Fearless Thanksgiving: Homemade vs. Purchased

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Story by Kathleen Flinn, with excerpts from Buy the Butter, Make the Bread by Jennifer Reese

I may be the only person on Earth who likes grocery stores. Oddly fascinated by them, actually. I can spend hours in a supermarket, marveling over this new perverse concoction or that, engaging in some passive cart voyeurism. The one time of year I don’t enjoy the aisles, however, is around Thanksgiving. Harried people make uninteresting subjects, the lines get long and a general haze of anxiety sets over the whole place.

I asked three dozen food writers on their thoughts about how to make Thanksgiving stress-free. A common refrain? Make lists.

Now, here’s the thing about lists. You often don’t think of things that ought to be on the list. To help you out, I found two great shopping lists, one prepared by Real Simple magazine and a more generic list. You won’t need or want everything on either, but either can be a great starting point.

First, you’ll want to make a menu. Take a look at our menu planner here. Then determine the number of guests.

How much to buy?
Big meals bring on big opportunities for food waste. Sure, that big box store might sell 25 pound sacks of potatoes, but if you’re feeding eight people, you don’t need that many. Good Housekeeping has an excellent chart on planning servings per person.

All the food writers I surveyed agreed its easier to split up this shopping business. Try to do two main shopping trips, one week before the holiday and a smaller excursion a couple of days beforehand, preferably no later than Tuesday.

Here’s what you can safely purchase in advance or in bulk a week or so before (provided you’ve got the space): Onions, potatoes, carrots, celery, garlic, shallots, root vegetables such as turnips and sweet potatoes, cheeses, nuts, spices, crackers, packaged stock, flour, lard, canned vegetables (such as pumpkin), ice cream, butter, frozen vegetables (such as peas), fresh or canned cranberries, eggs, a frozen turkey (it will need time to thaw or not – see the video below) and of course, paper goods such as napkins.

Wait to buy: salad greens, dairy items such as cream, fresh fruit for pies, bread and rolls, fresh sausage, fresh herbs, seafood, fresh mushrooms, more perishable fresh vegetables such as green beans or tomatoes, or a fresh turkey (unless it specifically has a sale date after Thanksgiving and you’ve got the storage space)

What to buy?:
Turkey – fresh or frozen? What supermarket brand tastes best? See our Turkey FAQ.

2011-06-MustRead-LgTnOn other matters, I consulted Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese, the creator of the TipsyBaker.com. The gist of her book was to evaluate the relative value and hassle factor of making something from scratch at home versus buying a shortcut such as a boxed or canned version. It’s a great book thanks to her objectiveness (she’s a former journalist) and pragmatism. She looks at the pros and cons of each option and suggests whether to make it or buy it. In a supermarket, when you’re staring down the Stove Top and that non-dairy whipped creamer, keep these comments in mind.

Boxed stuffing mix
Make it, Reese suggests.
Why? “It takes maybe five minutes longer to make scratch stuffing” than to make it from a mix. In her cost comparison, she found homemade stuffing cost about .99 cents to make, while Pepperidge Farm cost .89 cents per cup. Buy some bread and let it go stale instead.

Cranberry Sauce
Reese is agnostic on this subject. I personally think it’s so easy to make cranberry relish and it can be done ages ahead of the meal, so why not? Here’s my recipe. But lightning will not strike if you buy the can and slice it up.

Mashed Potatoes
No one can deny that peeling potatoes is a hassle. Cost-wise, factoring in the cream and butter, homemade potatoes came out at .40 cents per cup, Betty Crocker Potato Buds at .50 cents per cup. Prep tip: You can make mashed potatoes the day prior, and then rewarm them in a microwave and then hold warm in pan covered with plastic wrap in a pan simmering with water. See the recipe and video on making perfect mashed potatoes.

Pre-washed greens, yes. Pre-packaged salad “kits?” Not a good bargain. Just keep it simple and seasonal. Toss together some feta or bleu cheese, some diced apple or pear, a few crumbled walnuts or pine nuts with some croutons and top with an easy vinaigrette (see below).

toasted bread croutonsCroutons
Make them. “It’s ludicrous to the point of heartbreaking that factories are devoted to manufacturing pellets of stale-tasting bread…” Reese notes. Here’s an easy recipe from Alice Currah at SavorySweetLife.  You just need to buy some bread, cut it up, toss it with some olive oil or butter, a few herbs and salt, then and toast it in the oven.

Anyone who has read my book knows I’m no fan of pre-made vinaigrette. Rather than pick up a bottle of vinaigrette, consider whether you’ve got decent olive oil and some vinegar at home. Then, watch my video on the basics of making it.

Pie crust
“Your first 10 pie crusts may look like kindergarten art projects, but so long as the edges are presentable… no one who eats the pie will know or care.” Reese acknowledges it takes more time, but the resulting flavor is worth it. A homemade crust made with butter and lard (a la Kate McDermotts recipe) cost about $1, while pre-made crust start at $1.70 for store brands. I’ve seen them top out at $3.79 each in a local co-op.

Whipped cream
Make it. “Although it’s fun to spray and makes an exciting sound, most aerosolized cream tastes fake,” Reese notes. Here’s a recipe for whipped cream: Put a cup into a bowl, add a bit of sugar and whip with a whisks or a fork or electric beaters until soft peaks forms.

Nothing beats homemade gravy for taste, but in my Firehouse Challenge, gravy from a jar was the closest in flavor. I’m not a fan of it myself, but if you use a jar of gravy as a base and then add in some pan drippings, no one is going to tell you pack your knives and go home.

Let’s not forget that Thanksgiving is a time for sharing. People want to help you out on the holidays. Don’t feel you’re shirking any duties by delegating a few dishes, or asking people to pick something up.

Years ago, when living in London, I hosted Thanksgiving. Pumpkin pie puree isn’t exactly a standard supermarket staple in the UK and I couldn’t find it anywhere. I planned an apple pie just in case, but on a whim asked my friend if she knew where to find some. “Leave it to me,” she said. I did. She showed up at my office the day before dinner with a can of it — from the food halls at Harrod’s. It was crazy expensive, about $6 a can, but it was so worth it. As I made the pie, I thought of my friend passing the famed caviar counter in pursuit of her pumpkin. She talked about it through dinner, and years later, we have a great story. I don’t even remember how the pie turned out. It doesn’t matter.

Thanksgiving isn’t about looking good, but enjoying the good things in your life.

About katflinn

Kathleen Flinn is the author of "The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry," "The Kitchen Counter Cooking School" and "Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good." All are published by Viking/Penguin.


  1. Hi, just wanted to say, I loved this article. It was inspiring. Keep on posting!


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