How to Cook a Big Feast in a Small Kitchen Without Losing Your Mind
Are your Thanksgiving ambitions larger than the size of your kitchen? No problem. I'll show you how to work it so you can make the biggest feast of the year in a small space, and save your sanity while you're at it.
My dream kitchen has endless work space, cavernous storage, double ovens, and a cooktop the size of Texas. But until that dream comes true—I'm looking at you, Mega Millions—I'm making do with my dollhouse-size kitchen. But over time, I've figured out how to work it more efficiently, especially when I'm hosting a big Thanksgiving dinner and doing most of the cooking myself. (That's just how I roll.) But even everyday meal prep goes more smoothly when you know how to work smart in the space you have.
Smart Cooking in a Small Kitchen
1. Get Organized
Make lists to give yourself a clear picture of what needs to be done and when. It might sound obsessive, but this planning strategy ensures nothing falls through the cracks, and that you're not scrambling at the last minute. Because we've all been there and it's no fun.
- Menu list. Break it down into recipes you can make ahead (side dishes and desserts) and recipes you make on the day (turkey).
- Cooking list. Plan when to prep make-ahead dishes, when to thaw frozen dishes, when to thaw the turkey, when to put the turkey in the oven, etc.
- Non-cooking list. Figure out when to clean, decorate, make a playlist, etc.
Related: Here's how to cook a full Thanksgiving meal in one day, with wine breaks built in.
I used to think I had to cook everything on Thanksgiving day for it to taste its best. Good thing I wised up to the fact that a lot of side dishes can be made anywhere from a day to a week to a month ahead without sacrificing taste or quality.
- Casseroles, soups, rolls, appetizers, and desserts are excellent make-and freeze candidates you can cook at your leisure in the month before Thanksgiving. Be sure to list when you need to take them out of the freezer to thaw.
- Gravy might come as a surprise on this make-ahead list, but think of the time and space you'll save if you don't have to wait until the turkey comes out of the oven to pull the gravy together. Make and freeze it ahead of time, thaw it overnight, and simply add pan juices when you heat it up. Brilliant!
- Mashed potatoes can be made and frozen ahead of time as long as you follow these how-to tips for making, freezing, and thawing mashed potatoes.
- Cranberry sauce can be make one or two days ahead and stored in the fridge; the flavor actually improves as it rests.
3. Make Space
It's important to give yourself more room to work so you don't feel so overwhelmed.
- Clean out the fridge to make room for storing fresh ingredients.
- Eat down the freezer to make room for make-and-freeze dishes.
- Clear countertops and put away small appliances until they're needed.
4. Prep Smart
Whether you're working on make-aheads or cooking on Thanksgiving day, these strategies will help keep ongoing kitchen clutter to a minimum.
- Measure what's needed for a recipe and put the package away immediately to keep countertops clear and usable.
- Group measured ingredients on a large sheet pan so everything can be easily moved out of the way if the space is needed. (And the space is always needed.)
- Chop ingredients like vegetables in batches. For example, if multiple recipes need onions, chop all the onions at the same time and store in zip-top bags to take up a lot less room in the fridge. Then just measure out what you need as you cook.
5. Timing is Everything
Time your dishes so not everything has to be in the oven or on the stove at once.
- Write down the start and end times when a dish goes in the oven or on the stove so you don't lose track if you're multitasking. (Or taking a wine break.)
- Timing tip: Thawed casseroles and other side dishes can heat up in the oven during the 20-30 minute resting time after the turkey comes out of the oven and before you can carve it.
6. Keep It Clean
Wash up as you go, whether you're prepping or cooking. Seriously. This is key.
- Beg, bribe, or otherwise induce a friend or partner to clean up while you cook. Sanity saved.
These are the essential tools that create order out of chaos, no matter what size meal you're cooking.
- Nesting bowls sized from very small to very large to hold all the prep as you cook.
- Half-sheet baking pans to keep ingredients organized and countertops clean.
- Kitchen timer to do your remembering for you.
- Over-the-sink cutting board for instant extra prep space.
- Picnic cooler to store vegetables or drinks if the fridge fills up with meats or other perishables.
Related: 5 Space Savers for a Small Kitchen
When I follow my own advice, I can stay reasonably sane and my kitchen looks tidy even after all that cooking. And tidy's good, because in my experience, dinner guests always tend to cram into the kitchen, no matter how small it is.
Check out our complete collection of Thanksgiving Recipes.