Skip to main content

From menu shortcuts to easing COVID-19 anxieties, experts share their essential tips for a delicious, budget-friendly dinner

Weary of lockdowns and reassured by vaccines, Canadians are ready to embrace Thanksgiving in a more normal way this year, which means masks are off, celebrations are indoors, and family and friends are gathering in bigger numbers to give thanks that the worst of the virus is (hopefully) behind them.

For some, planning the meal, buying the groceries and prepping the house is something they have desperately missed. They can’t wait to have their homes filled with people, laughter, and the mouth-watering aroma of turkey and pumpkin pie.

Others, however, may be less gung-ho. It’s the first time in almost three years, after all, that many have entertained a big group, in a big way, and their hosting skills are rusty. On top of that, the return to normal means the return of old worries – about family coming together, in close quarters, for an extended period of time.

And, finally, with inflation pushing the cost of groceries sky-high (prices are up 11 per cent compared with a year ago), many folks are looking for ways to stretch their dollar so they can put out an amazing spread without blowing their budget.

Even before COVID-19, Thanksgiving – well, any major holiday really – could be a major stressor for hosts. The pandemic – despite U.S. President Joe Biden’s assurances it’s “over” – has amplified that. To alleviate some of the pressure, we asked experts to weigh in how to host a safe and fun gathering with a minimum of stress and worry. The overriding message is clear: Embrace the re-establishment of connections but don’t go overboard.

Canada’s Kitchen: The country’s next star chefs share their favourite feel-good recipes

Go with the flow and ask for help

Go with the flow and ask for help

Whether you are cooking your first Thanksgiving dinner or have been the go-to host for years, Claire Sutton, a Vancouver-based life coach and counsellor, says it can be stressful to be at the culinary helm. To lessen your anxiety and worry, start with keeping the menu simple, invite people who get along and don’t be afraid to ask for help (preferably from those who will encourage you and follow directions).

“Planning a menu, as well as all the other Thanksgiving logistics, can leave you depleted,” Sutton says. “Delegating takes some of the burden off you and it makes your company feel good because they’ve contributed. Don’t be a whirling dervish, trying to do everything yourself. You’ll only make yourself and your guests more stressed.”

As host, Sutton adds there are two truths you must accept: Preparing Thanksgiving dinner is a lot of work and not everything will go according to plan. “Things come up. Personalities clash. As much as we want everyone to get along, you just never know what will set some people off.”

“What we are all craving right now is human connection, not judgment and not criticism,” she adds. “The key to a stress-free Thanksgiving is to focus on what’s working as opposed to what’s not working. And to remember to be grateful that the world has opened up again and we’re all together.”

What’s the secret to a perfectly roasted turkey?

Take it easy in the kitchen

Take it easy in the kitchen

The key to hosting loved ones, without feeling overwhelmed, is to give yourself enough time to plan out as many details as possible so you don’t feel overworked the day of. For Toronto cookbook author Bonnie Stern, that means prepping little-by-little each day so you’re not scrambling at the last minute, including making dishes such as a vegetarian casserole (great for the non-meat eaters) or mashed potatoes ahead of time (“With enough sour cream, butter or milk they are delicious, even reheated.”)

She also advocates freezing many of the sides, including appetizers (again, she often sticks with vegetarian options so non-carnivores have more to nibble on) as well as the cranberry sauce and even the gravy. “I used to turn myself inside out, trying to make everything fresh and from scratch, spending a fortune on flowers, and wanting the house to look perfect,” says Stern, who just released a new cookbook called Don’t Worry, Just Cook: Delicious, Timeless Recipes for Comfort & Connection. “My daughter Anna [Rupert, who co-wrote the cookbook] would watch me and say, ‘Why are you making this so difficult for yourself?’ ”

“I’ve learned that it doesn’t have to be fancy and I don’t need to spend a lot of money,” adds Stern, who has ditched expensive flowers for her centrepiece and now arranges mason jars filled with sprigs of herbs (rosemary and sage are hardy and won’t wilt) that she grows in her garden. “I was notorious for wanting to be in total control of my own dinner. Now, if people offer to bring something, I accept,” she adds.

Ten memorable wines ideal for Thanksgiving gatherings

She asks non-cooks to bring things such as sparkling water, fruit juice or a store-bought dessert. For the at-home chefs in the crowd, she might take them up on an offer to bring a vegetable dish or an appetizer. Stern always, however, has a backup. “With COVID still hanging around, you have to plan for last-minute cancellations. The things that people volunteer to bring should not be essential. For instance, I always have ice cream and brownies in the freezer. I make sure, as best I can, to have contingencies.”

As for the meal showpiece – the turkey – she always buys fresh. Her preference the past few years has been to serve a spatchcock turkey or chicken, which is butterflied and flattened (a butcher will do it for you by cutting out the backbone). “A traditional turkey can take hours to cook in the oven, whereas I can cook a 15- to 17-pound spatchcock turkey in an hour and a half and it cooks more evenly.” Another advantage is you don’t have to stuff this type of bird.

“I put the stuffing on the bottom of the pan with the turkey on top,” Stern says. “The juices go into the stuffing, some parts will be soft, while the edges will be crispier – so your guests can have their preference.”

How long can I store my Thanksgiving leftovers?

Add decor without going over budget

Add décor without going over budget

Like any holiday, Thanksgiving can be expensive to host. This year, it’s going to be pricier than usual as inflation, as well as supply chain disruptions, continue to play havoc with the availability and cost of goods. Jack Lochhead, a Toronto interior designer, recommends taking stock of what you already have. “Make it easier on yourself – and save money, too – by using what you have on hand,” Lochhead says. “If you do have to purchase new decor, don’t go overboard.”

This is the first large family dinner he and his partner have hosted since the pandemic began and they are welcoming 15 to their cottage near Campbellford, Ont. Both men love to entertain – and they go “all out” – but Lochhead says he always has a budget in mind and tries to stick to it by figuring out ahead of time where he wants (or needs) to spend money (he always allots more for a fresh turkey), and where he can get away with spending less.

“If you’re creative, and you like to give yourself a challenge, you’ll be amazed how great you can make your place look, smell and feel without spending too much,” says Lochhead, who prior to launching his own staging company, Lochhead & Associates, was general manager of Restoration Hardware in Toronto. “I always find decorating gems at dollar and discount stores as well as HomeSense.”

He plans to dress the table first with a plain white cloth, then down the centre (lengthwise) he is laying white birch branches (from Sheridan Nurseries) with leaves scattered throughout. “Fresh leaves from your yard work great but this year I’m using plastic leaves I found at Giant Tiger, which look fantastic. Plus, they make the cleanup easier.” Then he’s adding some small gourds, hydrangea from his garden and finally some tea lights (silver-leafed on the outside with a deep burnt orange on the inside, which he found at HomeSense). Each place setting will also have a baby pumpkin with his guest’s names written on a piece of paper slipped into an incision he makes close to the stem.

As for the outdoor decor, he’s applying that same frugal ingenuity to a wreath for the front door, which he plans to make from a circular base from the dollar store, some hydrangea and vibrantly coloured branches of leaves he’ll find in their yard. “We’re also pulling out our blow-up Marks & Spencer turkey – which hasn’t been out since 2019. I always say to people, ‘Don’t be afraid to add a bit of kitsch to your celebration. Trust me, it’s often those funny little quirks that people remember most.’ ”

Keep the conversation flowing, gracefully

Keep the conversation flowing, gracefully

Even before the pandemic, Thanksgiving could be an emotional minefield for many families where old arguments – political, emotional or otherwise – would inevitably resurface. COVID threw another curve ball into the mix. As we all tried to come to terms with the enormity of the virus – and how best to deal with it – many close relationships fell apart.

Julia Samuel, one of Britain’s leading psychotherapists, says one of the best ways for hosts to manage family members who can’t see eye-to-eye is to accept that tensions could spill over – and to be ready for it. “Most people will have had their own personal lockdown story and experience,” says Samuel, author of the new book (available here in November) called Every Family Has a Story: How We Inherit Love and Loss. “It helps for the host, and everyone joining in, to recognize, listen and be open to everyone’s different experience.

“For instance, some people may be nervous coming into your home, while others may be, ‘Oh gosh, what are you making such a fuss about?’ The main thing to remember is there is no right way or wrong way to feel about the pandemic. Everyone should try their best to respect each other’s feelings as well as personal boundaries.”

Samuel suggests making a list of all the ways your family triggers negative feelings. Identifying those patterns, she says, may help you recognize them before they spin out of control. She recommends “having a little conversation with people beforehand, a prescreening if you will,” to gauge the temperature of the crowd coming in. If you figure out where conflict is likely to arise, you might be able to pre-empt a disagreement by saying something like: ‘Perhaps we try not to bring that up because you know it winds mom up. Let’s just talk about it another time.’ ”

However, if a war of words ensues, the best way to defuse a fight is to “name it” – in other words you can say something like, ‘We’ve had this same argument for 10 years, isn’t there something else we can talk about?’ ” Samuel suggests. “That usually makes everyone stop and think.”

If no one listens, then the best option is to politely disengage. “Too often, we slip back into these roles we’ve carved out for ourselves – whether it’s rescuer, pacifier or bully,” Samuel says. “Break that pattern by going into the kitchen to do some cleaning up or play a game with the kids … what you need is a pause and a deep breath, which will give you time to figure out what you want to do or say. Then you can step back in with more sensitivity and clarity.”

To keep the peace, Samuel likes to have neutral topics of conversation at the ready, such as what was your favourite memory of the Queen? Have you watched a great TV series lately or read a good book? She also advises being as up-to-date as possible with family member’s lives. “For instance, if your nephew hasn’t worked in six months, you don’t want to ask, ‘What’s new on the job front?’ ” Be sensitive and informed, so you don’t unwittingly trigger someone.

Air out any COVID-19 concerns

Air out any COVID-19 concerns

Thankfully, because of vaccines, the worst of the pandemic is hopefully behind us. As the World Health Organization’s director-general noted recently “the end is in sight.”

However, the virus is still out there, so epidemiologist Raywat Deonandan says those who are nervous about transmitting or contracting the virus can make their Thanksgiving a whole lot more enjoyable by establishing some very clear “rules of engagement” for their guests. And Deonandan says the best way to protect yourself is to ask guests who have COVID/cold/flu symptoms, not to come to reduce “a great deal of risk.”

“And while it might seem weird that you have some restrictions in your home when there are none in the rest of society, that is your prerogative,” says the associate professor at the University of Ottawa. “Obviously, we are in a very different situation than two years ago when people were having Thanksgiving in their garage. Fears are less. But you still don’t want to spread the cold, flu or virus especially if you have multiple people coming to your home under one roof.”

Do I need an air purifier for indoor entertaining at this stage of the pandemic?

Inviting people who are updated on their vaccinations also helps. “There is a narrative that the vaccinations don’t reduce transmissions any more, and that is true to some extent,” Deonandan says. “But if you have four doses [of vaccine] you’re swimming in neutralizing antibodies” – which goes a long way to giving peace of mind to guests and hosts who might still be nervous being in large groups of people.

Plan your weekend with our Good Taste newsletter, offering wine advice and reviews, recipes, restaurant news and more. Sign up today.