How to Engineer the Optimally Delicious Thanksgiving Plate

You'll need a clear-eyed plan of attack, an open mind, and a mound of mashed potatoes.

This plate does not follow many of the guidelines. (Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock/The Atlantic)

There may be an art to preparing Thanksgiving dinner, but there is an art, as well, to putting that dinner on a plate. The stakes are high: Get a little pour-happy at the moment of truth, and your turkey-to-gravy ratio gets completely upended; arrange your selections poorly, and suddenly your brussels sprouts are infiltrating your stuffing and potatoes. And then there's the cranberry sauce! Even a tiny bit of the stuff, misplaced, can turn an otherwise perfectly assembled plate into a mess of tangy hot-pink.

If you, like me, have known the plight of the mis-proportioned meal, help is here. I asked Dan Pashman—author of the book Eat More Better, leader of the podcast The Sporkful, and general expert in the field of food consumption—for help engineering the optimal Thanksgiving plate.

Here's his advice:

1. Use Your Mashed Potatoes as Construction Materials

Mashed potatoes, Pashman says, are "the structural backbone" of the Thanksgiving plate: "They're flexible, they're structurally sound, they're delicious, and they go well with most other things." Everyone knows the myriad benefits of the mashed potato moat, the depression that allows your potatoes to become a lake-like storage vessel for your gravy; Pashman advises taking that basic structure and running with it. You can use potatoes, Pashman points out, "to cordon off other areas of your plate," creating divisions that keep each food item in its place.
You could even, if you wanted to be extra-adventurous about it, make a Mashed Potato Fort (as seen in Eat More Better):
Pashman's counter-siege fortification method to build a better mashed-potato-and-gravy vessel (Alex Eben Meyer, courtesy of Simon & Schuster)
Basically, though: Want to keep your turkey separate from your cranberries? Build a wall out of your potatoes! Want to separate the hot stuffing from the cool salad? Potato-wall it up again! Want to keep your cranberry jelly from infecting your green bean casserole? Plop it into a potato-bowl! The possibilities are limitless—or, well, as limitless as your supply of spuds.

2. Consciously Uncouple the Hot Foods From the Cold

Speaking of separating the hot from the cold ... pay attention to food temperature as you're loading your plate. "You need to think about the choice you're making," Pashman says. "If you put a hot food right next to a cold food, they're likely to run into each other. You need to understand that you're going to be cooling down a hot food faster than you would like."

In other words: Unless you're a fan of salads and meats that quickly become the same degree of lukewarm, put your hot foods on one side of the plate and your cold foods on the other. You may feel morally uncomfortable about this kind of brute separation; your palate, however, will thank you.

3. A "Plate" Doesn't Need to Be a Plate

Don't be vessel-normative! Your Thanksgiving plate could be, yes, a single dinner plate ... but it could also be, Pashman says, a dinner plate accompanied by a salad plate. Or a pasta bowl. Or a ramekin!
That kind of expansive thinking is especially useful when it comes to the runnier aspects of the Thanksgiving meal: your relishes, your jellies, your gravies and sauces. Cranberry sauce, in particular, "is really insidious," Pashman notes. "It starts to separate, you get that liquid component that's very thin, and it will run all over the place."
To prevent that, think outside the plate: Just put the sauce in a bowl next to your plate, and dip (and maybe even pour!) as needed. Same deal with gravy: "There's nothing wrong," Pashman says, "with having a gravy ramekin that you're dipping your food into on a per-bite basis."

4. Rely on Multiple Rounds of Food

It's Thanksgiving. It wants you to go for seconds. It needs you to go in for seconds.

5. Survey Before You Serve

Approach the Thanksgiving table, Pashman advises, the same way you would any all-you-can-eat buffet: First, before you even think about picking up a serving spoon, survey all the options available to you. What's on offer—meat-wise, salad-wise, starch-wise? Then strategize: For the first round (see #4, above), populate your plate mostly with your tried-and-true favorites, the stuff you've been looking forward to since last Thanksgiving. And for the remaining space? Take a little sampling of each item on offer to see what you like best.
That first round will inform your choices when you come back for a return trip. "When you go back in for seconds," Pashman says, "that's when you go in for the kill."

6. Avoid the Filler Foods

Breads? Soups? Nuts? Any non-Thanksgiving-y thing that fills you up, thus preventing more servings of stuffing? Rookie mistakes. Eye on the prize, guys.

7. Focus on the "Special Foods"

This is the inverse of #6: While you shouldn't waste time (or stomach space) on boring fillers, you should focus on the foods that are Thanksgiving-specific and otherwise important to you. "Focus on the star attractions," Pashman says; "focus on the special foods that you can only get on this occasion."
You may invoke the Mashed Potato Exception (see #1) here, but, otherwise, fill your plate with turkey and stuffing and cranberries—the stuff that you'll likely only be eating on or around Thanksgiving. Mac and cheese? Cheese in general? There's plenty of time for those wondrous things the other 364 days of the year; the optimal Thanksgiving plate is full of the things you love that you can only get on Thanksgiving—be they turkey or stuffing or cranberry sauce in potato-moats.