This year, Thanksgiving for many Americans is going to look a bit different, and more intimate, as the coronavirus pandemic limits family gatherings. For many, Thanksgiving usually means pulling up to the home of family or friends with a pie and maybe some wine in tow; but now, thanks to social distancing efforts, some will instead be tasked with preparing their own holiday meal for the first time.

It sounds like it could be a disaster in the making for some first-timers, so Cheddar reached out to some experts to help you get through a holiday unlike any other. 

What's For Dinner?

So, what’s so hard about preparing such an elaborate meal? The experts say getting a hold on timing, confidence, and a boost of extra energy are all essential to not burning the house down. 

Global Master Chef Karl Guggenmos said the work actually needs to begin before Thanksgiving Day: Creating a plan before diving into cooking is key to a successful meal.

“Organize everything you plan to cook with in advance. This includes food, ingredients, equipment, and utensils. Write a task list with a timeline for each [dish] based on the task at hand and the recipes,” Guggenmos told Cheddar.

Pro tip from the Master Chef: bake your pies and cakes ahead of the big day! It will save you time and energy. “Time management is important. No, everything does not have to be cooked the day of,” Guggenmos added.

“Use Proven Recipes and Follow Them…”

That’s exactly what one new mom and Delaware public school teacher plans to do. Martine Stanford will be skipping the larger family festivities this year because of COVID-19 concerns. "Timers, for sure” will be part of her arsenal for conquering her first attempt at cooking for Thanksgiving. 

“My dad is the chef at my family’s home so I’m just pretty nervous about meeting those standards of how he seasons the meat and how long he cooks it,” she said.

Stanford said while she isn’t the best cook, it’s an exciting time to be able to prepare a holiday meal for her own family at home.

For Guggenmos, simplicity will also make the task less daunting, especially if a new cook is using “proven recipes” and follows them to a T.

Some experienced home cooks might say, “Cooking rice? No problem. Preparing a salad? That’s easy,” but now, they are facing uncharted territory when it comes to the crown jewel of the feast: the Thanksgiving turkey. 

There are options out there that can help new turkey cooks present a picture-perfect bird. 

Weighing Your Turkey Day Options

Two food industry heavy hitters, Butterball and Whole Foods Market, have adjusted their typical holiday rollouts to make meal prep as easy as possible.

While the pandemic has forced even Butterball’s most trusted turkey experts to work from home, they are still committed to guiding cooks through what can be an intimidating process on the Butterball hotline. 

The bunch operates on Butterball’s “4-T” method that acts as a guide to roasting the perfect bird. They lay out four simple steps new cooks should follow: 

Whole Foods, meanwhile, is running a very unique promotion for the holiday this year, with its Turkey Protection Plan. How does it work? It’s pretty simple. If a customer purchases a Whole Foods brand turkey and they make a flub at home -- dry, burned, or undercooked -- they’re fully insured for a $35 gift card from the chain with proof of purchase.

Roasting the Perfect Bird

Theo Weening, vice president of meat and poultry at Whole Foods Market, said the idea behind the insurance plan is to “give customers an added boost of confidence in the kitchen,” enabling them to go for it while knowing Whole Foods has their back in case things go downhill. 

“Because shopping early and being prepared are essential to conquering the biggest meal of the year, the Thanksgiving Protection Plan encourages customers to do just that,” he said.

Before you find yourself rushing back to the market with proof of your turkey flub, though, Weening suggests new cooks monitor their birds for perfection because he said the number one mistake people make in the kitchen is overcooking.

“To know when your turkey is cooked, I recommend placing an instant-read meat thermometer in the meatiest part of the leg -- just make sure you don’t hit the bone, or you’ll get an artificially high reading,” Weening continued.

Of note, the program is in partnership with Progressive Insurance, and eligibility for coverage ends this Sunday, November 22.

The chain is even looking out for its vegan customer base and has rolled out its vegan holiday menu. Customers can place an order on the website at least two days in advance, pick up their meal in-store, and avoid the stove altogether.

While gatherings are going to be smaller this year, taking steps to maintain health and safety is still important, especially for those preparing food. Guggenmos left a few tips for best food safety practices: wash hands and surfaces with microbial soap, use gloves when handling ready-to-eat food and change after each item, avoid cross-contamination, and keep food out of the temperature danger zone.

Updated November 23, 2020 at 11:21 am ET to clarify that only Whole Foods brand turkeys are eligible for the Thanksgiving Protection Plan.

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