Instructables

The Thanksgiving Calculator: How to Organize and Cook Holiday Dinner for a Crowd (42) using Spreadsheets

Featured
Picture of The Thanksgiving Calculator: How to Organize and Cook Holiday Dinner for a Crowd (42) using Spreadsheets
Use freezers, spreadsheets, and Gantt charts to optimize your time and resources.
 
 
Remove these adsRemove these ads by Signing Up

Step 1: Identify constraints

So you've just agreed to host a major holiday dinner! Now let's sit down and think about some of the Big Questions.

1) How many people will attend?

This is the big one. If you've got more attendees than tables, chairs, plates, silverware, etc then you'll have to devise work-arounds. Tables/chairs can be rented, borrowed from friends and neighbors, or improvised from milk crates and pieces of plywood or spare doors. If you're short plates and silverware you can decide to use disposable or ask guests to bring their own, picnic style. Make your own cloth napkins to be extra-cool.

2) Who's making/bringing food?

Identify what you'd like to make, and what (if anything) you'd like your guests to bring. Make sure your guests are on the same page with this.

3) Buffet or table service?

If you've got more than one table a buffet is pretty much required. It also reduces the need for small, passable bowls which would otherwise require refills. You can put the whole dish on the buffet and be done with it.

4) Storage space

How much space do you have in your refrigerator and freezer? This determines what you can make ahead. If you live in a cold area an enclosed porch or deck can supplement your fridge/freezer space; if it's too warm out you can use an ice-filled cooler to bulk up your refrigerated space.

How many ovens/racks do you have? You'll need to block out time accordingly, and choose oven vs. stovetop preparations as necessary.

5) Time

What time do you plan to serve dinner? This one is under your control; pick a time that will allow you to wake up at a normal time and still be able to run everything through the oven with time to spare. Schedule this one for your convenience.

Step 2: Create Attendance List

This one is relatively straightforward. Collect your RSVPs with any additional relevant information on a standard spreadsheet. Mine, shown below with names and addresses blanked, is a pretty easy one.

I noted whether the guests were staying here for the night, what they were bringing (food, beverages, air mattresses, etc), and any food requirements (vegetarianism, allergies, etc).

Step 3: Create Gantt Chart

Picture of Create Gantt Chart
Now we're going to compile all of the information from the previous two steps, and use it to create a Gantt chart. I've attached mine below, so feel free to download and modify as necessary.

Col. 1: enter all of the food you intend to cook, and the major infrastructure preparations necessary.

Column 2: break down each item into its major steps.

Columns 3-n: list the available days, and assign each step to one of these days. Consider fridge, freezer, oven, and stove availability when assigning a prep day/time. You may choose to break the final day's activities into several columns, or add text to your boxes to clarify timing for high-use resources such as the oven.

Column n+1: identify the cooking or serving dish you'll need. If you don't have enough, borrow or use disposable pans. Running out of pans can be a serious problem.

Column n+2: identify the course. This helps in timing and food placement.

Columns n+3/4: after dinner, recap your quantities and evaluate what you plan to do next year. I wish I'd done this last year; since I didn't have good records of what was produced/eaten/desired from 2005's 27-person dinner I frequently over-estimated for this year. It's always better to have too much food rather than too little, but a bit of optimization here can give you more room to maneuver.

Hopefully you've got helpers. Give everyone their own color, and label the blocks that must be done by a specific person. Mark up-for-grabs tasks with the "anyone" color, and give the oven a color for good measure. It's not a person, but it's time is valuable and requires scheduling. Black out the squares as you go.

This means that anyone who wanders into the kitchen wanting to help will be able to check for open jobs, and hop right in without too much prompting.

Step 4: Run with it

Set your laptop up on the kitchen table, and get to work.

People seemed to love checking the Gantt chart for open projects, and fought over who got to black the squares in. It was lovely, and seeing the columns go dark makes it feel like you're accomplishing something.

Since we had so many dishes in the works, it was nice to double-check against the spreadsheet. Forgetting the stuffing in the downstairs chest freezer or the trifle in the back of the refrigerator would have been sad, but was easily prevented by comparing against the master list.

Step 5: Enjoy the party

Now, enjoy your party. You've planned ahead, so everything's done; you're able to mingle, eat, and generally have a good time. Accept any and all offers to do dishes or otherwise help with clean-up; large group events are NOT the time to play martyr. Just offer an apron and step back.

Again, I cannot emphasize enough: make sure you take notes on this year's successes and failures, particularly with respect to quantity. You'll appreciate it next year.

Also, if you felt forced to cut corners (using disposables, faking tables/seating, etc) now's your chance to plan ahead. Craig's List and eBay are your friends, but it's even better to build things yourself. There are nice instructables on woodworking, several dfferent tables and chairs, creative serving dishes, aprons, napkins, and the like; try them out over the next year. If you build anything cool document it- we'd all like to leverage your experience.

Instructables has a boatload of useful recipes as well; try them out and add to your repertoire, and share your favorites with us. Best of all, for a potluck you can send recipe assignments with an accompanying Instructable to make sure things go well.
canida (author) 5 years ago
This Instructable was featured on NPR's Here & Now on September 24, 2008!
CONGRATULATIONS! That's awesome!
Goodhart4 years ago
 Very cool, especially the podcast at NPR's site (Here & Now)
WOW! Thank you so, SO much!! You are an absolute lifesaver!!
I have to cook Thanksgiving dinner for 24 people this year and I've never cooked it before (come to that, I'm not American, so I've never even eaten it before!).
Thanks again!! :-)

wordgirrl5 years ago
omg. i feel so validated. you rawk.
racastro625 years ago
That's real project management !
fwjs285 years ago
oooo pretty colors...
Thanks for a great Instructable! Some may laugh, but the preparation required for a dinner party can be just as demanding as the prep work for a Keynote or other social activity. You should consider developing this idea more... maybe self-publish a workbook with more details and examples.
canida (author)  jktechwriter5 years ago
Thank you! This year we had 50 people - a good spreadsheet is the only thing that keeps you sane during that prep. This year's version included links to recipes on Instructables - I'll post it and modify/update the Instructable when I get a bit of time.
galenorama5 years ago
Looks Yummy!
Hahahaha, "Eric tries to get some work done, but mostly fails."
Rolipoly6 years ago
Wow, that one could spoil "Hells Kitchen", and I love that abusing ******* of a chef! Very nice, making project management fun.
Zujus7 years ago
Nice party! ;)
jbenfield7 years ago
...and people think that I'm crazy for building out full fledged project plans for making a Turducken dinner from scratch. It's actually even easier in a PM tool like MS Project because you can set up your oven, freezer, fridge, table, etc. as project resources and just assign them to each task. Then with the dependencies all setup, the tool can level the resources and optimize your activities. So...yes, I'm crazy. But at least I'm not the only one.
You say "the tool can level the resources and optimize your activities." I use MS Project. Could you email a sample project that uses the resources like this. I'm really curious. My email address is kwdiamond@adelphia.net. Many thanks.
fongga7 years ago
wow, that's really impressive! Thanks for the tips.
Crash21087 years ago
And you wonder why I think you spend all day cooking.
canida (author)  Crash21087 years ago
Only on very special occasions. ;-)
Pro

Get More Out of Instructables

Already have an Account?

close

PDF Downloads
As a Pro member, you will gain access to download any Instructable in the PDF format. You also have the ability to customize your PDF download.

Upgrade to Pro today!