Thanksgiving is upon us. It’s worth mentioning that it is one of my favorite holidays. After all, what’s not to like? Get together with friends and family, eat good food, and unwind over a long, relaxing weekend. I know some like to host, prepare, and cook this feast more than others. I fall into the “others” category here. It’s a lot of work and it can be complicated! Take it from someone who truly struggled when I first started; everyone starts off with the same goal: an enjoyable gathering of friends and family. However, this can get lost in the morass of putting it together.
I’ve come a long way since the first Thanksgiving gathering I took responsibility for years ago. With that in mind, I’ll recount it here in the hopes that it helps calm anxieties for those embarking on this challenging assignment.
In order to prepare an appropriate feast and accommodating home, I recognized the first step was to actually know how many people were planning on coming. My home only had space for a small number of guests, but I could bring in more chairs and get extra food if needed. My approach to this involved getting all my close friends and family to RSVP. Of course, I did this electronically via a documentation template. This is what I made available to everyone:
[ ] Attending: ___ total guests (___ number vegetarian)
[ ] Not attending
Really simple, right? Well, when I began to get responses back, I realized this would be the start of a journey around variation and inefficiencies. Most used the template, but to my surprise, some used their own formatting and approach. For those using the template, it was straightforward to gather the information that would support planning. However, for those that used their own independent approach, it was a lot more variable. For example, two guests just wrote in free text “attending” without specifying the total number of guests. I could assume it was a single attendee, but I eventually reached out to ask for clarification. One guest even wrote back saying just, “I love Thanksgiving!” I had my work cut out for me.
I ended up spending extra time reaching out to select individual guests to get a more accurate estimation. This was crucial information and this extra investment of time, while inefficient, helped me better plan. Ultimately, all of those who didn’t use the template were older family members, who I learned were less familiar with how to use this newfangled documentation template technology. Chalk it up to experience, but ensure you create documentation templates that are easy to understand, but also utilized appropriately.
Shopping for a feast
I had a list of guests, but an empty menu. Buying a turkey is one thing, but getting ingredients for a multi-course meal is significantly more complex. I already knew how to make some of the classics like mac & cheese, but I was excited to learn how to master other Thanksgiving traditions. With the help of the internet, I compiled a list of “classic” dishes and curated an order set I could use to help facilitate grocery shopping. I felt this could save time for guests, but also keep the list of requests within my cost and time constraints for the occasion. I made the following order set available for guests:
While I appreciate varying tastes, I was surprised to look at the data! Of course, most people wanted some of the classics like turkey, mac & cheese, and apple pie. I’m glad I allowed guests to write in alternative requests. I had completely forgotten about mashed potatoes! This was easy enough to account for and surely I would remember to include that in the order set for next year.
However, did you know someone went outside of the order set and requested lobster? Lobster!? I had purposefully left this off because I didn’t think the dish was appropriate for Thanksgiving. As I dove deeper into the data, this guest was from out of the country and likely had never experienced a Thanksgiving meal before. The extra costs associated with preparing lobster from scratch were too much, so I needed to reach out to this guest and advise that crustaceans wouldn’t be on the menu. Maybe in future efforts, I’ll put lobster on the order set, but put instructions around it to say “do not order since we don’t have bandwidth to prepare it.”
I learned that using data from this order set could help me refine future iterations of the order set to decrease the number of extra writing guests had to do on an ad-hoc basis. Importantly, it could further decrease variation in requests and, ultimately, reduce the costs and burden on my time in preparing the meal.
Preparing the meal
I’d made it this far, but it was time to execute the complex task of orchestrating the food preparation. I knew I’d have the oven running all day, every stovetop spot taken at varying heat intensities, multiple cutting boards in use, and a refrigerator that could barely close. I mapped out a set of steps that would be needed to walk through the complicated set of actions.
I put in place several alarms as I made my way through each step:
Defrost the turkey, peel the sweet potatoes, boil the water…
The first alarm triggered as soon as I opened the refrigerator door to grab the broccoli.
This was a good reminder as I needed the stovetop for the mac & cheese and felt like I was running behind schedule. I returned to the refrigerator to grab the broccoli and continued through the additional steps:
Stuff turkey, season green beans, peel corn…
The second alarm triggered as soon as I put the turkey in the oven.
I honestly can’t remember why I put that alarm in. I think at some point I thought it would help remind me to not oversalt some dishes and not to add too much butter, but it was pretty useless now since all of that had been done already.
I returned to what I thought were the final steps as we approached showtime:
Slice the pie, garnish the mashed potatoes, reheat the soup …
Unfortunately, the second alarm distracted me and I never set an alarm for the turkey. Whoops.
Bringing it together
For those wondering, the Thanksgiving gathering did happen and I think everyone enjoyed it. To be honest, I was so exhausted from all of this work that I didn’t have any bandwidth or energy leftover to actually connect the event with the outcome that I really cared about at the outset. Sure, I spent extra money, was very inefficient with time, and ended up with, I’ll just say, “well done” food. However, at the end of the day, I delivered on what mattered most, a gathering where family and friends were able to come together and enjoy each other's company.
My main takeaway from the experience is that I now partner with a fantastic local restaurant around the planning and preparation for the Thanksgiving meal. They are experts in meal preparation and utilize specialized data and experience to appropriately plan, analyze, and successfully deliver results to households across my community. After calculating the time savings and accounting for supply costs, it even comes out to be less expensive overall. Of course, there will always be some who figure: “Well, I have an oven, a refrigerator, and hands, so I want to continue to do this myself,” even if this means less bandwidth to do what we all agree is most important, spending time with loved ones.
Hoping everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving and enjoys time with family and friends!