make salad dressing, the just re-whisk right before serving
- make the pie dough and let it rest in the fridge
- make the cranberry sauce
- cube bread and let it get stale (this is a good thing when it comes to stuffing) Best to let it sit out on a baking sheet or paper bag.
- defrost your bird if it's frozen (a 20-pounder will take four days)
- set the table

3) Don't worry about getting all the dishes on the table warm. My trick is to make sure you have really good gravy and it's hot. People pour that stuff over their whole plate anyway.

4) Let go a little. Things like mis-matched silverware and plates, bare feet and at least one cooking mistake make the whole things real. Guests feel welcome and at home when they realize that you, too, are imperfect. Who knows; you might even find people are getting tipsy and dancing on the patio. That's something to be thankful for. I know I am.

Remember that the recipes can be re-tried, but the spirit around a Thanksgiving table cannot be replicated. That spirit is unique and magical, like a snowflake, come and gone in an instant. Enjoy it.

What are some of the ways you have re-invented your holiday meals, or kept it simple? Leave your story in the comments below.

Related: How to Cook a Turkey: The Simplest, Easiest Method

(Images: Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan)

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Sara Kate is the founding editor of The Kitchn. She co-founded the site in 2005 and has since written three cookbooks. She is most recently the co-author of The Kitchn Cookbook, to be published in October 2014 by Clarkson Potter.

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