Your friend at work moved from the Midwest to L.A. with her husband and baby a few years ago. You know they’re not flying home until Christmas, so sometime around Halloween, you ask: “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?”
Since then, you’ve also added your oldest kid’s college roommate, your niece’s boyfriend and a family that you met through PTA to a table already filled with your parents, in-laws and extended family.
This is the way party planner Marley Majcher, who works under the name The Party Goddess!, has experienced Thanksgiving since she was a child growing up in Pasadena. “If somebody doesn’t have a place to go, they can come here,” she says of her family’s celebrations. “You have this collection of people who are just really grateful to be there, and it just sets the tone.”
As you’re inviting, think about whether guests will know anyone else at the gathering. For those folks, a plus-one option is nice.
“The more the merrier,” says Jennifer Scott, creator of The Daily Connoisseur blog and author of the etiquette book “Connoisseur Kids.” “The holiday is more about the people than having the perfect place settings that aren’t too cramped together.”
Once you’ve got your guest list, think big. “Close your eyes for a minute and envision what the perfect day would be, and then just write it out,” says Majcher. How would the house be decorated? How would the table be set and what food would you serve? “Literally, with a pen and paper, write down every single thing that has to get done for that day to happen,” Majcher says. That list might look overwhelming, which is why we’re going to break it down. We’re also going to get you some help.
Assembling your team
When you invite someone to Thanksgiving dinner, they often ask, “What can I bring?” Don’t limit your requests to food. Look over your to-do list and think about which things someone could do for you. It might be placing or picking up food orders, a last-minute grocery run, tending the fireplace, curating the music, making drinks, wrangling the kids, making and serving coffee or doing dishes.
You could go online and create a SignUpGenius sign up, or email or phone your guests. “Let people pick their jobs,” Majcher says. “If you think it through ahead of time, you’re set, especially if everybody knows their roles.”
You could even use a service such as Task Rabbit to hire pre-holiday cleaning help or someone to do minor home repairs. And if you can have something delivered, do it.
If you’re wondering whether you’ll have enough room and place settings for all of your diners, consider renting. Majcher reminds renters to make sure table linens kiss the floor to hide unattractive table legs, check orders carefully before the delivery driver leaves and keep rental dishes and flatware separated from your own. Crunched for time? Ask the driver to set up the tables and chairs.
For a pretty table, Alison Ball, the Chatsworth-based lifestyle blogger behind Ali in the Valley, says this is the time to break out the china. “If you break a piece, that’s just how life is,” she laughs. Ball collects china and mixes and matches patterns for a bohemian look, but there are plenty of other options. “If you’re on a tight budget, I say go to the dollar store. They have lovely glasses and lovely plates,”
Dessert options from Huckleberry Bakery and Café in Santa Monica include gluten-free vegan apple berry crumble, pumpkin pie, apple pie, pecan pie and turkey-shaped ginger cookies, she says. WalMart, Cost Plus and Home Goods are also good sources for bargain dishes and glassware.
For centerpieces, Ball often goes with an edible theme. “I’ll do pumpkins, different squash, pomegranates, and I’ll put some rosemary around it,” she says, adding that you can pick these items up during your grocery shopping.
Majcher suggests hitting Goodwill or bargain outlets for clear glass plates to pair with festive napkins or place cards and cylindrical vases in multiple widths and heights. Fill each vase with a different seasonal item – walnuts, pine cones, autumn leaves, water with a single floating flower – and surround them with candles (also plentiful at Goodwill). “You can never have enough candles,” Majcher says. “It will look super sophisticated. The key is to keep the palate neutral.”
You could also deconstruct one or two grocery store bouquets, group the like flowers together and put each group in its own vase. “Things automatically look much more chic if they have a unified color palate or if, with flowers, they’re the same type,” Majcher says.
Don’t forget to plan what to wear. “What we should keep in mind with Thanksgiving is that this is an elevated holiday,” says Scott. “I think it’s really nice etiquette to dress a little more special than you normally would.”
In the kitchen
A good meal starts with a good game plan, which you can pull from the Thanksgiving vision you wrote down. Look at all of the things you’d like to serve and think about where they’ll come from.
“What do I love to make, and what am I really good at making?” are the questions Majcher suggests you consider first. Next, consider dishes that give you trouble, or dishes where someone who’s coming to dinner (or a local restaurant) really shines.
If you’re cooking but feel nervous about taking on such a major meal, simplify. “If you’re scared about cooking a big, giant turkey, do Cornish game hens,” suggests Ball, who posts lots of Thanksgiving recipes on her site. “They come out very cute and they taste great, and it’s perfect for portion size.” Pair these with a baked potato, a side of asparagus or Brussels sprouts and some great bread and you have a lovely meal.
Start your holiday grocery shopping (especially for non-perishable items) well in advance. Majcher is a fan of Instacart, which lets you place online grocery orders from multiple stores. Ball shops in person. “I take all of the recipes with me, so that I can check off all the ingredients,” she says.
Mom of a 16-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter, Ball gets her whole family cooking. With her daughter’s help, she cooks her side dishes a day in advance. “It’s really fun, it’s our time to get creative,” she says. On Thanksgiving, she roasts her turkey and the family helps prepare appetizers. “My sister comes over and my cousins come over and we all cook together,” Ball says.
Turkey to go
For everything you’re not cooking, there are plenty of local take-out options.
Burbank’s Handy Market offers three different meals:
• Turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and rolls to serve 8-10
• Ham, scalloped potatoes, green beans amandine, yams and rolls to serve 8-10
• Prime rib with horseradish sauce and au jus, roasted red potatoes, corn medley and rolls to serve 6-8
“We do over 600 dinners,” says manager Rebecca Forshee, who describes herself as the “turkey queen” and says she takes these meals home to her own family. There are no substitutions, but you can add side dishes when you pick up your order.
Friends & Family in East Hollywood makes ordering easy via a Shopify link. “We have a pretty extensive Thanksgiving to-go menu,” says co-owner Roxana Jullapat. “It’s sort of traditional with a few riffs.” For instance, instead of stuffing, they offer a savory bread pudding. “That’s probably one of our best-selling items,” Jullapat says. The list of options ranges from appetizers to roast-at-home or pre-roasted turkey, several side dishes, bread and dessert. “We have no minimum order,” Jullapat says.
Huckleberry Bakery and Café in Santa Monica serves up braised whole organic turkey legs and smothered organic turkey breast and gravy, all the classic sides, vegan butternut squash and apple soup, and breads from sister restaurant Milo & Olive. Known for its baked goods, Huckleberry also offers pumpkin pie, gluten-free vegan apple berry crumble and turkey-shaped ginger cookies.
Jim’s Fallbrook Market has been serving Woodland Hills shop-pers since 1946 and is managed by Cory McQuaid, grandson of the original Jim. The market sells cooked turkeys from Diestel Ranch, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry relish and three kinds of stuffing. “All the sides are homemade. Everything’s made here,” McQuaid says. “We do gourmet stuffing just for the holidays. Nothing comes from a box.”
Julienne in San Marino serves up boneless turkey breasts and legs instead of the whole bird. “It just makes it so much easier to reheat, to carve, and there’s no waste,” says General Manager Kate Manes. Traditional sides include stuffing with their signature rosemary currant bread, garlic mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese and sweet potato puree. They also offer what they call “on the lighter side” orders of roasted Brussels sprouts, haricots verts, quinoa and farro. New on the dessert list this year is a deep-dish apple streusel caramel pie.
Craving a deep-fried turkey? Little Dom’s in Los Feliz can hook you up. “Early Thanksgiving morning, we set up about a dozen deep fryers on the sidewalk outside Little Dom’s,” says co-owner and Chef Brandon Boudet. Pies include apple crumble, coconut cream, bourbon pecan and brown butter pumpkin. “I’ve been teased over the years for not being shy with boozy desserts,” says Chef Ann Kirk. “The bourbon pecan pie is my favorite and a celebratory way to kick off the holidays!”
Visit the Venice location of Superba Food + Bread for a large menu of Thanksgiving options including turkey, three kinds of stuffing (Mom’s stuffing with sausage, mushroom and chestnuts is a favorite), gravy and all the traditional sides (including the popular roasted Brussels sprouts with smoked bacon and sherry dressing). “Don’t take on too much this year,” advises Culinary Director and Chef Anthony Goodwin. “Focus on the turkey and suggest that your guests potluck the sides. And don’t forget the pie.”
On your mark, get set…
With all your plans in place, there are a few more things you’ll want to take care of to make things run more smoothly.
As far ahead as possible, Majcher recommends saving reusable containers from to-go orders and other packaged foods for packing up leftovers. “Check your Saran wrap and your foil supply ahead of time,” she says.
Make sure your oven is working properly and do a test run with your sound system. Set aside time the week before to clear out your fridge. “I’ve never seen a hostess whose fridge had enough room the day of,” Majcher says, adding these little things can cause big stress.
Scott, who has four children, even advises a trial run to test table manners. “Maybe have a practice round the night before,” she suggests, to reinforce rules such as not leaving the table without being excused. “Whatever specific issue your children have a problem with – and every family is different – I would address that particular issue.”
You should also be ready to guide dinner conversation. “If the dinner conversation goes to a place such as politics or hot-button topics, which it does tend to do at Thanksgiving, it is very important to keep your cool,” says Scott. “Take a deep breath, take a sip of water or eat that stuffing and remember now’s not the time or the place to get into an argument.”
A sense of humor will help here. “If the conversation is getting to a heated place, you can interject and say, ‘Aunt Carol, your Jell-O salad is so delicious this year. What did you put in it?’” Scott says. “It’ll break up the tension.”
Finally, for a sense of perspective, take a cue from Majcher. “Do your best to plan, and have a backup plan, and then just let go early,” she says. Because something, almost certainly, will go wrong. The stove or the dishwasher will malfunction, the kids will fight or you’ll drop that beautiful pie you just pulled from the oven. “And we know we’re just going to laugh,” Majcher says. Because the world will keep spinning, which is one more reason to be thankful.
Christina Elston is Editor of L.A. Parent.