Thanksgiving is in many way the perfect occasion for a TV special. After all, it gives a show an excuse to force all of its characters together in one room under the high stress situation of creating a massive meal while trying not to fight.
As such, most of the great American TV shows over the years have had a go at a Thanksgiving episode—and along the way, they have made some great food that we at home can only aspire to. They have also had some absolute disasters that we can draw some important lessons from.
Here are the biggest pointers about Thanksgiving food we have learned from classic Thanksgiving episodes, from Friends, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Succession and more.
DO: Make a plan
Cooking at Thanksgiving is always a question of getting the timings right, making sure that everything gets started at the right time so that it is all ready at the same point.
The best way to do this is to make a plan, so you know to the minute what needs to go in the oven when. This might not make you so relaxed that you can dance through the meal prep as they did on Full House episode “The Miracle of Thanksgiving,” but it will certainly make everything run a lot more smoothly.
DON’T: Burn the turkey
The cardinal sin of Thanksgiving is burning the turkey, and yet it is very easy to do. The Full House gang found this out, as did Kirsten Cohen in The OC episode “The Homecoming.”
The issue here is that turkey has to have an internal temperature of 165 degrees to be fully cooked—but if you have a larger bird, the skin may burn before you get to that point. Luckily the fix is simple: If the bird is not ready when you expect it to be, cover it in tin foil and give it a quick blast at a higher heat.
DON’T: Put meat in a trifle
Most of us eat the same dishes every Thanksgiving, and frankly it can be a little repetitive. So by all means try something new—but when you do, make sure two pages of your English cook book have not stuck together.
This, of course, is what happens to Rachel in Friends episode “The One Where Ross Got High,” leading her to combine a trifle (an English dessert with layers of sponge, Jell-O, cream and custard) and a shepherd’s pie (an entree of beef, peas and onions, topped with mashed potato). The lesson here is: If you are going to try something new, maybe taste test it before the big day.
DO: Keep the cranberry sauce can away from angry relatives
Cranberry sauce in a can is one of the most hotly-debated staples of the Thanksgiving table. Some would not be seen dead serving that gelatinous red mass that keeps the shape of its tin (as seen in a famous moment in The Simpsons). For others, it would not be Thanksgiving without it.
We will leave you to decide your own side of the fresh versus canned debate, but you have to know one thing: A can of cranberry sauce can be used as a weapon.
This is something Kendall Roy found out in Succession‘s “I Went to Market,” when a frustrated Logan Roy hit his grandson with one during the feast. If you’ve got volatile relatives, definitely serve it on the table out of the can.
DON’T: Drink and deep fry
Many a more advanced chef has tried to liven up the traditional Thanksgiving feast by deep-frying the turkey. Sure, it’s an artery-clogger, but many will say it tastes much better—plus, it is a hell of a lot quicker to cook a bird that way, taking a two hour cooking time down to about 40 minutes.
However, hot oil is dangerous, so you should keep a watchful eye over your turkey when deep frying it. And what you should definitely not do is allow everyone to get drunk and start trying to deep fry butter, napkins and a shoe. This was a lesson Sookie learned too late in the Gilmore Girls‘ “A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving.”
DO: If the food is bad, throw it
If a dish is a disaster (and even the best chefs sometimes have catastrophes), do not be afraid simply to throw away what you have done and start again.
Or, optionally, you can take a leaf from the Cheers episode “Thanksgiving Orphans” and literally throw your latest culinary disaster: Your in-laws will certainly remember the Thanksgiving that descended into a massive food fight for some time to come.
DON’T: Use baking powder instead of salt
In the rush to get everything ready, it is easy to get flustered and make a big mistake. Planning helps here, as does getting out everything you need for a recipe before you start. This stops you from panicking and, say, substituting salt for baking powder, ruining everything.
This was something Amy Santiago learned to her peril in Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s “Thanksgiving.” And while she had Boyle there to bail her out with some inventive takeout orders, you might not be so lucky.
DO: Focus on the family, not the food
Thanksgiving should be about the people we spend it with, not the food we eat. And so if the thought of preparing an elaborate feast scares you, go simple. Your family would prefer to have you around and unstressed than locked in the kitchen having a panic attack.
Maybe take a lesson from A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, in which Snoopy and the gang seem just as happy with their meal of toast, popcorn, pretzel sticks and jelly beans as they would have been with turkey and all the trimmings.
DON’T: Be afraid to improvise (even if it means wrapping hot dogs in Kraft singles)
When everything goes wrong, sometimes you just have to cobble what you have in the store cupboard into something faintly edible. You never know, the dish you create could become a family tradition that you could not possibly be without on future Thanksgivings.
So it went on This Is Us‘ “Pilgrim Rick.” Stuck at a bad motel with only gas station supplies to eat, Jack Pearson makes a meal for his family consisting of hot dogs cooked over a furnace, wrapped in cheese singles and rolled in crushed saltines. Gross on paper, the Pearsons from then on cannot celebrate the holiday without paying tribute to that improvised recipe.
DO: Order some Chinese food if everything goes wrong
If worst comes to the worst—your turkey burns, your relatives start a food fight, you are out of hot dogs and Kraft slices—there is always takeout.
Countless TV specials over the year have seen their casts try and fail to make a Thanksgiving meal and end up eating Chinese food, with the trope existing since at least The Bob Newhart Show in 1975.