Lots of things can affect the time you have available on Thanksgiving Day - refereeing kids, work, parades, elderly guests who require care, football games that may cause the earth to fall off its axis. Whether you yourself are squeezing in the cooking around other activities or if a guest is pulling it together for you (some guests help and some guests "help" - choose the former), there are ways to make this a LOT easier on yourself.
1. Streamline the menu. Do you need 4 desserts? If not, keep the top two favorites and eliminate the rest. Quality vanilla ice cream with store-bought gingersnaps also makes a lovely dessert and couldn't possibly be easier.
2. Pre-cook anything that can be pre-cooked. Do you need rice for rice stuffing? Make it a day or two before. Making cranberry applesauce? You can make that a week ahead of time and store it in the fridge - it'll be fine. Baking bread? For heaven's sake don't do it on Thanksgiving Day when your turkey takes up all the oven real estate. That's just madness.
3. Embrace the Ziploc and the Sharpie! I can't emphasize this enough. If you need diced onions, then dice what you need early and seal them in Ziploc. If you need, say, a half-cup for gravy and a full cup for a casserole, put them in separate Ziploc bags and label them with the Sharpie - "1/2 cup, gravy" and "1 cup, squash casserole." The reason will become apparent in #4.
Herbs and spices can also be measured, combined, baggied, and labelled. This really ends up being a timesaver, and it's something I do just for cooking on weeknights when I come home from work.
Foods that can be sliced & diced early:
- Some squashes - not yellow/summer/crookneck squash or zucchini - if you're going to store it as-is. If you're slicing and combining into a casserole to be baked later, it's fine.
4. Group it all together. This is especially key if someone unfamiliar with your kitchen will be cooking with or for you.
Put the ingredients, a copy of the recipe, and any specialized utensils (e.g. a whisk) together in the saucepan, baking pan, serving bowl, whatever. That way nearly everything needed for that dish is ready to go.
For example: Let's say Butternut Squash Souffle is on your holiday menu.
- You can pre-cook the squash, puree it (without the eggs), and store the puree in the fridge.
- Combine the sugar, sage, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg in a labelled baggie.
- In the baking dish or mixing bowl, put a copy of the recipe, the puree, 3 eggs, the baggie, the wrapped half-stick of butter, the beaters for the mixer, and the tub of sour cream so that they are grouped together. Store in the fridge.
If all else fails serve copious amounts of wine and/or claim that you always said it would just be a dessert buffet. Feign surprise that anyone expected an entree and offer cheese and crackers to be nice.