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17 Tips to Save Thanksgiving Dinner

From planning ahead to fixing overcooked turkeys to avoiding politics at the dinner table, we’ve got all the tips you need to save Thanksgiving dinner.

Between cooking the turkey, preparing side dishes, organizing the guest list, decorating your house, and the millions of other tasks on your oversized plate, it’s no wonder that something can so easily go wrong at Thanksgiving dinner.

Bringing your day back from a ruined dish or bad conversation can seem impossible. But with a little creativity and resourcefulness, you can save your dinner and still have a great holiday.

If you’re fresh out of ideas for your latest crisis or are petrified after last year’s disaster, here are some tips to help you save Thanksgiving dinner.

1. Plan Ahead

Start planning your Thanksgiving well in advance if you can. Create a checklist of tasks, from menu planning and grocery shopping to cleaning and decorating. And don’t forget to consider your budget. This will help you stay organized and reduce last-minute stress.

If you’re struggling to come up with a plan, here are some tips to consider:

  • Stick to a manageable menu! While it’s tempting to prepare an elaborate feast, consider your cooking skills and available time. Focus on a few well-executed dishes rather than overextending yourself with too many items.
  • Cook in advance. Many dishes, such as pies, casseroles, and even some turkey preparations, can be made ahead of time and frozen. This will save you time and stress on Thanksgiving Day.
  • Manage your time (what little of it you have, anyway). Create a cooking schedule that outlines when each dish should be prepared and cooked. Set timers and alarms to ensure you stay on track.
  • Simplify the table setting. You don’t need an elaborate table setting to have a beautiful Thanksgiving. Stick with the basics, like tableware, a centerpiece, and some simple decorations. Consider using disposable dinnerware to save time on cleanup.
  • Embrace potluck! Encourage guests to bring a dish to share. This not only eases your cooking load but also allows everyone to contribute to the meal.
  • Consider dietary restrictions. Check with your guests in advance to see if anyone has dietary restrictions or food allergies. Prepare dishes that cater to these needs or provide alternative options.
  • Stay organized in the kitchen. Keep your kitchen organized by labeling dishes and ingredients, and set up a “prep station” where you can assemble ingredients and utensils for each dish.
  • Keep appetizers simple. Instead of elaborate appetizers, consider offering a few easy-to-prepare snacks, like a cheese and cracker platter or vegetable sticks with dip.

But if you’re seeing this as your turkey is burning in the oven, then . . .

2. (As Unhelpful As It Is to Say) Stay Calm!

First and foremost, try to stay calm and composed. Thanksgiving dinner mishaps happen to the best of us. Allow yourself a minute to panic, and then start thinking of your backup plan. If you’re still at a loss, don’t worry; that’s what this list is for!

3. Overcooked Turkey

The centerpiece of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, a turkey can make or break your holiday. If the turkey is overcooked and dry, try slicing it thinly and serving it with lots of gravy, sauces, or broths to add moisture. You can also make turkey sandwiches (a personal favorite of mine) or turkey salad.

4. Burnt Dishes

You can’t live off of turkey, so although they’re just a side character, you can’t lose too many side dishes. If a side dish is burnt, carefully scrape off the burnt parts and see if there’s salvageable food underneath. But if your oven didn’t spare even a crumb, you can also prepare a quick replacement dish, such as a simple pasta or salad.

5. This Gravy Is Too Lumpy! This One Is Too Runny!

Like Goldilocks, some guests can complain about anything if it’s not to their taste. And gravy can be a bit temperamental. Thankfully, you can rescue Thanksgiving gravy from just about anything. If your gravy is lumpy, strain it through a fine mesh strainer or use a blender to smooth it out. If it’s too thin, simmer it to reduce and thicken it.

6. Soggy Stuffing

Stuffing is another key Thanksgiving dish, and if something’s wrong with it, you may feel like your whole dinner is ruined. But I promise you can bring even the saddest, soggiest stuffing back to life. If your stuffing is too wet, spread it out on a baking sheet and toast it in the oven to remove excess moisture. If it’s too dry, add a little warm chicken or vegetable broth to rehydrate it.

7. Forgotten Ingredients

If you’ve forgotten an essential ingredient, see if you have a substitute on hand (the internet holds many ingredient substitutes—and secrets of the universe.) But if Google and your pantry fail to have your back, it’s time for the tried-and-true old-fashioned solution: ask guests or neighbors if they can lend you what you need.

8. Unsalvageable Dishes

If a dish you were preparing falls apart or is ruined, have a backup plan in mind, such as serving extra portions of another dish you’ve prepared. One method that never fails is right down the street: the supermarket.

9. Store-Bought Help

Don’t hesitate to purchase some pre-made items or sides from a local store or restaurant to fill in the gaps or replace a dish that didn’t turn out well.

10. Ask Family and Friends to Pitch In

This goes right along with the potluck style Thanksgiving dinner. As the host, you’ve got your hands full. So enlist the help of your guests. They can bring additional dishes, help with cooking, or even provide some last-minute solutions.

11. Be Flexible

The greatest enemy to a successful dinner is high expectations. Be flexible. When things don’t go your way, just let the mistakes go with an “oops!” and worry about what you can fix. After all, Thanksgiving is about being together and giving thanks; the most important thing is spending time with loved ones. So don’t stress too much over the food because some of the best Thanksgiving memories are those that are unplanned.

12. Create a Comfortable Atmosphere

You can’t have Thanksgiving dinner without food, but your dinner space is just as important. Make your home inviting by adjusting the lighting, playing background music, and ensuring the temperature is comfortable for your guests. This will set the tone for positive conversation and encourage interaction.

13. Plan Activities

Your kitchen probably isn’t big enough for every guest to help out. And some little hands just aren’t old enough yet. So have a few planned Thanksgiving activities or games to keep guests entertained. When all the hubbub becomes too much, you can send the guests and kids off to play games, watch football, or make crafts.

14. Be a Good Listener

Sometimes the problem with Thanksgiving dinner isn’t the food but the conversation. After all, your family and friends only get together for Thanksgiving once a year, so of course you want the dinner-table talk to be a smooth ride. For great conversation, one of the most important aspects is active listening. If you show genuine interest in what others are saying and avoid interrupting, it will go a long way toward making your Thanksgiving dinner memorable—in a good way.

15. Avoid Sensitive or Divisive Topics

To keep the dinner conversation pleasant, steer clear of controversial topics such as politics, religion, and personal conflicts. These topics can quickly lead to arguments and spoil the mood. But of course, you can’t always anticipate what Uncle Henry is going to say, so if a potentially sensitive topic comes up, encourage respectful dialogue and consider alternative viewpoints. It’s okay to have differences of opinion, but the key is to keep the conversation civil.

And if that fails, use these tactics to steer your conversations back to something happy:

  • Keep it lighthearted. Inject humor and lightheartedness into the conversation. Share funny stories or jokes to keep the mood cheerful.
  • Share stories and memories. Thanksgiving is a great time to share stories and fond memories. Encourage guests to reminisce about past Thanksgivings or share anecdotes from their lives.
  • Ask open-ended questions. Instead of yes-or-no questions, ask open-ended ones that invite more detailed responses. For example, “What was the most memorable part of your year?” or “What are you thankful for this year?”
  • Talk to everyone. Make an effort to include everyone in the conversation, especially quieter guests. Direct questions to them and show interest in their opinions and experiences.
  • Share family traditions, both old and new. Share the history of your Thanksgiving customs and invite others to talk about their own traditions and the stories behind them.
  • Focus on gratitude. Express gratitude for one another and the time spent together. Let everyone know how much you value their presence at the Thanksgiving gathering.

16. Plan Ahead for Next Time

Did you not have enough pie? Was your cooking schedule too intense? These aren’t things you can change before your Thanksgiving dinner is over, so don’t stress now. But plan ahead next time. Think about what went wrong and take preventative measures for a smoother Thanksgiving next year.

And most importantly . . . 

17. Take Care of Yourself!

Take breaks, snack on the appetizers, and mingle. There’s no need for you to slave away in the kitchen and stress over every minute thing; you need to take care of you. Your Thanksgiving dinner is as much for you as it is for your guests, so enjoy it!

Get Some Last-Minute Thanksgiving Dinner Help from These Gems

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Shaelyn Topolovec earned a BA in editing and publishing from BYU, worked on several online publications, and joined the Familius family. Shae is currently an editor and copywriter who lives in California’s Central Valley.

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