Planning a Stress-Free Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving is, without a doubt, the biggest food holiday of the year. After all, the entire day is planned only around dinner! For most of us, Thanksgiving is not only the biggest meal that we’ll eat in one sitting, it is also the largest dinner that we’ll prepare. Whether you’re cooking for 4 or 24, the dinner requires a lot of planning.

Fortunately, I’m here to help you get organized and keep your big holiday dinner on track so you don’t have anything to worry about.

Here’s How to Plan Your Best Thanksgiving Dinner Yet, Starting Now!

3 Weeks ahead of Thanksgiving

Make Some Space in Your Freezer

It’s time to eat the frozen foods you’ve been stockpiling in there. Throw away any mysterious, unlabeled leftovers wrapped in aluminum foil. You’re going to need that space for turkey, so start preparing early.

2 Weeks ahead of Thanksgiving

Get Your Frozen Turkey

If you are planning to use a frozen turkey, buy one now. Frozen turkeys are easy to store and you’ll have a good selection of sizes two weeks before Thanksgiving. If you need an especially large turkey, you might have to call ahead to order it.

Plan Your Menu

You already have your turkey, so think about what you’re going to serve it with. Mashed potatoes? Sweet potato casserole? Pecan pie? Browse through Craftsy or your favorite food blogs to pick out some recipes and make a list of ingredients.

Make a Test Pie

If you don’t feel confident with that pie recipe you picked out, make a practice pie. You have plenty of time to find another recipe or fall back to pumpkin pie if it doesn’t meet your expectations.

1 Week ahead of Thanksgiving

Stock Up On All Non-Turkey Ingredients

Not only do grocery stores have everything from canned pumpkin to fresh sage on sale, the shelves are well-stocked and that means you have the best of everything to choose from. One year I ran out of sage the day before Thanksgiving and had to go to three stores before I found some. I don’t want to relive that day and neither should you!

Your shopping list should include ingredients for your side dishes (fresh veggies included), stuffing, drinks and dessert. Don’t forget essentials like butter, sugar, flour and ice cream (for pie à la mode, of course).

Move Your Frozen Turkey to the Refrigerator

The refrigerator is a great way to defrost your turkey safely and slowly. I’ve heard of people doing it in a bathtub of water overnight, but this way is a lot easier. A small turkey (under 14 pounds) may only  need three days or so to thaw, but an extra day or two won’t hurt anything, and you want that bird to be completely defrosted by the night before the big day.

If You are Using a Fresh Turkey (that doesn’t Come Frozen), Buy it Now

3 Days before Thanksgiving

Make Room in Your Refrigerator

You’re going to have a lot of leftovers in there very soon. Eat up!

2 Days Before Thanksgiving

Make Your Pie Dough

Shape the dough into discs, wrap them in plastic wrap and move them to the refrigerator. Feel free to skip this if you’re using a pre-made graham cracker crust (no harm in saving a little time with those!)

Double Check Your Ingredient List

Going to the store at the last minute is something that should be avoided if at all possible.

The Day before Thanksgiving

Bake Your Pies

Just about every pie out there needs to cool completely before serving, so it is a good idea to bake them a day ahead of time. I usually try to bake mine in the afternoon so they can cool overnight, but a few hours won’t make a difference here.

Make Your Stuffing

I don’t recommend making the kind of stuffing that you pack inside of a turkey, and neither do most food safety experts. It’s just too easy to undercook it. I like stuffing that’s baked on the side. You can prepare just about any stuffing recipe out there (they’re pretty much all baked in casserole dishes) the night before and cover it in plastic wrap. The one pictured below is my Pumpkin Cornbread Stuffing.

Make Your Cranberry Sauce

Homemade cranberry sauce is surprisingly easy to make (and so much better than the pre-made kind). Give this Orange Cranberry Sauce recipe a try.

The Big Day: Morning

Put Your Turkey in the Oven

Prepare it according to whichever recipe you decide to use.

Cut and Prep All Vegetables, with One Exception

Vegetables that you plan to cook on the stovetop or roast in the oven can be covered and stored in the refrigerator. The potatoes, if you are having mashed potatoes, are the exception to this rule. They’re best cut right before you’re ready to cook them. Save those for the afternoon.

Set the Table

No reason to save this for the afternoon, which tends to be a little busier in the kitchen

The Big Day: Afternoon

Peel and Prep Potatoes for Mashed Potatoes

I do this right before I take the turkey out of the oven so I have plenty of time to prepare the potatoes and plenty of time to cook them. I usually get them boiling just as I take the turkey out of the oven.

Remove Your Turkey from the Oven

Most turkeys will need an hour or so to rest before carving to allow the juice to redistribute throughout the bird. This is time that can be used to finish off all your other cooking.

Boil Potatoes for Mashed Potatoes

Check them with a fork for tenderness, then drain and prepare them as desired. I recommend plenty of butter.

Warm Your Stuffing

Simply uncover the casserole dish you prepared the night before and pop it in the oven, which will be preheated from cooking the turkey.

Cook (Roasting or Otherwise) Your Vegetables

Make Gravy

Gravy is quick to make and needs to be served hot, so I save it for last.

When everything is done, carve up the turkey and enlist some helpers to bring everything to the table. Bon appetit!