Countdown to Turkey Day 2009: The Soft Menu Plan

Heather says:

Yay! Another pen and paper exercise or maybe if you’re wired weird and serving a bunch of people it’ll be a Google spreadsheet. I’m still being teased for that, if you must know.

Today’s exercise is not the final menu. This one has three versions, your ideal Thanksgiving dinner, the one that would make everyone happy (you know with Granny’s Waldorf Salad, Aunt Teppy’s Green Bean Casserole, etc), and then the compromise that is the reality of the holiday. On the compromise menu make sure you include at least one item that will bring you joy. Know full well as you add that item to your list that everyone else may hate it, but that does not matter; add it to the list anyway.

Thanksgiving spread

When planning a menu for a large meal, look for flavor ties between dishes to create a flow. Take a peek at the spreadsheet and I’ll explain some of them. The Cajun seasoning of the turkey is part of the sausage of the cornbread dressing and sausage is also in the collards. I swapped out the pecans for almonds in the apple, sage, cranberry dressing to tie it with both the broccoli salad and the green beans.  Cranberries are in the sauce -duh- the apple, sage, cranberry dressing, and in the broccoli salad.  This works best if there are very different textures with the involved dishes. Crisp turkey skin, contrasted with soft dressing, or the crispness of stir-fried green beans next to the soft baked feel of the apples in the other dressing. It’s not the easiest technique for me to explain, so feel free to ask questions in the comments. Not every dish in your menu has to fit the flow, but it’s best if they don’t come from too far afield. If it seems out of place, see if there is a way to alter it slightly so it carries some component of the other dishes. In my example the mashed potatoes receive turkey gravy and the macaroni and cheese was topped with  bacon (also in the broccoli salad) and green onions (onion flavor was in many of the dishes).

Have fun! Of course, maybe I’m the weirdo here who enjoys thinking about food almost as much as eating it.


  1. Angela on November 5, 2009 at 4:59 am

    I am not going home for Thanksgiving this year, I would not make anything if I was going home (one year I learned there was a difference between sweat potatoes and yams and I have yet to live it down). We are going some where and that person asked for a goose. We have gotten the goose and I am working on a way to cook it. That is my contribution this year and we are hoping it turns out alright.

    • HeatherSolos on November 5, 2009 at 12:09 pm

      I know what part of the country you're in. Who actually had a real yam? I've never eaten goose is it darker like duck?

      • knitaddict on November 5, 2009 at 3:47 pm

        My Dad always wanted to try a Christmas goose….we've never done it….because when I priced them, they're like $60 for a decent sized bird…and it STILL wouldn't have been big enough to feed my brood! LOL

        • Caroline on November 5, 2009 at 9:05 pm

          That's why you go out and shoot one. Seriously, my Dad and brother and bro-in-law go hunting every year on 26 Dec (and lots of other days) – and we have goose/duck/pheasant/dove all the time.

          There are a lot of wild game cookbooks – trust me my family has at least 4 – so I would think there would be tons of recipes on the web. Heather a series of 'wild game' recipies would be cool – not sure where you would get the ingredients though unless you have a hunter in the family

          Yes, goose is a darker meat like duck and it's really good if you roast it in a red wine sauce, I'll try and get the recipe from my mom.

          • HeatherSolos on November 5, 2009 at 11:39 pm

            No hunters, at least not locally. I have access to some venison, I think. Let me get a few other projects under control and I'll give it some thought.

      • Angela on November 6, 2009 at 6:24 pm

        Yup, it is dark like duck… she has not requested one of those too. I will let you know how those turn out.

  2. AGirlNamedMe on November 4, 2009 at 8:35 pm

    I've been planning Thanksgiving dinner for more than a month now. I have my spreadsheet (including shopping list) in Excel and that along with copies of all recipes in a folder on my computer desktop. I'm wound a little tight on this topic.

    We're deviating a little (but not completely) from the traditional….

    Pork Belly
    Cranberries Two Ways (one of which is from a can)
    Sage Dressing
    Mashed Potatoes
    Corn and Black Bean Salad

    Pecan Pie
    Impossible Coconut Pie


  3. Jenn on November 4, 2009 at 11:55 pm

    Oh, and try subbing yogurt for the mayo. Unsweetened, to get the same tang. Or go uber foodie and make your own mayo. It may change your mind about the stuff.

  4. Jenn on November 4, 2009 at 11:53 pm

    I'm always a guest for Thanksgiving but I'll be following along to plan a holiday brunch we're planning for mid-December.

  5. LoriW on November 4, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    Two things: I gotta have me some of that salad that's pictured near the right-hand side of the table. Is that the broccoli salad? And — may I have the bowl, please?

  6. Tinkerschnitzel on November 4, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    I'm not serving Thanksgiving this year, but this is the standard menu with my family.

    Turkey breast
    cornbread dressing
    homemade cranberry sauce (that stuff in the can scares me)
    mashed potatoes w/ gravy
    mac and cheese
    pea salad
    green beans with bacon
    pumpkin pie
    pecan pie

    Added this year: chocolate lavender cake, if I can get the recipe right

  7. Jenna on November 4, 2009 at 7:17 pm

    First of all, thanks for this feature. I'm actually following along with you and using your tips to get ready for Thanksgiving, so I wanted to give you a shoutout for that.

    I'm going to try this exercise, especially since I cook for a group of "orphans" every year. I stick to very traditional southern foods, but it might be good to think of different things to do.

    For instance, the usual menu is:
    Turkey and gravy
    Sausage stuffing
    Cream cheese mashed potatoes
    Candied yams
    Green bean casserole
    Fresh and canned cranberry sauce

    This year, I'm thinking of adding broccoli with cheese sauce for a guest, and I've been jonesing for macaroni and cheese, though not sure how I'd do that with a small oven. I also want to do something different with desserts, since I'm not so good with pies. Finally, it's crab season on the California coast – some fresh crab might be interesting.

    Anyway, thanks for helping me plan!

    • Heather on November 4, 2009 at 3:24 pm

      Jenna, if you look at the recipe index, there is both an oven and a stove top version of macaroni and cheese. I really like both.

    • ThatBobbieGirl on November 4, 2009 at 11:52 pm

      You could do the stove-top mac & cheese on this site – it's an adaptation from Alton Brown's, and it's really really REALLY good and so easy. And fast.

      • Jenna on November 10, 2009 at 4:35 am

        I was actually looking at that! I could top it with bread crumbs and pop it into the broiler at the last minute to crisp up the crumbs. Thanks!

        • Heather on November 10, 2009 at 8:51 am

          That would work very well. I like how creamy this version is.

  8. Shanele on November 4, 2009 at 6:59 pm

    You have to try pea casserole. I like it better than green bean casserole.

    • Heather on November 5, 2009 at 8:41 am

      What kind of peas? On one hand I think this might be good, but my brain keeps envisioning mushy canned peas and that can’t be right.

  9. Vera on November 4, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    Honestly, Sunday was the first time that I've seen a spreadsheet used that was, and I think it's great. I only have to make one or two dishes to bring to my MIL's. My husband will probably do a turkey. Anyway, I paln to make the cranberry stuffing, so now, at least I know what to get.

    • Heather on November 5, 2009 at 8:42 am

      You’ll also need some turkey stock, Better Than Bouillon makes a great turkey base if you don’t have it on hand. It’s hit or miss at Bi-Lo, but I can almost always find all the varieties at Publix.

  10. knitaddict on November 4, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    I menu plan with my Blackberry…I make a new note with the weekly plan and another for a shopping list, in case I need anything for a particular recipe. I don't ALWAYS do a menu…but I usually end up doing one around the end of the month (when we're scraping pennies to buy milk) and around the holidays…cause who wants the same kinds of foods around the holidays??? I usually try to make more ethnic meals around the holidays…so that when the actual holiday comes, we will TOTALLY be ready for some good old-fashioned comfort food!

    Usual Thanksgiving/Christmas menu (and everything's gluten free!)
    Deep fried turkey
    Spiral sliced ham
    Mashed potatoes
    Garlic cheese grits casserole
    Broccoli casserole
    Sweet potato casserole
    Cornbread dressing
    This year: pumpkin pie and chess pie
    A big menu….but I cook for 10 people….and yes, I'm doing it this year too…even though I'll be 8 days from my due date! :O

    • Heather on November 5, 2009 at 8:44 am

      My stepfather usually does a ham on Thanksgiving, too. We do pumpkin and pecan pies, usually. I’m hoping to get a pumpkin, pecan, and apple pie recipe up this year. I also am going to get a gluten free pie dough recipe up.

  11. Chris on November 4, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    The broccoli salad can it be made without mayo? I HATE HATE! mayo, but is a good sub?

    • HeatherSolos on November 5, 2009 at 12:13 am

      I totally hate mayo, too. Make it several hours before and the mayo taste completely disappears. My pal Heidi (@carolinadreamz) can attest to how much I hate mayo as can my husband. My sisters used to microwave mayo sandwiches when they were little and the thought of that smell makes me want to lose my lunch.

  12. CJ McD on November 4, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    Don't worry about being teased for using a spread sheet. Do whatever works for you.

  13. Heather B. on November 4, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    Is it weird to Excel your menu plan? Really? I do it weekly. 🙂 But, my husband is an IT guy, so the nerdy techyness doesn't really register with him. 😛

  14. Eugene Mah on November 4, 2009 at 1:38 pm

    you're not alone in your weirdo-ness. i have to admit though, connecting flavours between dishes isn't something that had occurred to me. Makes perfectly logical sense.

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