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Holiday gatherings: Stay sane while you entertain

As Thanksgiving approaches, many are beginning to think about family gatherings and, of course, lots and lots of food.

Some are practiced in the art of Thanksgiving preparation, but it’s still foreign territory for others. Either way, hosting a holiday meal involves effort and time. Here are some tips to help make the day less stressful and more enjoyable for those involved.

Plan for early arrivers

There are bound to be last-minute things to do Thanksgiving Day, so when a well-intended person shows up early, it leaves the host struggling to prepare food and entertain at the same time. To avoid this juggling act, plan activities for guests to enjoy while they wait to eat.

Emily Carlson, party planner and creator of Haute Hostess, has several ideas for keeping people busy Thanksgiving Day. If children are present, Carlson suggests involving them in activities that will help get the dinner table ready.

“This year I bought a table runner from Pottery Barn Kids and it’s made out of craft paper,” she said. “It has owls, leaves and trees, and it runs the full length of the table and (kids) can color it.”

For the adults, Carlson’s family typically sets out a large glass jar on the dessert table with a stack of white cards.

“As people come in you can ask them to fill out cards with things that they’re thankful for, or memories of past Thanksgivings, and sort of fill up this jar,” Carlson said. “Then, as the dessert hour comes around, we would pull out (the cards) and be reading them later in the day.”

Carlson’s family also puts out lots of games for people to play and photo albums of past family gatherings to look at, but if all else fails, the old standbys work fine.

“I feel like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and football are sort of a tradition that most families adhere to — at least mine does,” she said.

Don’t do it all yourself

Even for those supercooks out there, tackling everything involved with Thanksgiving alone is a recipe for a very tiring day.

Sydney Cline, who has years of experience cooking for crowds through catering, church and family activities, said Thanksgiving is the perfect time to delegate assignments to others. Even those who don’t like to cook can contribute.

“If you have a 22-year-old boy who’s being invited and is expected to bring something, that’s perfect,” she said. “Have him bring the ice cream that goes with the homemade pies. Have him bring the 7UP that goes in the punch.”

Fresh fruits and vegetables are also easy options for those who don’t like to cook to bring. If guests who can cook volunteer, however, it might be good to give them a choice as to what they bring to dinner. As Cline says, if they’re great with breads, then let them do the breads.

But it is also important to be cautious when delegating assignments because there is always the possibility someone might not show up, leaving you short-handed.

“You wouldn’t want to have no ice cream,” Cline said. “But if you have two people assigned ice cream, and one doesn’t come, you’re good. If it’s paper goods and things like that, I would only assign that to somebody that I know is absolutely responsible.”

To avoid stressing and wondering if guests will show up with their assignments, Cline recommends having guests drop off their assignments a day or even a week ahead of time. That way, the host doesn’t have to worry about those small details the day of the gathering.

Hosts should also remember that they do not have to make everything from scratch. When store-bought items, such as bakery rolls and pies, are “sufficient and delicious,” Cline recommends buying them to cut down on stress.

Be proactive

No host wants to discover halfway through dinner that there is not enough food to go around.

“Depending on how many proteins you are offering, for example for Thanksgiving, we allow one pound per person for turkey, 5 ounces finished per person of ham and 4 ounces per person of mashed potatoes,” Maxine Turner, president of Cuisine Unlimited Catering and Special Events, wrote in an email while she was out of the country. “Keep in mind that the larger the menu, the smaller the portion people will take.”

Cline is the author of a new cookbook, “Feeding the Masses” (Cedar Fort, $16.99) that includes ideas, recipes, serving suggestions and more for feeding large groups of people. Cline offered a few of these serving-size guidelines specific to Thanksgiving.

For a group of five people, Cline suggested serving sizes of one 14-ounce can of cranberry sauce, one pound of vegetables and a half gallon of beverages. This, however, does not account for large servings, second servings or having leftovers.

Of course, in order to know how much meat to buy, it is necessary to know how many guests to plan on. According to Turner, hosts should invite 20 percent more than the number of people they would like to serve.

“The rule of thumb is that during the holidays, only 70 percent to 80 percent of your invitees will be able to attend,” Turner said. “Use this as a guideline in initially preparing your menu and, eventually, your shopping list. Request an RSVP 10 days prior to your party date.”

Both Turner and Cline suggested creating a list of everything that needs to get done for the big day and when each item must get done. Having a timeline can ensure that all the food is ready at the same time and that nothing is forgotten.

A to-do list also makes it easier to delegate tasks to guests should they volunteer to help. Depending on the guests, they can help with either the food or tasks unrelated to food.

Even with a timeline, however, problems may arise if there is not enough room in the oven for everything that needs to be cooked. Utilizing roasters, slow cookers and stovetops can help with the overcrowding that can occur in the oven.

Still, Thanksgiving Day stress can be greatly reduced by planning and preparing some food ahead of time. Cline said pies and potato casseroles, among other things, can often be made the day or two before Thanksgiving. The more that can be done ahead of time, the more enjoyable Thanksgiving Day will be.

While food is central to Thanksgiving, many other aspects of the day must be planned. House cleaning, for example, should be planned for and completed in advance of Thanksgiving Day. Other things to consider are seating arrangements and décor and what to use for dinnerware and serving equipment.

“Set your table and tablecloths and things like that day before,” Cline said. “If you’re going to use the china you haven’t used for a while, you’d want to wash it and dry it a day or two before and get your tables and chairs set up. I’ve been to gatherings where an hour and a half before the meal, you get 25 people trying to set up chairs and tablecloths and iron things. In my book, that’s stress.”

Be mindful of food allergies

Food allergies can vary in terms of seriousness; for some, exposure to allergens might cause a slight rash, while for others, it can mean a trip to the hospital. It is therefore important to communicate with guests about special dietary needs.

“Whether your invitation is by a formal written invitation, an e-vite or a personal telephone call, asking for special dietary requirements makes you a welcoming host,” Turner said. “Be sensitive to guests, so many of whom have food allergies. This can include nut allergies, gluten-free needs and even dairy intolerance.”

Gluten is found in anything that contains wheat or closely related grains, such as barley and rye. At a Thanksgiving dinner, gluten is found in stuffing, crackers, cookies, pie crust, bread, rolls, cream-of-anything soups and French-fried onions contain wheat, just to name a few common foods.

Other food items, such as oats and nuts, are often processed on the same machines that process wheat. If a guest is particularly sensitive to gluten, be mindful of those food items that might not come to mind at first. Look at the ingredients listed on packages to see if foods contain wheat or may have traces of wheat in them. If stuffing will be served and you have a guest who can’t eat gluten, don’t cook the stuffing in the turkey; make and serve it separately.

Cline said stores are much better now at providing gluten-free options; she mentioned Macey’s as one location that has a gluten-free section. She also suggested making a pie or other dessert without the crust for those with gluten allergies.

Many stores also sell all-purpose/gluten-free flour mixes for those who want to bake gluten-free foods from scratch. Gluten-free graham crackers and gluten-free chocolate sandwich cookies are also available at some stores, which can be used to make pie crusts.

For allergies in general, a nice option is to make an extra dish and leave an ingredient or two out of the mix. Cline sometimes makes individual cheese balls with varying ingredients. Some might contain nuts, others might have onions, and still others might contain pretzels. This way, there is bound to be at least one type of cheese ball everyone can eat.

When preparing food for guests with allergies, cross-contamination is always a possibility. Make sure to wash hands and work spaces thoroughly before preparing something for a guest with an allergy.

Guests with allergies might want to ask specific questions about the ingredients in various dishes, so be ready and willing to answer their questions. Keeping the packaging for ingredients used is a good idea too, as that allows the guests to view the contents themselves and determine whether or not they should eat different things.



Makes: 8 servings

6 to 8 medium sweet potatoes

½ teaspoon salt

¼ cup butter, melted

1 (20-ounce) can crushed pineapple and juice

¼ cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Makes: 40 servings

35 medium-sized sweet potatoes

2½ teaspoons salt

1¼ cup butter, melted

1 (100-ounce) can crushed pineapple and juice

1¼ cup brown sugar

5 teaspoons nutmeg

5 teaspoons cinnamon

Wash sweet potatoes well. Cook sweet potatoes on low boil until medium done, not soft. Let potatoes cool. Peel and slice, and then put them in a slow cooker. Mix remaining ingredients in a bowl and pour over sweet potatoes. Cover and cook on high for about 4 hours.

— Sydney Cline, “Feeding the Masses

Kaylene Morrill Wheeler is a freelance writer. Email: