You don’t want to wait until the last minute to pick up key Thanksgiving ingredients.
Planning ahead is key to conquering and executing a successful Thanksgiving dinner. If you have been a procrastinator all of your life, buddy, now is the time to shape up and make a point to not wait until the last minute. An organized timeline will help you to keep your thoughts, groceries, and sanity in check. Here is a timeline starting T-minus 28 days before the big feast to guide you through the process of planning, shopping and preparing for turkey day.
3 Weeks Before Thanksgiving (28 Days)
Begin your preliminary planning about 3 weeks out from Thanksgiving. Reach out to family and friends that you anticipate attending and get a solid (enough) headcount in order to gauge how much food to purchase and ultimately prepare. Also, ask your guests if they plan on bringing additional people with them. There are always 1 or 2 people that need a Thanksgiving table to crash at, and being that it’s a time of giving, go ahead and anticipate that you will have more mouths than you expect. Start to visualize an idea of the items you want to prepare by finding inspiration from Instagram, Pinterest, magazines, and, of course, your favorite food sites. Even though it’s always fun to try new recipes, if there are a few classics you know how to make without hesitation, consider building your menu with those first. You want to be confident in the kitchen leading up to the day of Thanksgiving.
2 Weeks Before Thanksgiving (14 Days)
Plan—and write out —an outline of the dishes you wish to serve and the items that you would like friends and family to contribute to the meal. The dishes should be a balanced mix between oven, stovetop, or assembled cold or at-room-temperature prepared foods. Most kitchens only have one oven (2 if you are lucky), and you do not want to plan a menu entirely of apps/sides that require baking.The goal is to reduce any possible stress for a smooth few days of well-paced cooking. Good ol’ pen and paper usually does the trick to jot out your ideas and plan. For those who are Excel spreadsheet wizards, Google Doc aficionados, or prefer to rely on techy planning apps on their phones, these are great applications to use to organize. Whatever works best for you and your brain, go for it. Just make sure you have something concrete you can refer back to.
It’s also good idea to confirm your guest list at this point, and delegate tasks you’d like to have covered. This is not the time to be timid or shy away from asking for help. You may realize in planning that you are short on serving dishes, platters, bakeware, or other cooking utensils. Or you may feel better if you have a small crew to help you pull the meal off. So don’t hesitate to go ahead and chat with a few of your reliable friends and family members to see if they’d be game to arrive early on Thanksgiving day and lend a hand with food preparation.
Unless baking is your strength, I’d suggest that the host not worry about desserts. In fact, desserts, appetizers, and certain side dishes can be all assigned out to other guests. One person can bring an assortment of cheeses or a crudité platter for snacking on beforehand. Another can cover what’s destined to go into your bread basket. Ask others to bring vegetable-based sides such as a salad, roasted butternut squash, or a potato dish. And have your best family bakers bring a pie, cheesecake, or other sweet treat of their choosing.
1 Week Before Thanksgiving (7 Days)
You have a finalized your menu, and now it’s time to write an itemized list of the ingredients you need to make it happen. Most likely, you already have spices and seasonings that you won’t need to purchase. Run down your list of ingredients and check off any items that you already have in stock. For your turkey, decide whether you are opting for frozen or fresh. You might even catch it on sale this week if you go frozen.
Once your grocery list is complete, you can start to shopping for dry goods such as elbow pasta, canned items, sugar, and flour. (Trust me, you would be shocked at how how fast common staple items can sell out closer to Thanksgiving). Figure out what store would be best for certain items—i.e. what specifically do you want in bulk from Costco vs.which items can you grab on your next run to your favorite supermarket vs. what special ingredients do you aim to pick up from your local farmer’s market or butcher’s shop. Organize a couple of shopping outings accordingly for the week to make sure you cross everything, other than fresh produce, off of your list.
5 Days Before Thanksgiving
The days are winding down closer to the feast, and all of your planning is beginning to be put to the test. The best and easiest way to thaw your turkey is in the refrigerator for about 3 to 4 days before preparing, depending on the size of the turkey.
3 Days Before Thanksgiving
Pop back out to the grocery store to pick up your perishable groceries that you’d rather not buy a week in advance. These are mostly going to be fresh herbs, fruits, and vegetables. Go ahead and decide which side dishes can be prepped, at least partially, ahead of time.
2 Days Before Thanksgiving
Get to prepping. Cranberry sauce is perfect to make ahead because the flavors will only get better with time. Peel, cut, and store your potatoes submerged in water in an airtight container to cut down prep time for mashed potatoes. You can boil and mash them the day of. Throw out any old food in your refrigerator that takes up space. You’re gonna need every single square inch of prime refrigerator real estate in the coming days.
Go ahead pull together any kind of casserole or baked dish that can wait in the fridge, assembled, for a couple of days before baking—green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato casserole, cornbread casserole, and stuffing are all typically pretty make-ahead friendly options.
Any super, super last-minute shopping should be taken care of ASAP.
1 Day Before Thanksgiving
Your turkey should be fully thawed by now. Clean the bird, remove any parts from the cavity, and pat dry. Skip the salt-water brine and opt for a dry-rub seasoning. With such a large bird and packed fridge, a wet brine is typically more trouble than it’s worth and can often counteract achieving ultra-crispy turkey skin. Season your bird thoroughly and leave it in the refrigerator, uncovered overnight. This will help dry out the skin before it hits the oven for a crispy, crunchy exterior. Disclaimer: Everyone has their own method to preparing a turkey, whatever route you opt for—be it deep frying, roasting, or grilling—just make sure you have a plan and trusted recipe at the ready for cooking. Assemble and store any dishes that are meant to serve cold—pasta salads, potato salads, grain salads, and coleslaw, for example.
Pull out your linens and serving dishes and designate a spot in your home where the food will be served (if not on the table). Use sticky notes to label your serving dishes and platters with the foods you plan to serve in each. You can even go ahead and set the table at this point if you have time.
Pop that seasoned bird into the oven! A turkey takes up the most space in the oven, so by cooking it first, you can make room for the side dishes and other oven-baked items to follow. Plus, the bird holds its heat fairly well. If need be, you can always place it back into the oven about 30-45 minutes before dinner is served for a reheat. As the turkey comes out, you can put your casserole dishes and other baked dishes that you prepped ahead of time in. While the oven is at work, start all of your dishes that require the stovetop.
As your early guests that volunteered to help come in, have them set up the dinner table or the designated area for the food (if you haven’t already). One trusty person can be in charge of making the signature cocktail for the meal to serve other guests as they arrive, and also have the appetizers ready for nibbling. Another person can be in charge of grabbing and arranging the dishes that others bring in. Closer to dinnertime, you can pull out the chilled side items and start arranging them on the table. Following the chilled sides, bring out the warm baked and stove top sides. Finally, when everyone is seated, bring out your main attraction of the night: the turkey.
All of your hard work and planning has allowed you to smartly execute a thoughtful Thanksgiving menu for friends and family to admire—way to be. Now ditch the apron, fill your plate, and let someone else do the dishes.