No need to get fancy when the answer is right there in front of you
The first Thanksgiving I hosted was a doozy. I was in charge of turkey, some sides, and two desserts for 12 people, prepared in crumbling galley kitchen the size of a nice hotel shower and not nearly as clean.
But it was a wild success. The turkey was perfect. We ate pumpkin pie and seven-layer nachos (trust me, do this) long into the night. Drunken Scrabble broke out. Two guests went on a semi-successful date later that weekend. It was a testament to the power of preparation—I planned the meal for weeks, recording my itinerary in a notebook complete with diagram of the fridge and a by-the-minute schedule for my cramped oven. It was the most organized I’ve ever been in my otherwise haphazard life. But I had another, more vital trick up my sleeve: For most of the meal, I used back-of-the-box recipes.
The cranberry relish was from the bag of Ocean Spray cranberries. The Libby’s can provided the pumpkin pie recipe. I followed the package directions for Pepperidge Farm Stuffing. I even followed the roasted turkey guide from the good folks at Reynolds Oven Bags almost exactly.
You may be thinking: Wow, what a lazy, unimaginative person you are! Not so, at least when it comes to cooking. My Pinterest is teeming with recipes separated into sections for things like no-bake desserts, cooking from the garden, and dinner with a toddler. I read a lot of cooking newsletters. I have a growing roster of meals I’ve devised myself, and I regularly improvise dinner in service of cleaning out the fridge. And I don’t settle: I’m constantly evaluating whether my go-to recipe for mac & cheese or chocolate chip cookies or fried chicken is as good as I need it to be.
But I also work full-time and care for a small child, and like anyone else in that boat, I know logistics are paramount to my getting food on the table. Ambitions need to fit your reality. During the first few months of my son’s life, for instance, most of our dinners involved a rice cooker and whatever piece of meat I could sear the fastest.
When captaining Thanksgiving, the practical challenges are plenty: You’re making dishes you don’t make the rest of the year. You’re cooking for more people than usual, and, because it’s often in the mid-afternoon, you’re doing so at a weird time. Unless you’re well-practiced or have a boatload of help, now is not the occasion for some bold new take on turkey. Salmonella is serious; you don’t want to kill your guests. In years since, I’ve salt-brined and spatch-cocked turkeys. I’d fry one every year if I could (ugh, fire codes). But that first Thanksgiving, I wasn’t taking any chances.
This shouldn’t feel like such radical advice, but amid the pervasive mistrust of expertise in our society these days, it sort of is. At least once a week in my Facebook mom groups, there’s a post “not judging or anything but asking people’s opinions” on basic, consensus medical advice, like getting a TDAP vaccine. In politics, experience is a liability. There are benefits to such democratization, especially when it comes to food, but the overall trend makes me uneasy. When did knowledge become so suspect? Call me a narc, but if I’m making stuffing, I’m going to at least listen to what the people whose whole job is making stuffing have to say about it.
Most importantly: these recipes are good! This isn’t always the case with back-of the-box recipes, but the balance of sweetness and spices in the Libby’s pumpkin pie is flawless, even if you want to puree your own pumpkin. It helps, I think, that most of these products exist solely for the purpose of Thanksgiving. Plus, it gives you more brain space to take chances on the meal overall. Not fretting over the platonic ideal for cranberry sauce gives you more time to consider things like seven-layer nachos or cheesy chipotle mashed potatoes. No matter how great a cook you are, this is a situation to approach less like an impresario and more like a caterer.
I’m not telling you not to get creative —please, go nuts on green bean casserole, we can do better. But think of Thanksgiving as a puzzle, with foundational pieces that make it easier to solve. To do that, try something a little crazy: trust the experts.