While it may feel like we were just slathering on sunscreen and packing a bag for a long day at the beach, summer is sadly behind us. Now, leaves are falling from the trees, seasonal wreaths are hanging from our doors, and holiday planning mode is officially beginning. For me, as soon as my kids start suiting up for the big trick or treat, I have one thing on my mind: Thanksgiving.
It may sound like I’m jumping the gun a bit, but Thanksgiving is quite honestly my favorite holiday of the year—the one day everyone celebrates with enthusiasm. And while it doesn't involve any gift-giving, it does require some thoughtfulness and preparation in other ways. As the annual host for my large family's Thanksgiving dinner, I have learned that I can't start planning early enough.
Luckily, I have a few tactics to create an impressive spread with ease, fun, and fewer gray hairs—and it all starts with how I shop. Here are 7 helpful shopping tips to get you through your best Thanksgiving dinner yet.
Around the beginning of November, I set aside some time to take a peek into my pantry. I go through all my canned and jarred items to see what I have lying around that might come in handy. Usually, I encounter a treasure trove of forgotten items I picked up on sale or in some specialty food shop: fancy mustard I can use for a lovely salad dressing; a couple cans of evaporated milk I know I'll need for pumpkin pie; or some cornbread mix I can bake for my favorite stuffing. Whatever it is, I want to make sure to use up what I have (as long as it's not expired) before I start making a list of items I need.
I also find that looking at what I already have inspires new ideas for what to put on the menu. Do I spy four boxes of instant chocolate pudding and a box of brownie mix? Great! I can put my twelve-year-old in charge of a chocolate trifle I know the kids' table will gobble up. Did I just spot a jar of marinated artichokes, long forgotten? Perfect! I’ll make my crowd-pleasing spinach–artichoke dip.
In short, leveraging pantry items saves money and precious time. So start with a deep dive into what I like to call your "personal grocery store” before beginning to menu plan and shop. Once you know what you have, you can determine what you still need.
Organization is the key to success. Once I’ve taken a thorough inventory of items in the house, and have thought through a few basic recipes that can come together from those ingredients, I sit down and decide all the other dishes I’ll be making in addition. What are my must-have mains, sides, and desserts? What new recipes do I want to experiment with?
When I have these down pat, I jot down all the ingredients I still need to purchase for each dish. My lists are written in a way that lets me efficiently move through the aisles, thanks to a little trick: The list is broken down by department. I make columns for the dairy, meat, and fancy cheese sections; the produce area; and the dry-and canned-goods aisles. Checking off the items as they go in the cart guarantees that nothing is left behind.
Just don’t forget to bring the list with you to the store...and a pen!
Well, not that often, but definitely more than once—I make a few separate trips. For me, the most significant stress for any big holiday feast is showing up at the store right before Thanksgiving dinner. I've waited in seemingly endless lines to get to just about every shelf and department, discovering with horror that someone took the last bottle of vanilla extract. I eventually end up two carts deep, with little hope for organization and 24 hours to get a feast on the table.
The good news? Grocery stores encourage early buying, placing many holiday-related items at the end caps of the aisles a good month before the big day, so you can find everything you need much more easily! Once I learned that, I started all my shopping way in advance.
So avoid the hassle and start shopping three to four weeks ahead of the big day, armed with a list of all the non-perishable (or freeze-able) ingredients you need. This includes cans of pumpkin puree and cranberry sauce, bottles of dried spices and bags of dried pasta, frozen pie crusts and sheets of puff pastry, and anything else that can keep for a few weeks until you need them. This is also the time I call my local butcher and place the order for my turkey. By now, my RSVPs are firm, and they can help guide me in choosing the right size bird.
Then, about a week out from the festivities, you can go back to the store and get all the other items you need. Produce (like onions, leeks, potatoes, green beans, Brussels sprouts, and squash); dairy (like eggs, butter, cheese); and all your other perishable, fridge-dwelling items can be purchased with a week or so of lead time. Just wait on your delicate produce, like fresh herbs and salad greens, until a few days out, so they don’t wilt before Thanksgiving dinner.
If you follow my lead, even if you do end up in the store the day before (or sometimes, day-of…), it's just for the few last-minute items you might have missed or run out of. You'll be in and out of the store without breaking a sweat.
Cooking for a crowd can be overwhelming, and on a special day like Thanksgiving, you may feel the pressure is on—extra. That’s why I always pick up a few items that will lighten the load.
For example, if I find myself in a super time crunch, many stores will have pre-cut vegetables all packaged up, allowing me to just open the package, toss them in a pan, and roast. Not only does it cut down on cleaning and peeling, the pieces will cook up perfectly thanks to the uniform cut. (The same goes if you just feel less-than-confident in the knife skills department.)
Additionally, most grocery stores have an on-site catering department, so there are always a few dishes I leave to the professionals. I’ll grab a platter of crudités and fruit, or meat and cheese, to have out when guests arrive. Or, if you're in need of some hot appetizers, grab a few prepared frozen options when you wheel through the freezer department. Who doesn’t like mini quiches or pigs in a blanket? A quick pop in the oven is all they need.
While I know freezer, fridge, and pantry space are all sacred this time of year, stocking up on extras of certain items will help tremendously. There are a few players in holiday cooking that are simply bulk MVPS: milk, eggs, butter, frozen pie crust, cranberries, potatoes (white and sweet), cheeses, and anything else you find yourself using over and over deserve a little more shelf real estate.
Since my family is big, I head to Costco for these heavy-hitting items (both for my three-weeks-out trip and my one-week-out trip); not only is there a cost benefit to buying an item like butter or cheese in larger quantities, it’s certain these items will come in handy. Once I buy them in bulk, I don’t need to worry about grabbing them on any smaller grocery store run I’ll do. And if for some reason these items don't get used for the Thanksgiving meal, I can make a big frittata or a hearty bread pudding the next day for the overnight guests.
Bulk buying is also fantastic when it comes to libations for the event. Cases of water, juice, soda, and seltzer can be so helpful for a big crowd. Additionally, many of the big-box or bulk stores also carry liquor and wine; maybe this year, don’t stress the pairings so much, and simply buy a case of red or white, and a few big bottles of all-purpose liquor. Then, lean on the guests to bring any fancy stuff they choose.
Speaking of guests: You are already a hero for hosting your loved ones, so there’s absolutely no need to do everything solo. When someone offers to help, take them up on it! Whether it's having them pick up or make dessert, run to the store to buy an extra bunch of leeks or bag of carrots, or bring some or all of the wine for the evening (so you can avoid the liquor store altogether), say “YES”!
After many years of running myself ragged, I no longer have any qualms about asking for a helping hand. I've gotten so bold that I send out a spreadsheet of what is needed to all my guests, and people sign up for various slots. Your guests like to help, so let them!
Finally, no matter how many storage containers you think you have, grab some more. We all love Thanksgiving dinner, but it's the leftovers (looking at you, turkey sandwiches) that truly have our hearts. So once the big meal is over, pass out the storage containers and have everyone fill 'er up. The table gets cleared really quickly, and everyone leaves with a delicious lunch for the next day.
To do the job, I love clear plastic quart and pint deli containers (like these from Amazon), which have handy universal lids. They also happen to fit perfectly in the fridge, stacking on top of each other wonderfully. And they’re another item I can buy in bulk, saving time and money.
Cooking for a crowd on our special day of thanks will never be 100% easy. But shopping smarter, not harder, will give you one more thing to be grateful for when you finally sit down to eat.
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