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How to Prepare for a Stress-Free Holiday Feast

If organizing and cooking for the holiday hordes turns your home into a war zone, follow these foolproof tips on getting your kitchen in tip-top shape for a happy and smooth-running Turkey Day

Get Your Kitchen Ready

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We all know what happens when Thanksgiving goes bad—and it can go really bad. In fact, one of the busiest days of the year for plumbers isn't Super Bowl Sunday, with its fabled toilet-busting bathroom-break halftime. No, it's actually the day after Turkey Day, with its garbage disposer mishaps, clogged sinks, and dishwasher meltdowns. And there's nary a home chef who hasn't had a holiday horror story.

The good news is, with a little advance planning and our tried-and-true tips, you can avoid most disasters this holiday. Then you can actually enjoy the satisfaction of a meal well prepared surrounded by friends and family.

Replace Aging Appliances

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In the weeks leading up to the big day, consider which appliances can make it one more year and which need to go. After all, if something is on the fritz, having it go out when you have a house full of people is not optimal timing.

Life expectancy of major kitchen appliances:

Gas ranges: 15 years

Range hoods: 14 years

Refrigerators and electric ranges: 13 years

Garbage disposers: 12 years

Freezers: 11 years

Dishwashers: 9 years

Microwave ovens: 9 years

Compactors: 6 years

An added bonus: If you choose an energy-efficient model as a replacement, you may be eligible for a tax credit.

Find out how long other parts of your home last (such as the washing machine and furnace).

Make Sure Your Oven is Ready for Prime Time

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It may seem counterintuitive, but don't run your oven's self-clean cycle in the days before cooking, because the cycle is so stressful on the appliance, it could cause it to break down. Instead, use a damp cloth to wipe around the burner elements and and save the big cleanup until you're lunching on cold leftover stuffing.

Also make sure your oven's temperature gauge is functioning properly by picking up an oven thermometer at the grocery store. Place the thermometer in a middle rack, set the oven to 350, and wait for it to warm up. If the thermometer read out matches the temperature you chose, all is well. You'll also want to check door seals and gaskets. If they don't provide a proper seal, the oven can lose heat and waste energy.

Do Basic Appliance Maintenance and Cleaning

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If all of your appliances are in good working order, take some time to do some basic cleaning and yearly maintenance.

Refrigerator

Clean the condenser coils. They're usually located on the bottom, back, or top of the refrigerator. Unplug the fridge, then use a coil brush to remove dust and dirt.

Wipe down the entire interior and door gaskets with 2 tablespoons of baking soda dissolved in one quart of water. Then rinse with water. Apply a thin layer of petroleum jelly to the gasket at the hinge side to keep it pliable.

To clean the water and ice dispenser, soak the spill shelf for 30 minutes in undiluted vinegar. The area behind the glass cradle can be wiped clean with vinegar water or a mild soap and water solution. The ice chute can be cleaned with mild soap and water and a soft cloth.

Dishwasher

To clean stainless-steel tubs, remove all dishes and utensils, do not add detergent, and select the potscrubber cycle. Start the dishwasher and allow it to run 15 to 20 minutes (until it gets to the main wash). Open the door and pour 2 cups of white vinegar into the bottom of the dishwasher. Close door and allow the dishwasher to complete the cycle. To clean plastic tubs, use a citric acid wash: Fill the detergent cup with 3 to 4 ounces of citric acid crystals and close the cup. Run through a normal wash cycle, and follow up with another wash cycle using dishwasher detergent.

Microwave

For caked-on foods, heat one cup of water on full power for three minutes. The heat and steam help to soften the food. Let it stand for five minutes before wiping it clean. Use a non-abrasive scrubbing pad and mild dish washing liquid on stubborn stains. For stainless steel microwave interiors, use a soapy plastic scouring pad.

Clear Out Old Food

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About a week before the big day, set aside an afternoon to clear out all old food items from your pantry, fridge, and freezer. Not only will you create more room for all those holiday culinary creations, but you'll also get rid of all those expired or unwanted things you've forgotten about that are now taking up valuable shelf space.

Stock Up on the Basics

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Most people prepare a detailed grocery list before holiday shopping, but basic sundries are often overlooked. Be sure to have everything you need on hand, including:

• Garbage bags

• Plastic bags

• Kitchen string

• Aluminum foil

• Plastic wrap

• A disposable roasting pan

• Containers for leftovers

• Cheese cloth

• Dish soap

• Dishwashing detergent

• Toothpicks

• Batteries

• Coffee filters

If you forget something or the store runs out of a particular item, check out our 10 uses galleries for great ideas on how to repurpose household items in a pinch.

Check Your Spices

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Creating tasty meals with stale spices is difficult, to say the least. Be sure to check the "best by" dates on all spices you plan to use. When in doubt, throw out all spices over a year old as well as any that don't have an obvious aroma when opened.

Child-proof Your Kitchen

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If you already have young ones at home, you probably won't have to do much. But empty nesters and newlyweds will want to make sure their kitchen is safe for little visitors.

First make sure they can't get a hold of any potentially harmful objects, such as matches, lighters, sharp utensils and household cleaners, by storing them in upper cabinets or using child-safety latches. When cooking, unplug appliances not in use and wind up all cords (to prevent tripping and strangulation) and try to use the back burners of the stove as much as possible. If the front burners must be used, always turn pot handles to the back. A child-safety gate may also be a wise investment, even if you only have children over occasionally. Finally, make sure all electrical outlets are covered when not in use.

Make an Emergency Stain-Fighters Kit

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When you mix large groups of people (and especially children) with food, spills are all but inevitable. Keep all your stain fighters in one place, close at hand to minimize the damage.

Some handy helpers may include:

• Nonbleach detergent (carpet stains, urine stains)

• Vinegar (carpet stains, urine stains)

• Ammonia (carpet stains)

• Bleach (solution-dyed carpet stains)

• Rubbing alcohol (glue, ink stains)

• Hydrogen peroxide (stone countertop stains)

• Club soda (fabric stains)

• Baking soda (grease splatter, fabric stains)

• Lemon juice (fabric stains)

• Salt (red wine stains)

More advice for combating stains:

How to Remove Every Type of Carpet Stain

How to Remove Spots from Kitchen Countertops

5 of the Best Nontoxic Cleaners You Aren't Using

Make Sure You Have Enough Furniture

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Make a list of all the tables and chairs you will need to prepare, serve, and eat dinner. Don't have enough? Before you start asking to borrow from friends and family or spend money on rentals, look around your house. Can a table in the office currently used for craft projects be repurposed as a kids' dining table? Cleared-out small bookcases can double as appetizer tables. Once you've wrangled everything, take the time to make any minor repairs needed.

Carve Out More Storage

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Storage space is always at premium this time of year, so if you are thinking of doing any kitchen organization upgrades, such as putting in an island or adding pull-out cabinet shelves, now's the perfect time. If large-scale projects aren't in the cards, you can still add temporary storage by buying an inexpensive rolling island (which can be moved out of the way the rest of the year) or rethinking the space you have. For example, the laundry room makes a great temporary pantry for overflowing food.

More ideas for kitchen storage:

How to Install a Pull-Out Kitchen Shelf

How to Add Kitchen Cabinet Storage

Smart Kitchen Storage Solutions

More Kitchen Storage Solutions

How to Make a Pot Rack from Copper Pipe

Inventory Cookware

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Keeping cookware organized can go a long way toward creating an efficient holiday meal. First, inventory your pots and pans. Did you loan the large roaster out to aunt Sallie last Christmas? Do you have dishes, serving platters, and silverware? Also, is everything in good repair? Find out what type of glue to use to repair chips and broken handles. To make things easier at crunch time, use Post-it notes to label each piece with the dish that will be served in it. That way your helpers will know what goes where without distracting you while you finish the cooking.

Sharpen Knives

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You may not notice how much your knives have dulled until you are faced with slicing and dicing endless tomatoes, potatoes, and other ingredients for a few hours straight.

To use a sharpening steel, hold the steel in your left hand and the knife in your right hand, with the cutting edge toward you. Lay the blade on top of the steel and raise the back of the knife 20 degrees (you'll want to keep the knife at this angle at all times). Place the heel of the blade at the tip of the steel and using light pressure draw the edge across the steel in a sweeping, curved motion (as if you were shaving off a thin slice of the steel) until the tip of the blade points toward the handle and guard of the steel. Then place the blade under the steel and repeat. Always give each side an equal number of strokes. You can also use a similar procedure with a sharpening stone. Serrated and fine knives should be professionally sharpened.

Create Your Own Recipe Book

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Keeping five cookbooks open while juggling tattered notes for how to make your grandmother's potatoes is just not fun. Instead make copies of all the recipes you plan to use, laminate or put them in plastic sleeves, and then place them in a binder. You can take each recipe out as needed but at the end of the day, they'll be together in one place and they'll be protected from spills. As the years pass and your tastes change you can update the book accordingly. If you really want to go all out, several companies allow you to create a custom cookbook online and will ship you the printed hardcopy a few weeks later.

Set Up Temporary Slop Sinks

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No matter how many times you run the dishwasher or hand-wash items as you use them, the cleaning crew can not keep up with the piles of dirty dishes. The problem comes when left over food dries and hardens. Make life easier by setting up a few temporary slop sinks. Just fill a large plastic tub with soapy lukewarm water and pile dishes in until you can get around to properly cleaning them—even if that means (gasp!) overnight.

Line Baking Dishes With Aluminum Foil

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A quick clean-up tip: Put aluminum foil on the bottom and sides of baking pans before you start preparing food. When it's time to eat, you can transfer the baked food into a serving dish and throw out the messy foil. You'll drastically cut down pan-scrubbing time.

Make Use of Small Appliances

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You only have so much oven space. Figure out whether you can prepare side dishes in the microwave, crock pot, toaster oven, or even the grill.

See more on small appliances:

Pro Appliances for the Home Kitchen

Avoid Garbage Disposal Breakdowns

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No matter how delicious your meal, you'll inevitably end up with plenty of scraps. To make sure your disposer can keep up, grind hard materials, such as small bones, fruit pits, and ice before everything else. It helps scrape the inside of the disposer and pipes, removing any buildup. Run cold water down the drain for 30 seconds before and after each use to flush food waste through the plumbing system and keep debris from settling in the pipes.

Though the pull of the Thanksgiving nap may be strong, don't hurry through clean-up. Rushing is one of the main reasons homeowners overfill or jam their disposers. And never use the disposer like a garbage can. Avoid letting non-food items like tea bags, bread ties, and napkin rings fall into the sink where they can cause jams. Don't put grease or fat down the disposer or any drain. It can build up in pipes and cause blockage. Instead, pour grease into a glass jar or container, and then discard in the trash once it solidifies. To give your disposer a fresh scent, grind lemons and other citrus fruits.