Fast forward to Thanksgiving Day. Your loved ones are hungry, the kitchen is heating up, and the pressure is on. Are you prepared?

Many of us play into the dramatics of cooking the “perfect” holiday meal, when in reality, things don’t need to be nearly that difficult. “Good food doesn't have to be hard,” said Virginie Degryse, author of “Crave and Cook,” a holiday cookbook published through Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP)—Amazon’s self-publishing service that helps independent writers publish ebooks and paperbacks.

Degryse started sharing recipes on her blog to help her friends find more joy in cooking with simple tips and recipes. “I wanted to show people that simple food can be delicious and can be done in very little time,” she said. After her blog began to take off, she decided to self-publish her KDP cookbook to help more people prepare simple, tasty recipes over the holidays.

Virginie Degryse's holiday cookbook, Crave and Cook, is available on Amazon.

“The holidays are a time when the family can sit down and share a nice meal,” Degryse said. “Plan ahead, put on some nice music, ask your loved ones for help, and enjoy the process.”

In our efforts to socially distance and stop the spread of COVID-19, many of us will be skipping big family get-togethers and cooking Thanksgiving dinner on our own for the first time. To help readers who are taking on cooking duties for the first time this year, we asked Degryse to answer some of the most commonly asked questions about cooking Thanksgiving dinner and compiled her responses in the Q&A below. We also added several questions specific to entertaining smaller crowds in 2020. Take a look to find ideas and tips to help you prepare for this year’s feast—whatever it may look like for you.

Where do I start?

Anything that can be done ahead of time takes away some of the stress. Here’s my recommended game plan:

  • Monday: If you haven’t yet, head to the store to get your ingredients and drinks before the stores sell out. This is also a great time to pick up containers for the leftovers.
  • Tuesday: Prep your sides. Start the mashed potatoes and wash and chop your veggies a few days in advance. This will make it easier to throw everything in the oven on Thanksgiving.
  • Wednesday: Prep the stuffing so it’s ready to bake tomorrow.
  • Thursday: Bake all of your prepped items. Take the turkey out of the fridge to warm up one hour before you plan to roast it—it needs to be at room temperature.

How do you create a Thanksgiving menu?

It depends on how many people will be there and if there are any food restrictions. For many who will be serving smaller groups this year, taking requests could be a great place to start. I recommend some tasty sides, lots of veggies, and a big salad. As for dessert, it’s easiest to pick two or three favorites and stick to those.

How do you time everything out?

The turkey will take up most of the oven space, so it’s important to time out your dishes. You can also recruit other appliances if you have them—I use my toaster oven for smaller things. Veggies like brussels sprouts can be cooked on the stove, and of course, salads can be prepped in the morning and tossed last minute. Since I make most of the dishes a day or two ahead of time, things don’t get hectic until about one hour before the turkey is done. This is when I assemble everything, reheat what I need to reheat, and start plating dishes. I cannot stress enough that the more you prep, clean, cut, and cook ahead of time, the easier things will be.

An image of brussels sprouts with walnuts on them in a plate sitting on a cutting board with lemon slices next to them.
Brussels sprouts with lemon and walnuts

What temperature should you cook a turkey at?

Preheat your oven to 425F. Start on the high temperature for the first 30-40 minutes then lower the temperature to 325F for the remaining time.

How long do you cook a turkey?

The general rule of thumb is 20 minutes per pound.

Where do you put the thermometer in the turkey?

I put the thermometer in the middle of one of the breasts and in the thigh as well.

What temperature indicates the turkey is done?

The breast should be somewhere around 165F and the thigh closer to 180F.

Any tips to keep the turkey from getting dry?

I always heat up a couple of cups of chicken broth on my stove and baste my turkey every 20-25 minutes.

Do you need a recipe for turkey? 

I like to keep the turkey as simple as possible, there are already so many sides, sauces, and dishes going on that simply seasoning with some fresh herbs in cavity is enough.

Do you have any recommendations for serving turkey to a smaller crowd?

You can easily find turkey breasts with the bone in and skin on—these have more flavor than breasts without the skin and bone. This option is smaller than a whole turkey and works better for a smaller crowd. Of course, if you still have leftovers, they can actually be the best part of cooking the meal (see below for tips on what to do with leftover turkey).

What are some Thanksgiving side dishes every meal should include? 

I recommend good veggies—like brussels sprouts or green beans—a salad for sure, and sweet potatoes or mashed potatoes.

Do you have any creative / unique side dish recipes you’d recommend?

I love chestnut purée, which is quite unusual, and pairs really nicely with turkey and gravy. I also love fresh endives salad with apples and walnuts.

An image of stoemp, a popular dish in Belgium that mixes potatoes with vegetables.
"Stoemp" is a popular dish in Belgium that mixes vegetables with mashed potatoes.

Do you have any tips for updating some of the standard Thanksgiving sides?

In Belgium, where I grew up, people mix all kinds of veggies with mashed potatoes and call it a “stoemp” (a mix of broccoli, carrots, endives, and cauliflower). Preparing this dish is an easy way to pack extra veggies into the meal. You could even spruce up your stuffing by loading it with veggies.

Do you have any recipes you could share for unique Thanksgiving desserts? 

My mom makes a pear tart and a pine nut tart that are out of this world. The recipe comes from the renowned French pastry chef, the late Gaston Lenôtre. I also make a tasty pumpkin cheesecake and a pecan pie.

How about easy-to-make desserts?

My recipe for chocolate pot de crème is super easy to make. Affogato (just vanilla ice cream with coffee) and baked apples with crème fraiche are also easy dessert options.

An image of chocolate pudding in small glasses sitting on a cutting board with chocolate and a slice of coconut.
Chocolate pot de crème

Do you have any tips for what to do with leftovers?

I always get a bunch of takeout containers ahead of time so I can stay organized—Amazon is a great place for these, of course. I use some of the leftover turkey to make turkey stock the next day, and keep the rest around for my kids to make turkey sandwiches. Stuffing, cranberry sauce, and gravy can also make for an excellent post-Thanksgiving brunch. I’ve made savory waffles with these leftovers by mixing eggs and a bit of flour with the stuffing. When cooked, I spooned them with cranberry sauce and gravy for extra flavor.

Ask Alexa for more Thanksgiving cooking tips.