Thanksgiving tips and tricks!

It's that time of year again - time for the absolute best, non-religious, food centered, gratitude focused holiday of the year - Thanksgiving!

In anticipation of the feast I will be cooking up next week, I have been digging through old issues of Saveur, Bon Appetit and Cooks Illustrated since mid-October. Over the last few years I've really changed the way I eat and cook, so many of the recipes that may have worked for me in the past are no longer in my repertoire. As a result, now I also get inspired by some of my favorite healthy food blogs like Against all GrainElana's Pantry, and Everyday Maven to name a few.

Another website I like is The Chalkboard Magazine, who recently asked readers to contribute some of their favorite healthy holiday cooking secrets. They graciously added one of mine to their list and it inspired me to create a list of my own Thanksgiving cooking tips to share with y'all.

Here are 8 ideas to help make your holiday a little bit easier and a little bit healthier.

1. Clean out your fridge before you go grocery shopping. Knowing that you will have space for the bird and all the sides and pies you will be making is a big stress saver. Bonus: you get to throw away any expired salad dressings, mayonnaise, and other assorted items that tend to accumulate over time.

2. Sharpen your knives. I take my knives to the local hardware store the week before Thanksgiving every year to have them professionally sharpened. This makes all the chopping and prep work so much easier!! Plus it's a great thing to do at least once a year.

3. Plan your menu. Write it out and then work backwards to see what you can make ahead. I pick up my turkey on the Monday before Thanksgiving so that I can dry-brine it for 3 days. This foolproof method for cooking the perfect turkey is known as the "Judy Bird" and was adapted from The Zuni Café cookbook by LA Times food writer Russ Parsons.  I usually make my cranberry sauce on Monday as well.  This year I am making butternut squash hummus as an appetizer, which can also be made before Thursday. Doing a bunch of stuff ahead of time allows me to be more relaxed on Thursday morning when I am chopping veggies for stuffing, baking a cherry pie, basting the turkey and listening to Arlo Guthrie sing "Alice's Restaurant" or whatever else KEXP might be playing.

4. Check your pantry. Read through your recipes well before Thanksgiving and make sure you have what you need.  I can't tell you how many times I have set my heart on a recipe only to find out that I didn't have a necessary key ingredient.  It's no fun setting out to make gingerbread only to find you are out of ginger.

5. Make your own turkey or chicken stock a few days before Thanksgiving (it's easy. I promise.). This is the tip I shared with The Chalkboard Magazine and it really is my favorite. You need virtually no cooking expertise to do this and it makes a big difference in flavor and quality. Here is a link to an easy recipe for chicken stock. You can use it for stuffing, basting and gravy-making on the big day. 

6. Don't use the holiday as an excuse to overindulge in any food that makes you feel like crap! Lately there are more and more of us who avoid potentially inflammatory things like gluten, dairy and sugar. This can make holiday meals feel a bit stressful. Do not fret! There are multitudes of great websites out there with delicious ideas that can keep you on point. Google is your friend. You can find gluten-free gravy, dairy-free pumpkin pie and sugar-free sweet potatoes by simply asking your web browser. Last year I made a traditional bread stuffing as well as a stuffing made with wild rice. I used the same base for both (celery, onion, fennel, apples, chestnuts and sausage). I just doubled what I chopped (with my extra sharp knives) and then added bread to one bowl and wild rice to the other. It was worth the extra effort to feel like there were choices available for myself and some of my guests. If you are not hosting then offer to bring at least one thing that you know you can eat without worry.

7. You do not have to eat anything just to be polite. You are a grown up! It's OK to say "No thank you". If you do decide to eat something that's "not on your plan", that's OK too. Recognize that you are making a choice and do not say mean things to yourself in your mind. Treat yourself the way you would treat a parent or your best friend - with love and kindness. 

8. Be intentional about what you put on your plate, chew slowly, put your fork down between bites and take the time to look up from your plate and directly at each person around the table. We have a tradition of going around the table during dinner and sharing what we are thankful for this year. The beauty of this holiday is that it celebrates not only autumn foods but also gratitude. Even if you are having Thanksgiving with people who push your buttons, imagine how they might also be your teachers in some way and give thanks for that. 

I'd love to know what makes your Thanksgiving a little easier or healthier, so please feel free to share some of your favorite tips in the comments below, and have a very happy holiday!