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I Hosted An Early Thanksgiving This Year — Here Are The Recipes That Turned Out Best (And Worst)

If you're looking for ideas for your own holiday meal, this will help.

Can you believe it's already almost Thanksgiving? On one hand, we wait all year for the best food holiday out there. On the other hand, planning, cooking, and hosting the big day can be really stressful.

Fox.

This year, my Colorado family celebrated Thanksgiving early — for Canadian Thanksgiving. 🇨🇦 For anyone who might not know, Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving on the second Monday of October. My husband is Canadian, so it's a holiday we celebrate twice each year — and for that, we can definitely be thankful!

Sydney Martin

According to my husband, the traditional Canadian Thanksgiving menu doesn't differ much from American Thanksgiving as we know it. (Though some families may throw in a Canadian specialty — like nanaimo bars or poutine.)

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I wanted to share my family's Thanksgiving menu this year — the recipes, grocery list, prep plan, and the even things I wish I'd done differently in hindsight. Cooking for the holidays is tough! Hopefully this can help make it easier for some.

Similar to my typical week of meal planning on a $100 budget, I wanted to also keep the big Thanksgiving meal under that price point. This year, in addition to my own family of five, we were also hosting some guests for Thanksgiving — so I knew it would be a challenge.

Sydney Martin

In total, the Thanksgiving meal had to feed eight adults and five kids. However, most kids were very little: one 7-year-old, and then younger toddlers and babies. Because of this, I was able to take advantage of smaller serving sizes and pickier palates — and stretch the food quite a bit.

Also, my guests were in charge of providing all of the drinks for the night, so I could keep my $100 focused solely on the food.

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Every Thanksgiving, I make a mix of recipes that my family already knows and loves — plus a few new ones. Once I settled on a lineup this year, I pulled everything into a grocery list. This list includes everything I needed to make the meal, except for dried spices, olive oil, and drinks.

Sydney Martin

With meal planning, upfront preparation is key, but it's also the most challenging thing. Here are a few tips and tricks that I use for the holiday season:

1) Shop your sales. Thankfully, most components of a Thanksgiving meal are in season. My store normally has a lot of my ingredients on sale. For example, I was able to get fresh cranberries for 2/$5!

2) Know your produce section. Each herb that I needed for my meal could have cost me $1.99 each (sage, thyme, rosemary, etc). However, I know my produce section always carries a pack of fresh herbs called a "roasting blend" or "poultry blend". This includes a variety of all the herbs I need for $1.99 total!

3) Buy store brand if you can. Unless it's something that I'm unable to use due to a severe peanut allergy in my house (or if a different brand is on sale), store brand it is. It's usually cheapest.

Here's everything that was on the menu this year:

OLD FAVORITES:

Alton Brown's Good Eats Roast Turkey with Gravy

Bon Appetit's 'Simple Is Best' Dressing

Brown Sugar Green Beans with Bacon (from Creme de la Crumb)

Basic Mashed Potatoes (from All Recipes)

Alton Brown's Cranberry Sauce

Perfect Pumpkin Pie (from Life Made Simple)

NEW ADDITIONS:

NYT Cooking's Southern Mac 'n' Cheese

Tasty's Simple Dinner Rolls


MISC:

• Various drinks! (Which our guests were in charge of bringing)


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Back to the groceries: Everything — other than the turkey — rang in at $85.79. I knew the turkey would be the most expensive part, so I price-shopped it elsewhere.

Sydney Martin

Trying to find a whole turkey in my town in October is far more challenging than one might think. It took a bit of work calling around to different stores to see if they had any in stock, and for what price. Thanks to an amazing Target employee who was aware of a recent shipment, I scored the deal of the season: a 15-pound turkey for $12.17.

Sydney Martin

I had to look at the price tag a few times to make sure the price was only $0.79/lb! 

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When I added the turkey back into the rest of the haul (pictured below), the total came to $98.79.

Sydney Martin

When it comes to the actual cooking, the biggest lesson I've learned over the years is to make everything you can in advance. Here was my game plan this year:

THE NIGHT BEFORE:

• Make Dinner Rolls

• Make Cranberry Sauce

• Make Dressing (note: I prefer making this the night before so the flavors can fully soak in overnight)

• Wash, peel, and cut potatoes for Mashed Potatoes


THE DAY OF:

• Roast Turkey in oven

• Make Gravy

• Make Green Beans

• Make Mac 'n' Cheese

• Finish Mashed Potatoes

• Make Pumpkin Pie (note: in hindsight, I should have made this the night before)

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I cooked everything solo — so know that these time estimates can definitely be decreased if you have help. But for me, cooking things the night before took about 2 ½ hours, and the day of took about 4 ½ hours. (Though for both, a lot of that was just waiting — for the rolls to rise, the turkey to roast, the oven to free up, etc.)

Here's a more detailed rundown of everything. Spoiler: Not everything went perfectly (and TBH, not every recipe landed), but hey — that's the holidays for you! Here we go...

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The night before, I got started cooking. The first thing I made was Simple Dinner Rolls, which was a new recipe for me. I have made homemade rolls in the past so I was eager to give this recipe a try.

Sydney Martin

As the title of the recipe suggests, the ingredients for these rolls were very simple. 

I added the dough ingredients to the mixer and let it proof until things had doubled in size.

Sydney Martin

One thing that I thought was odd about this recipe was that it didn't have the yeast sit in warm water to bloom first. Although I was curious about this, I still wanted to stick to the recipe and followed it exactly as it is written.

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I did double this recipe so I cut out 16 pieces of dough and made them into a rolled shape. I did this by pinching bits of the dough from underneath my ball and pulling it to the top to create a "perfect" circle.

Sydney Martin

Once the rolls were formed, I let them sit again to proof just a bit more. I feel like I should have gone a bit faster when forming my rolls because they weren't very warm anymore by the time I was done and I think they would have increased in size a bit more if I had been quicker.

Despite the setback, the rolls came out of the oven looking amazing. They had a nice golden brown color and smelled great...but I wouldn't make them again.

Sydney Martin

Once I ate one I realized that 1) maybe I had messed up somewhere and/or 2) this recipe wasn't very good. I thought the rolls were actually very dense. Not quite that light and fluffy result I was hoping for to help soak up my gravy. Still, it was on to the next.

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There was a lot of downtime while making the rolls, so I got started making a couple more things! While the rolls were proofing, I started the Cranberry Sauce. This Alton Brown is one I make every year.

Sydney Martin

I love that this recipe uses honey as sweetener instead of sugar. The recipe does also call for fresh squeezed orange juice, but I've cheated this step for years by using orange juice (Sorry, Alton!). 

The cranberry sauce takes 20 minutes or less to complete — so it really couldn't be easier.

Sydney Martin

I started by rinsing my fresh cranberries and boiling my pure (not cocktail!) cranberry juice and orange juice with the honey.

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Once the honey and juices were boiling, I added cranberries. It's very important that you do not cook the cranberries for more than 15 minutes. Once cooled, you can put the cranberry sauce in a mold and place in the fridge for the next day.

Sydney Martin

I didn't use a mold — and just put it all into a bowl and called it great! (Although I probably should have at least served it in something a little nicer.)

Sydney Martin

And listen, I know there is debate as to whether you serve canned cranberry sauce or homemade. You can only pick what's right for you. I spent all my Thanksgivings in college at a friend's house where they always had BOTH. The canned version they called "slide." In my opinion, you can't go wrong anytime cranberries are involved. 

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Another Thanksgiving debate: dressing or stuffing? I always make dressing, although I typically go back and forth between my two favorite recipes. This time I decided to go with Simple Is Best Dressing from Bon Appetit. I prefer making this dressing the day before because I think it gives it time to absorb all the nice juices and flavors.

Sydney Martin

I do need to give credit where credit is due. Both of my favorite dressing recipes were shared with me by my big brother. The other favorite is Ina Garten's version, which includes sausage and green apples. You can find that one here

The first step in this recipe is to dry out the bread in the oven on very low heat. I cut my bread into cubes and spread them out onto sheet pans.

Sydney Martin

I have even seen bags of cubed bread at my grocery store around the holiday. This could save you some time if you wanted to go that route!

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While the bread was in the oven, I chopped all the herbs and veggies. I sautéed the veggies in butter then added all the components together in a bowl with the bread.

Sydney Martin

I gave everything a good mix, added some egg, then tossed everything into the oven for 40 minutes. (By this time, my rolls were also done proofing and baking.)

After the 40 minutes, I let everything cool then moved the entire tray of dressing into the fridge. That meant that the next day, the only thing left to do was to it in the oven just before serving.

Sydney Martin

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The final item I prepared the night before was my prepping the potatoes. I clean, peel, and cut them the night before, then save the day of for boiling. I find that you can save a lot of time and stress by having this step completed! Just soak the peeled potatoes in water overnight and you'll be set up for success.

Sydney Martin

I don't use a specific recipe for my mashed potatoes — but this one is pretty close. Once my potatoes are soft, I throw them in my stand-mixer and start mashing them. I add in butter, milk, and salt until I feel like they taste just right!

On to the big day! I know everyone has their favorite method when it comes to cooking their turkey. However, I always go with a classic roasting method. This Good Eats Roast Turkey recipe has been my go-to for years now.

Sydney Martin

The first year I made this recipe, I tried to do the brine. However, I didn't own anything large enough to really submerge the turkey so it ended up being a hassle. I decided to try the recipe while skipping the brine in following years and I have always been super happy with the end result anyways.

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I love the way this recipe puts fresh produce and herbs inside the turkey to use aromatics to develop the turkey's flavor.

Sydney Martin

In order to get a nice, crispy skin you initially roast the turkey at a high temp. You're going to want to make sure your vent hood is working in overdrive for this step! After you brown the skin, decrease the temp and let sit until the temp reaches 160˚F. This normally takes around 2 hours depending on the size of your turkey. I would urge you to use a thermometer rather than just counting on time duration if you want it to turn out just right.

Once you take the turkey out of the oven, make sure to let it rest. During one of my first years making my own Thanksgiving meal, I lightly covered my turkey with foil to try and keep it warm. Rookie mistake! The turkey got dried out and it wasn't necessary at all.

Sydney Martin

During the roasting phase, you can do a quick baste to help with moisture, but try your best to reduce the time you have the oven door open.

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Once my turkey rested and I was able to move it to the cutting board, I started the gravy. I kind of go with the flow with my gravy, but this gravy recipe is an excellent guide.

Sydney Martin

My gravy thickened to a consistency I was happy with and I poured it through my mesh strainer to get it nice and smooth.

Sydney Martin

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Moving on to the next side, I decided to try this Southern Macaroni and Cheese because 1) it's a staple for a lot of people, 2) my toddler thinks mac 'n' cheese is an entire food group and I knew she would eat it, and 3) it sounded delicious!

Sydney Martin

If you hit a paywall when trying to view the New York Times recipe above, you can find a similar, non-paywalled recipe here.

The steps for this recipe were very simple. Boil the noodles, then combine cheddar, eggs, milk, salt, pepper, and Colby Jack. More Colby Jack then goes on top!

Sydney Martin

In order to save myself some serious time, I used the grating attachment on my food processor and shredded my block of cheese in seconds.

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Things with this dish were going miraculously. Then... [insert scene in "The Santa Clause" where Tim Allen is putting out a fire from his Thanksgiving turkey and they end up at Denny's.]

Sydney Martin

Although we didn't actually end up at Denny's and there were no flames, I did... forget about my mac 'n' cheese while it was broiling. So the mac passed the 'perfect golden brown' stage and veered right into extremely, uh, well done. Thankfully, everything underneath the top layer was still in great shape — so I just mixed it all together and called it a holiday.

In hindsight, the mac 'n' cheese is also something I could have prepared in advance and then reheated/browned the day of to save me some time.

At this point, my track record thus far for my new recipes was 0 for 2. That's most likely due to user error, but thankfully, it was time I went back to my basics to turn out a recipe I knew would impress.

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Enter: Brown Sugar Green Beans with Bacon. With ingredients like these, how can you go wrong?

Sydney Martin

This recipe does lean on the sweet side as written, so if you're wanting something tamed down a bit, I would suggest decreasing the amount of brown sugar! 

This recipe comes together in about 30 minutes and I save it as one of the last things I do prior to serving dinner.

Sydney Martin

While your bacon and beans are cooking, you simple make the glaze and combine everything together at the end.

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When I say we make these beans every year, I mean we make them for both Thanksgivings...and usually even Christmas!

Sydney Martin

They're so good.

In my opinion, Thanksgiving is all about the pie. I always grew up eating apple and pumpkin pie. But given that I'm still in the process of trying to perfect my grandmother's famous apple pie, I went with something easier this year: pumpkin.

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This Perfect Pumpkin Pie recipe is the recipe I make anymore. I love the complexity of flavors and the guarantee that the meal will end on a high note.

Sydney Martin

My 7-year-old also raves about this pumpkin pie and I feel like that says a lot. 

All the legwork for this recipe is done on the stovetop. Just mix all the ingredients together until you have a nice, smooth consistency. Then pour it into a premade or homemade crust. (I went with the former to save time and effort!)

Sydney Martin

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The pie bakes for about an hour and then is meant to cool in the fridge. Looking back, I should have made the pie the day before. In my mind I was going to have it fresh out of the oven to serve, but I easily could have just warmed it up in the oven during dinner.

Sydney Martin

And that was the meal! Overall, I was really happy with dinner and more importantly grateful I was able to spend time with my family and friends, being thankful for who and what we all have in our lives.

Sydney Martin

We had plenty of leftovers to enjoy in the following days. My kids enjoyed some mac 'n' cheese during lunch, we were able to make turkey soup, and of course try and recreate our Thanksgiving plates just as they were the first time. 

I hope this was helpful as you plan your Thankgiving menu this year! If you have family favorites you make every holiday, I'd love to hear about them in the comments.

And if you're looking for more day-to-day inspiration, find more of my weekly meal plans here, or follow me on Instagram at @sydneyinsuburbia. Happy Thanksgiving! 🍽

Instagram: @sydneyinsuburbia

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