How to host Thanksgiving in a tiny apartment

No dishwasher? No problem. With the right strategy, you can absolutely pull off the big meal in a small space.

Illustration of a small apartment kitchen with an open refrigerator of meal prep containers, a bag of groceries and takeout, a turkey in the oven, and the back of a woman multitasking while cooking on the stove and lighting candles for Thanksgiving dinner.
(Sunny Eckerle for The Washington Post)

A previous version of this story incorrectly described Katherine DiGiovanni as the founder of the home organizing company Neatnik. She is the principal.

Making a high-pressure meal like Thanksgiving dinner can be stressful even in the dreamiest of kitchens, with the highest-end appliances and counter space as far as the eye can see. Pulling it off in an apartment, which may or may not have a dishwasher or a sink large enough to soak a casserole dish? That’s a challenge of a different magnitude.

We called in the experts — including personal chefs and professional home-organizers — to suss out the best strategies for tackling Thanksgiving in cramped quarters. Don’t worry: With some advanced planning and creative thinking, you can absolutely pull off the big meal in your teeny kitchen.

Plan ahead and delegate

Allowing yourself plenty of time to prepare is essential when storage and counter space are tight, not to mention when you’re working with only a few kitchen appliances. “I tell home cooks, especially people with limited space, to start prepping their Thanksgiving menus a full week in advance,” says Kenneth Temple, a private chef and cookbook author.

Sauces and baked goods can be made the furthest in advance, says Temple, with most pies and cakes having a shelf life of three to four days. Some sides can be made up to two days out, such as mashed potatoes and this easy bread stuffing, which requires just a handful of ingredients (including some you probably already have).

Also, don’t be shy about delegating, advises Charles Hunter III, a recipe developer and private chef. “Take inventory of which sides you won’t have room to cook yourself, and don’t be afraid to pass [those] along for a guest to bring.”

Store-bought items are perfectly acceptable, too. “There’s no shame in shortcuts, especially when you’re tight on space,” says Yankel Polak, head chef at ButcherBox (a frozen meat subscription service, which sells turkeys). “Don’t be afraid to not cook something. If you want to go to a farmers market and get a jar of homemade cranberry sauce, do it.”

A bountiful, budget-friendly Thanksgiving dinner with just 20 ingredients

Be creative about counter space and storage

In a small living area, you’ll potentially have to make every square foot of empty surface space count. Just ask D.C. resident Zoe Mize, who hosted Thanksgiving dinner for four in her roughly 525-square-foot studio apartment last year. She recruited much of her furniture for meal prep: “In order to juggle everything, including all of the baking, I had to use my piano bench, dining table and chairs as surfaces for cooling pots and pans.”

Katherine DiGiovanni, principal at D.C. home organizing company Neatnik, suggests vertical space-saving solutions for apartment kitchens, such as installing wall hooks to hang pans and cooking utensils.

When it’s time to eat, she advises setting up the food buffet-style in the kitchen or on a piece of furniture away from where you’ll be dining to save space on the table. If that’s not possible, she recommends using cake stands to elevate some dishes on a crowded table, which will make room for others underneath: “You can use [the stands] for so many different things.”

And when it comes to packing your fridge and freezer, don’t forget that you can probably adjust the shelves to make them more efficient. “Shift those around to free up space to stack square Tupperware and other containers,” says Polak.

Another creative storage solution, according to Hunter: “Plastic bags are your best friend. They’re malleable and easy to stack up in a fridge while taking up little space, making [them] a great way to store things like cranberry sauces and gravies.”

6 strategies for creating counter space where there is none

Clean up as you go

To keep a mountain of pots and pans from taking over your apartment, clean up throughout your meal prep.

“It’s very simple,” says Temple. “I know a lot of people love to not clean until everything is dirty, but when you’re bringing a pot of water to a boil or have something simmering, that’s the perfect window to clean up some dishes.”

If you’re planning on peeling vegetables such as potatoes and carrots, try lining your countertop with tinfoil or parchment paper to collect the scraps, says Polak. That way, when the peels pile up, you can pick up the liner and dump them into the trash all at once.

Polak also strongly seconds the clean-as-you-go strategy, especially in a kitchen without a dishwasher. If your sink is at capacity, he recommends keeping a large Tupperware of hot soapy water on the countertop for soaking dishes and loosening stuck-on leftovers. “That way when they’re ready to rinse off, it takes two seconds.”

Once you’re done scrubbing, DiGiovanni suggests deploying an over-the-sink drying rack, which essentially turns your sink into additional counter space.

Host your first dinner party in style with these basic supplies

There’s no shame in takeout

Of course, there is an alternative to whipping up a holiday feast — and cleaning it all up — in your matchbox-size kitchen: takeout.

There are more options than ever — including restaurants and meal-subscription services — that will make Thanksgiving dinner for you, and in some cases, deliver it right to your door. And we definitely wouldn’t judge if a Popeyes’s pre-roasted turkey wound up on your table.

Many local restaurants offer specials to-go, though they can be pricey. At Pig Beach BBQ in Brooklyn and Queens, for example, a build-your-own Thanksgiving feast for $275 comes with your choice of a main protein, two sides and pie. (Make sure to order by 5 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 18.)

At D.C. vegetarian chain Beefsteak, cauliflower is the main event, accompanied by sides such as vegan mashed potatoes with miso gravy. “Our reheat process is very simple and we provide instructions for plating,” says John White, a head chef at José Andrés Group, which runs Beefsteak. (The order deadline is 8 p.m. on Nov. 22.)

Try to have a good time!

At the end of the day, your guests aren’t going to remember a missed ingredient or a side dish that didn’t make it across the finish line. “Honestly, even though we were sweaty and tired by the time we sat down to eat, the dinner was delicious and totally worth it,” says Mize, of her studio-apartment holiday last year. After all, Thanksgiving is about spending time with loved ones — even if it means being crammed together in 525 square feet.

Kalina Newman is a freelance writer in D.C. who covers food and culture.

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