Executive Functioning and The BIG Thanksgiving Dinner

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Pulling off a big Thanksgiving feast for a large family sure takes a bunch of executive functioning skills.  At least if you have ADHD you can hyperfocus for the big day.  Let’s think about all the organization skills and elements that have to come together for it to work:

First, getting all of the table linens out, and checking to see if they are clean.  Ironing them, counting napkins, writing down a guest list so you don’t forget Uncle George, figuring out who sits at the big table and who sits at the kids’ table.  Counting place settings and silverware of the “good silver”, getting out the fancy glasses that are in the top shelf and may be dusty, thinking about and planning the center piece for the tables.  Next, where is everyone going to sit? And who can’t sit next to whom?  From this list comes the master guest/family attendance list.

After all of that preparation, plus the cleaning and dusting, the next step is to make out the menu for the meal.  What is the main dish (probably figuring out how big a turkey to get, whether to get a fresh or a frozen, if it needs defrosting or if fresh, when to buy it.)  Next is planning all of the side dishes:  rice and gravy if you are from the south, potatoes if you are from the Midwest, stuffing or dressing, squash casserole, green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, corn casserole, jello salad, fresh salad or fruit salad, relish trays, Grandpa Bill’s pickled peaches, biscuits or rolls.  Getting out all of the tried and true recipes out of the old recipe box, looking up new recipes in magazines that you want to try.  Thinking about desserts:  pumpkin pie, cheesecake, something chocolate or lemony for a special family member.

From all of this planning comes two lists:  the master menu list (or else some dish will get left in the refrigerator and not eaten) and the master shopping list.  To make the shopping list, each recipe has to be reviewed and things in the pantry checked for expiration dates.  Some spices, flour, and baking things (baking chocolate, powder and soda) may be 3 to 5 years too old.  While checking out each recipe, the main ingredients need to go on the shopping list… and good shoppers put this list in some order, depending on where things are in the grocery, for instance, all the produce goes together and all the canned goods together and all the frozen goods together or else the shopper goes helter-skelter all over the crowded store for hours.

Next is the big cooking day.  All ingredients have to be softened and put out, like butter and eggs, measuring cups and spoons, and ingredients sorted out.  Very important, and a learned skill, is figuring out which recipes will fit in which bowls.  Smart cooks follow their granny’s admonition and keep soapy water and towels ready to wash and rinse as they go, so the clean up isn’t crazy at the end of the cooking day.  A big part of organizing is figuring out how to fit everything into the refrigerator and that is sort of like the strategy for packing the family van on vacation:  the big items go on the bottom and smaller things get smashed  in behind and around them.

Next is preparing the turkey the night before, getting all the stuff (gizzards?) out of it, and getting it oiled, greased and seasoned (however you do that).  Finding the big roasting pan or getting the fryer ready so the turkey can go in early enough to get ready is a big deal… otherwise the meal won’t get pulled off.

Next is planning how to cook all of the side dishes and putting everything in the oven to come out right at the same time.  While these are cooking, all the last minute things like planning drinks, putting out seasoning/condiments, getting the rice or potatoes cooking is happening.  And, don’t forget the cranberries have to be chilled.

 Are you tired yet?  No, it is not time to stop yet.  Who is going to say the blessing?  Who is going to cook the bread or biscuits?

After the meal, the process has to be reverse engineered.  Did you have enough containers for take home/to go containers?  Who is doing the washing/drying?  What can be put in the dishwasher and what can’t?  Who gets to go sit and watch football and who is enlisted to help with the clean up duty?  Who know where all the extra strange utensils and dishes go so they can be found again for next year or the next holiday?

After all of the foods are stored in leftover containers, the dishes washed, the pots and pans washed and put up, the cook has to decide what to do with the leftovers.  Is a casserole or soup made from the leftover meat or bones?

As you can tell, this gets very detailed and tiring.  What did I leave out?  What did I put in that seems like too much work or not accurate in your family?  Planning and organizing for a beginning cook can be downright intimidating!  What stories do you have about mishaps or poor planning?  Of course, the most important thing is to have fun with the process and truly not get too obsessive about the details.  My first year the turkey was supposed to be thawed but even with following the directions for thawing, the turkey was still half frozen, then half burned, as we tried to speed up the process for it to come out in time to coordinate with the visitors and the eating time.  For anyone who has not staged a major dinner, it can be stressful and intimidating if you let it.  I truly cannot imagine how people with true executive functioning issues can pull this entire process off!

What is executive functioning exactly and why is it important? Here is a definition from a great website, http://www.help4adhd.org/faq.cfm?fid=40&varlang=en.

Executive Function (EF) refers to brain functions that activate, organize, integrate and manage other functions. It enables individuals to account for short and long term consequences of their actions and to plan for those results. It also allows individuals to make real time evaluations of their actions, and make necessary adjustments if those actions are not achieving the desired result.

There are differing models of executive function put forth by different researchers, but the above statements cover the basics that are common to most. Two of the major ADHD researchers involved in studying EF are Russell Barkley, PhD, and Tom Brown, PhD.

Barkley breaks executive functions down into four areas:

  1. Nonverbal working memory
  2. Internalization of Speech (verbal working memory)
  3. Self-regulation of affect/motivation/arousal
  4. Reconstitution (planning and generativity)

Barkley’s model is based on the idea that inabilities to self-regulate lie at the root of many challenges faced by individuals with ADHD. He puts forth that they are unable to delay responses, thus acting impulsively, and without adequate consideration of future consequences — beneficial or negative.1

Brown breaks executive functions down into six different “clusters.”

  1. Organizing, prioritizing and activating for tasks
  2. Focusing, sustaining and shifting attention to task
  3. Regulating alertness, sustaining effort and processing speed
  4. Managing frustration and modulating emotions
  5. Utilizing working memory and accessing recall
  6. Monitoring and self-regulating action

According to Brown, these clusters operate in an integrated way, and people with ADHD tend to suffer impairments in at least some aspects of each cluster. Because these impairments seem to show up together much of the time, Brown believes they are clinically related.

Under Brown’s model, difficulties in these clusters lead to attentional deficits, as individuals have difficulty organizing tasks, getting started, remaining engaged, remaining alert, maintaining a level emotional state, applying working memory and recall, and self-monitoring and regulating actions.2

It is clear that executive function impairments have an adverse effect on an individual’s ability to begin, work on and complete tasks. It is also commonly thought that deficits in executive functions are highly interrelated to symptoms associated with ADHD.

A good book on the subject was written by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare, called Smart but Scattered.  Many of the tasks that seem easy for some people are incredibly difficult for others.  Just knowing and experiencing all the needs for planning, organization, and memory are part of being a good host and cook!  We hope you all have a great Thanksgiving dinner and give thanks for our country, our families and friends, and our health!

Write back and give us your thoughts and ideas.  What tips do you have to the first time cook or the person with organizational issues?

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