There's no shortage of Thanksgiving recipes to motivate you to prepare Thanksgiving dinner. Still, your enthusiasm can fade when you get into the kitchen and realize all there is to do. I remember the first time I made a large Thanksgiving dinner. It was for my in-laws and some friends, we were 17 in total. I wanted to prepare everything myself, and of course, I wanted everything to be perfect. I didn't realize how much work it was going to be until I started navigating my way through a pile of new recipes. It was nerve-racking enough to cook so many dishes for the first time, but I was also worried about the timing. How was I supposed to warm everything and make gravy at the last minute? Thanksgiving should be fun, but I wasn't feeling it.
Although I love cooking, I was starting to wish this dinner was already over. Then I thought of my dad. He was from Italy and a fabulous cook. Although he never cooked a traditional Thanksgiving meal, the man was a magician in the kitchen, and I called on him for support. Sadly, he had already passed, so I looked up at the ceiling and said, ”Hey Dad, if you can hear me, can you give me a hand?” I was half serious but seriously wishing he could help.
I don’t know what happened next exactly, but everything shifted. I became calm and enjoyed the experience of preparing the meal. And I have to say I pulled off one of the most delicious meals. I was surprised at the miraculous shift from being stressed and overwhelmed to feeling capable and relaxed. I finished cooking while I listened to my favorite Vivaldi concerto and tackled one dish at a time without any worry about how it would turn out.
I wondered what caused this significant change in my attitude. Was my dad’s spirit in the kitchen with me, guiding me with his skill? Or was it the power of positive thinking as I imagined being supported and helped by my dad? Either way, my attitude changed for the better, and the meal turned out wonderfully. Everyone said it was spectacular as I sat back, watching them enjoy themselves.
Later, I thought more about what had happened to change my state from being stressed out to enjoying myself and cooking with ease. I have a theory that I’ve tested over the years. I believe the energy you put into something affects the result. If you think you will succeed, you will. If you think you will be relaxed and enjoy yourself, you will. I believe your energy goes into the food while you prepare it and that your family can feel this. I always say your food tastes better when you put your love into it. But even with a great attitude, we all need a little help in the kitchen, so I wrote this menu to help you create a remarkable and memorable Thanksgiving meal for your family. With ease.
Since that day in the kitchen 20 years ago, I have been preparing almost the same menu each year. The dishes are healthy and simple enough to please the kids yet sophisticated enough to please the most discerning palates. This menu is traditional, but I added a few French twists. You will see why when you read the menu. At the end, you will find the ultimate conversation starter. Great food is only half of the recipe for a deeply satisfying meal. The other half is the connection to family and friends.
Apéritif French Style
Serve one light and one heavier appetizer. The appetizer, or as we call it in France, the apéritif, is designed to entice your guests’ palates and appease their hunger without filling them up before the meal. Include a vegetable-based kid-friendly option, such as Crudité and Pesto, so the kids get their vegetables first. The vegetables may not stand a chance next to the turkey and stuffing.
This recipe has the classic Thanksgiving flavors with a hint of sage. The sage is aromatic and adds a surprising layer of flavor. It is rich in vitamins A and C and antioxidants. Use the leftover sage for an easy Italian pasta dish, Burro e Salvia, that takes just minutes to make.
Fresh is always best, which is evident when you taste cranberry sauce made with fresh cranberries and orange zest. The scent alone as the cranberries simmer with the orange zest is tantalizing, and they yield a robust flavor that is both tangy and sweet. Cranberry relish is incredibly easy to make at home. Once you try it, you’ll never go back to buying it.
A classic dish and likely more appealing to kids than the Brussels sprouts. However, if the kids pass on this side dish, you already won the “eat your vegetables” game with the appetizer and first course.
If you normally order your pies, try making them this year. These recipes are so easy you’ll be hooked on making them again year after year. You’ll see how easy it is to make this a fun family activity with the kids and start a family tradition.
Making whipped cream takes just minutes, and it’s superior to the store-bought versions. This one simple change to your menu will make a statement. Frequently when I serve homemade whipped cream, an adult or child comments, “I didn’t know you could make whipped cream. This is amazing.” If making whipped cream is not your norm, try it. You’ll see.
A Sweet Ending
The day before Thanksgiving last year, I overheard a woman telling her friend she was on her way to pick up Thanksgiving dinner from a local caterer. I was sad to learn a moment later that this meal was only for herself and her husband and not her children. I understood why after she told her friend she was not cooking because it was only herself, her spouse, and their children. Her children refused to eat anything but chicken nuggets. She said cooking wasn’t worth it. I wanted terribly to reach out to her and tell her to make dinner anyway.
Sharing a meal together is about more than the food. It’s about connecting. When you eat the same food, you share the same experience. Even if the fussy eaters only nibble on the turkey and a few crudités. Your senses are ignited, and you can feel and taste the same things. Our senses enhance our experiences and help us remember occasions and events. When we eat, all our senses are sparked, making sharing food together such a powerful way to connect.
Regardless of what is being served, even the fussy eaters won't want to miss the time at the table when you make it an occasion. Danielle’s son is proof.
“Even though my son, age 5, still won’t try any of the new foods that I offered at dinner [last night], when asked what was the best part of his day, his reply was family dinner. And that was after having spent the entire day in the pool for the first time this season! So even though he is still picky, I call that a huge win! Thank you!”
A fancy meal won’t define the success of the holiday; a simple homemade meal, being together, and the conversation will.
Make a simple menu of turkey or roast chicken, mashed potatoes or puree, a soup or vegetable side, and pie. Serve with a great conversation, and you will create a meaningful and memorable experience for your family. You can even eat in the garage if there isn't enough room in your house. As a bonus, your house will be cleaner.
The Best Conversation Starter
Starting a family dinner conversation is not always easy. Children often reply to questions as conversation starters with grunts and mumbles or an “OK.” This next tip will help you start an exciting and more meaningful dinner conversation with children and adults.
Tell a story. Everyone is used to being asked questions, but a story that’s an attention grabber. Pick a topic and tell a story. After, others will be eager to share their own story. Some excellent story starters are:
Your greatest adventure
The most gratifying accomplishment of your life
What the first day of school was like for you
What is on your bucket list
Telling stories is also a fantastic way for the younger generation to connect with the older generation. They can learn things they may not have uncovered yet. The stories will be entertaining and enlightening, but the most remarkable part is that you never know where they will take you.
For example, last week at our early Thanksgiving celebration, I used a topic I have had great success with, which is to tell a story about one of our greatest adventures. I told the story about when I spent a month on Sandy Cay, an island off the coast of the Bay Islands in Honduras. We didn’t have electricity or running water, and I cooked for ten people every day—including a turkey, by the way. Despite the slight worry about scorpions, I slept outside. The clarity of the sky and the stars were too irresistible. I told this story to 12 teenagers on Thanksgiving. The kids thought my adventure sounded cool and asked a few questions, but then the conversation fell flat when I asked that someone else share their best adventure story. For a moment, no one spoke until one kid piped up and said, “I have a story about the scariest thing that ever happened to me.”
Maybe the thought of not having electricity or Wi-Fi for a month scared them, but it sparked the gold. After the first boy told his scary story, almost everyone told a story. The kids were oohing and aahing at each other's narratives and laughing. The kids stayed at the table and told stories for 30 minutes. Quite an achievement for elusive teens who want to dine and dash in five minutes. I have no doubt they will remember this dinner for years to come.
This Thanksgiving, plan not only what you will cook but what you will talk about.