Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, no question about it. All the togetherness -- and all of the food -- and nothing to wrap (or unwrap) but leftovers.
Big gatherings are a major source of stress for many people, though, and for busy people who already have plenty on their plates, cooking a 20-pound turkey and dealing with guests from out-of-town is enough to bring on the agita.
Relax. Take a deep breath. Here are a few tips for a low-stress -- maybe even "stress-free"? -- Thanksgiving, whether you're the guest or the host.
If you're spending the holiday elsewhere:
1.) Ask your host or hostess what you can bring. If they say, "Oh, nothing. Just yourselves!" ignore them and bring something anyway -- just make sure it's easy to consume, so it doesn't end up gathering dust (and adding stress). A bottle or two of wine (The Wine Trials can help you choose), something for brunch the next day (even if you won't be staying the night), or an easy-to-serve hors d'oeuvre are good choices.
2.) Keep the kids entertained. There are plenty of travel toys to keep tots happy, and all of them work just as well indoors as they do in the car. Worst case scenario: Bring your kids' favorite DVDs and a portable DVD player.
3.) Offer to help. Your hostess may not need an extra set of hands in the kitchen beforehand, but chances are there'll be plenty to do once the dishes have been cleared.
If you're hosting Thanksgiving at your place:
1.) Know thyself. Are you the kind of cook who goes for the tried-and-true when company comes? Or do you pick up a cookbook and try something new? Either way, figure out what you want to serve well before the big day, so that you have plenty of time to shop and don't have to deal with the added stress of crowds at the store.
2.) Outsource the bird. Many high-end grocery stores offer ready-made Thanksgiving dinners with all the fixings; make the fixings yourself, but consider having them do the turkey. It may take up a bit of space in your fridge, but it'll free up the oven on Thanksgiving Day, and you'll be grateful to have one less thing to juggle.
3.) Freeze the baked goods. Breakfast goodies (pumpkin bread), dinner staples (rolls), and traditional desserts (apple pies, cakes, and pecan pies) freeze well, so if you're inclined to bake, you can do so days or even weeks before the big event. Don't freeze your pumpkin pie, though; the filling gets watery, which makes the crust gummy, which isn't a stress reducer at all.
4.) Do as much as you can in advance. There are many, many wonderful side dishes for which you can do most of the cutting and chopping and measuring ahead of time.
5.) Don't sweat the decor. I'm sure I'm not the only one with no time to decorate. You can create a lovely tablescape with a scattering of small pumpkins or gourds, a big bowlful of shiny red apples, a cluster of tapered candles, or even a vase of brightly colored (fake) fall foliage.
6.) Keep it simple. If you're feeding a large group of people, consider having a buffet rather than a traditional sit-down dinner. Don't knock yourself out with complicated appetizers; a plate of great cheeses and different types of crackers, bowls of spiced nuts and salty olives, or slices of a savory bread are just as good.
Need more information or ideas? Here's a round-up of Thanksgiving-related articles I've written for Work It, Mom!, just in time for Turkey Day!
Quick and easy Thanksgiving side dishes
A round-up of Thanksgiving guides online
A day-by-day Thankgiving planner (Bookmark it for next year!)
Thanksgiving on a budget: Do more with less
More than just turkey: Make the most of those Thanksgiving leftovers
Black Friday: Tips for scoring the best deals