3 apps to help you avoid a Thanksgiving dinner disaster

It’s 5 PM on Thanksgiving day and your guests are sitting down at the table, and suddenly you wonder, “Why is the turkey still a pale, sickly color after three hours of roasting?” You’re also pretty sure the sweet potatoes shouldn’t be turning black, and you’re starting to think the oyster stuffing recipe you found online could kill your family.

For most of us, Thanksgiving is about football, beer and arguing politics with Uncle Mike. But for the cook in kitchen, it can be an extremely stressful ordeal. Preparing a huge meal for a dozen people on a tight timeline is hard enough as it is, but doing so under the critical gaze of your mother-in-law and with kids are scurrying underfoot, it can be impossible.

Luckily there’s help on the other side of your PC, tablet or smartphone screen. Here are three apps that can help ease the stress of creating a holiday meal and might even help you avert a Thanksgiving culinary catastrophe.

Food52 Hotline

Last November, hundreds of home cooks gave thanks to Amanda Hesser, Merrill Stubbs and the gaggle of dedicated cooks at Food52. Together the group saved a lot of holiday meals from disaster with a service called Hotline, which you can think of as digital version of the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, except its scope isn’t limited to the preparation of oversized poultry.

You can ask Hotline a question by posting on the Food52 website, via its iPhone app(s aapl) or by tweeting directly at the @food52hotline Twitter account. The format allows you to ask detailed questions about general cooking topics or specific recipes. Food52 editors will parse the questions and forward them to the site’s contributors based on fields of expertise. Chances are, one of Food52’s 50,000 crowdsourced contributors will get back to you within the half hour. If you mark the question as urgent (i.e. you’re eyeing the fire extinguisher), you may hear back within minutes.

Anyone looking for a little extra help may want to invest in Food52 Holiday Recipe & Survival Guide, an iPad cookbook app that pretty much breaks down every aspect of hosting a holiday party and cooking dinner into all of its component parts. The recipes are not only detailed, but the techniques are illustrated with photos, diagrams and often how-to videos. What’s more, if you run into a problem, you can access Hotline right from the app.


So you’re a neophyte in the kitchen, but for some reason you agreed to host Thanksgiving this year. You don’t just need recipes and advice, you need someone holding your hand in the kitchen. You might be the ideal candidate for Cooking Planit, a new culinary app available for the iOS devices that is pretty much the closest thing you can get to a digital cooking assistant.

CookingPlanit guides you through every aspect of meal planning from shopping for groceries and prep work to timing your roast’s stay in the oven. It doesn’t matter how inept or careless or distracted you are, Cooking Planit doesn’t leave anything to chance. It even tells you when to take breaks.

The Austin-based startup launched only this summer so it’s building up its recipe library and features. Right now, its biggest drawback for holiday meal planning is it can only scale recipes to six servings, so if you’re planning on hosting a big dinner, you might want to give Cooking Planit some time to mature.

That said, if you’re looking to start out small and simple, CookingPlanit’s in-house chef Emily Wilson has prepared two simple Thanksgiving menus (though neither includes a whole roast turkey). The app allows you to mix and match recipes to create your own menus. The cooking assistant then crunches the ingredients and instructions to create a detailed shopping list and dinner-day game plan. You just need to show up and do what your iPad tells you to do.

BigOven RecipeScan

Meals don’t get any more traditional than Thanksgiving dinner, and that means a lot of us are cooking from old family recipes that are hand-printed on index cards, jotted down in notebooks or scrawled in the margins of cookbooks. BigOven’s RecipeScan service can’t improve upon those recipes, but it can produce digital versions, making the Thanksgiving grocery shopping, meal planning and cooking a lot easier.

BigOven does this not through fancy algorithms or handwriting-deciphering software; rather it uses Mechanical Turk, Amazon’s(s amzn) crowdsourced internet labor marketplace. Basically BigOven is hiring people to translate your chicken scratch handwriting into digital text as well as into semantic food data that Big Oven’s recipe aggregation and meal-planning engine can parse. BigOven will convert any recipe you capture with its iPhone, Android (s goog) or Windows Phone app(s msft), even if you snap a photo out of a magazine or cookbook. You can then combine your recipes with other digital recipes from BigOven’s libraries and those you “clip” from Websites into a universal recipe box.

The first three scans are free, after which customers can buy scans in bundles or at 59 cents a pop. Since human labor is involved, the process takes a few days, so it’s bit late to digitize this year’s Thanksgiving menu, but it’s never too early to start planning next year’s.

Poultry image courtesy of Shutterstock user koya979