Ina Garten's 9 Tips For A Perfect Thanksgiving Meal

With Thanksgiving around the corner (and holidays like Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa in hot pursuit), it's time to start building up our hosting, entertaining, and dinner party planning muscles. Who best to turn to than the nation's easiest, breeziest dinner party host? Ina Garten oozes as much ease and warmth as her recipe for Parmesan chicken, making her the kitchen mentor we all need during a time of high-stress cooking.

When it comes to significant cooking events, it's all too easy to get wrapped up in aspirational cooking to show family and friends how much we care about them. With life moving at an ever-increasing speed, it can be equally as tempting to put off today what we can do tomorrow. Both these approaches can lead to dinner party disasters and kitchen chaos, leaving hosts feeling stressed about the tasks at hand rather than excited to gather together. Ina and her sage advice are here to quell the overwhelm. Here are some of her pro tips for surviving Thanksgiving and flourishing as a host, whether it's your first or 31st time playing host.

Make a plan

Whether you're throwing an intimate dinner party or a Thanksgiving feast, go into preparations with an organized plan. Thinking through the entire meal helps to catch possible obstacles or issues, like running out of space in the oven or stovetop, before they happen. As Ina says, guests are there to spend time with you, so taking steps to ensure the best version of yourself — one that isn't stressed out and overwhelmed — is just as important as what makes it onto the dinner table.

Making a plan doesn't just include figuring out oven space, though it is useful, especially for Thanksgiving when a turkey will hog it for hours on end. Plans can also include spreading out cooking prep throughout the week, from what days you'll run errands to collect your ingredients to what dishes can be made ahead of time and simply reheated on the day. It will also mean when guests ask you the inevitable "What can I bring?" you'll be primed with an answer reflecting what you need to complete your Thanksgiving meal.

Tackle the shopping list in stages

Unless you're slightly masochistic, avoiding grocery stores in the run-up to Thanksgiving is a surefire way to save yourself some stress and agony. No one we know likes throwing elbows in the root vegetable section or squabbling over celery for your stuffing the day before Thanksgiving. It pays to spread the shopping out, saving yourself stress from the throngs of other customers and potential disappointment that your ingredient of choice will be sold out.

Ina suggests stocking up on the staples you know you'll need (and those that will keep well) about a week before turkey day, saving produce shopping for a few days before you host your event. If your shopping includes specialty shops like butchers or bakeries, it also pays to pre-order your desired goods well in advance, selecting a pickup date accordingly. For those cooking a whole turkey, consider allowing time for defrosting (if applicable) and brining it, too.

Do-ahead desserts are the way forward

One of the many things we love about Ina Gartner is her firm hold on realistic advice, firmly planted in accessibility rather than pure kitchen aspirations. It's what makes her so approachable, including this gem of wisdom when it comes to the sweet ending to your Thanksgiving meal. To summarize, make whatever the dish is at least a day ahead of time. Do not allow future you to scramble around rolling out pie crust, taking up precious oven space on the big day.

Making desserts ahead of time can take many forms. Consider buying your apple and pumpkin pies from a reputable local baker. Or, make the desserts a few days or weeks before; some pies, like pumpkin, can even be frozen in advance. You can also farm the task out to guests or friends keen to bring a dish or make Ina's delicious no-bake Pumpkin Mousse Parfaits — a delicious and creamy alternative to pumpkin pie — the choice is yours for the making.

Skip complicated appetizers in favor of mostly shop-bought

Spending time, stress, and effort on homemade appetizers for Thanksgiving are like using up all of your energy for the warm-up rather than the big race. Pacing yourself and your kitchen prowess is crucial when creating feasting meals like Thanksgiving. Even Ina says so. Thankfully, there are ways to bridge the difference between all effort and none at all, like selecting some high-quality meats or cheeses at the deli and making a charcuterie or cheese board.

As Ina reminds all cooks and hosts via Bon Appetit, "Your friends will have more fun if you're happy and having a good time with them." This translates into wonderfully concrete advice, like making one appetizer at home and buying the rest. Dips, cheeses, crudités, olives, and even fresh fruit can make a lovely and light start to the meal that will allow guests plenty of room for the main event. It will also allow you the opportunity to either put the finishing touches on the meal or catch up with guests, leaving everyone feeling welcomed and at ease — the secret ingredient to any great dinner party.

Cook the turkey and gravy ahead of time, then reheat

Though it makes a lovely centerpiece, the ritual of Thanksgiving turkey carving doesn't necessarily need to be done table-side. In fact, removing the performance of table-side turkey carving can also remove a significant amount of stress, which is always a good thing. To save yourself the worry and also save guests from having to choke down dinner that's either gone cold or, worse yet, dry, Ina has a genius solution. Make the turkey ahead of time.

Once again, she encourages everyone to lean into their organization skills as the secret sauce to a great Thanksgiving meal. Make the turkey and gravy ahead of time, allowing the bird to cool slightly before slicing. Then, assemble the slices on a plate or deep-sided oven tray or roasting pan, generously ladle with gravy, and cool completely. By doing this, the turkey slices will become infused with gravy, helping to protect them from drying out while adding additional mouth-watering flavor. When it is go-time (about an hour before you want dinner on the table), reheat the turkey and gravy in the oven and wow guests with succulent, stress-free turkey that, thanks to its hot gravy bath, should remain warm to the last bite. How easy is that?

Prepare the stuffing outside of the bird

Tradition is nice, but sometimes it can become an obstacle to ease. Such is the case when it comes to traditional stuffing cooked inside the turkey cavity. A lot can go wrong with this method, from an overdone bird in the name of cooked stuffing and undercooked turkey drippings spoiling your stuffing to turning the appetites of any vegetarians at the table. Don't worry, though; help is on the way.

When it comes to stuffing (and all things Thanksgiving), we employ the WWID method — what would Ina do? In this case, she'd make her stuffing separately to avoid risk in either dish. Whether you're making a vegetarian stuffing or one with sausage or bacon, cook it in its own separate casserole dish rather than inside your turkey. This method is also key when applying Ina's cook-ahead method for turkey and gravy and will help reduce concern for an over-stuffed oven and a stuffed bird.

Save the elbow grease and use a mixer for mashed potatoes

Happiness is often hidden at the bottom of a pile of creamy, buttery, mashed potatoes. The only way to find it is to eat your way through. For anyone else whose favorite Thanksgiving feast isn't complete without a big bowl of mash, we've got a trick up our sleeve that will save you from sweating through yours. Grab your Kitchen Aid or Kenwood because a stand-up mixer holds the secret to perfectly textured mashed potatoes — even Ina thinks so.

To unlock the key to Ina's easy mashed potatoes, add all your well-cooked and peeled spuds into the bowl, slowly pouring 1 cup of whole milk, swiftly following with 6 tablespoons of butter, and mixing away. Depending on taste preferences, add sour cream to add extra tangy and creamy mash, or try garlic, truffle oil, or our favorite, fresh Parmesan. Use the trick on Thanksgiving or any given Tuesday for an easy, creamy, comforting mash that practically feels like a hug from the inside.

Thoughtfully assign seats at the table

We've all been there. Having turned up at a friend's or family member's dinner party only to spend the night stuck between folks who either won't let you get a word in edgewise or heavily rely on others to keep a conversation going. Taking personalities, extrovertedness, and guests' interests into consideration is also, Ina reminds us, part of the role of the host. That's why she suggests assigning seats to help keep the conversation flowing.

During holidays like Thanksgiving, where so much emphasis is placed on food and what ends up on the table, often what goes on around the table is overlooked. Ina's seating strategy can help combat conversation stagnation or one side having too much fun while the other side suffers. Placing the most verbose and gregarious guests in the very nucleus of the table, facing each other for good conversation optics, helps to create an atmosphere where everyone can join in and feel like they're part of the fun. After the super chatty folks are sorted out, more flexible guests who are good listeners and can equally strike up a conversation with anyone can be strategically placed amongst those who might have a bit more difficulty.

Keep it simple

When it comes to home entertaining of any kind, simple is often best. This can be applied to just about any aspect of hosting, from meal planning to decor guest list to dinner conversation. The fewer variables at play, the easier it will ultimately be to set a mood of warmth and ease, encouraging guests to relax and enjoy themselves. Don't believe us? Take it from Ina Garden, arguably the nation's best dinner party host, exuding that sense of effortless ease and warmth we'd all love to mirror.

Ina's catchphrase, "How easy is that?" didn't appear out of nowhere. She has spent half a lifetime, and nearly two dozen books trying to showcase that ease is the tastiest seasoning and should be applied liberally. Make dessert the day before, utilize one-pot cooking or tried and tested recipes you know and love, and leave room to let your personality shine. After all, good food is lovely, but good company is the real reason that brings people together.