Planning Guide for a Stress-Free Thanksgiving

Oct 31, 2019

Thanksgiving dinner: a time for family and friends to settle in around the dinner table. And this year, that cozy setting is your house. Queue the chaotic last-minute scramble to get everything cooked, dished up, and on the table at the same time. Guests filling up the kitchen space wanting to help, dirty dishes piling up in the sink, and maybe a burnt smell filling the air, suddenly reminding you that you forgot to set the timer for the dinner rolls.

Don't panic. Even the most experienced home cooks can start to feel weak in the knees when it comes to organizing Thanksgiving dinner, but I'm here to tell you that you can take much of the stress and chaos out of the day with a little extra planning. The key is to identify the must-do tasks, breaking them down into what can be done in advance as well as specifics for the big day. Knowing you have an all-inclusive game plan removes some of the stress and boosts your confidence. Reserve time to indulge in the acts of hospitality you enjoy the most; after all, entertaining should be fun and enjoyable!

While your menu, style, and guest count will determine the details, here’s a general timeline to build a strategy for tackling your Thanksgiving celebration.

P.S. There's nothing I love more than a good list. So to all my fellow list-lovers, enjoy!

3 to 4 Weeks in Advance

  1. Finalize guest list and head count.
  2. Plan your menu, keeping in mind oven space, timing, make ahead recipes, and the classic dishes your guests will be expecting.
  3. If you’d like to take your guests up on their offer to bring something to the celebration, now is a good time to discuss. If they make a specialty dish that is a family tradition, that’s one less task for you! Prioritize items that won’t take up precious oven space or need lots of last-minute prep. Wine or sparkling beverages, a simple appetizer or crudité tray that can be set out when they arrive, or a dessert set on a side table are helpful examples.
  4. Design your tablescape and any other special touches you want to incorporate. Go ahead and get those purchased, saving any fresh flowers for closer to the day.
  5. Consider and inspect table linens, tableware, glassware, serving pieces, or special cooking gadgets. Include items such as extra chairs or card tables. Procure or borrow anything you might need.
  6. Create a shopping list, dividing into non-perishables, perishables, and specialty items. Don’t forget to add items such as extra ice, lemons for the water, or fresh herbs for garnish.

2 Weeks in Advance

  1. Clean the freezer so you have room for all the items you will be storing.
  2. Shop for non-perishables.
  3. Prepare pie dough and freeze.
  4. Make broth or stock for gravy and freeze. (Tip: use turkey wings purchased separately to flavor your stock.)
  5. Dig out and wash coolers if needed for beverages or cold items, ditto for slow cookers, roasters, or other types of warmers you’ll be using.
  6. Pick up your frozen turkey and stash it in your cleaned-out freezer. If ordering a fresh turkey from your local IGA meat department, make certain you have the pick-up day on your calendar.

1 Week in Advance

  1. Deep clean the fridge so you have room to fit all the Thanksgiving goodies.
  2. Finalize what food will go in which serving dish by placing a sticky note on each. Place serving utensils inside it as well. When the rush is on, you and your kitchen helpers will know exactly which bowl holds the sweet potatoes and where to find the spoon!
  3. Get your frozen turkey in the refrigerator so it has time to thaw safely before brining. A 20-pound bird can take five days to thaw!
  4. Take a few minutes to make a specific timeline of when things need to go in the oven, stove top, or be pulled from the fridge. Working backwards is the easiest. For example, if dinner is to be served at 5:00, the turkey needs to come out of the oven at 4:15, allowing 30 minutes to rest and 15 minutes to carve. It needs three to four hours to roast, so pop it in the oven around noon, prepping it around 11:30. You get the idea! While you may think it’s over-planning, it can save you oodles of confusion and misdirection when juggling the various tasks of the day.  

3 to 4 Days in Advance

  1. Shop for perishables.
  2. Make cranberry relish or sauce.
  3. Bake cornbread or slice fresh bread into cubes for dressing, allow to dry out on a sheet pan overnight, then store in an airtight plastic bag or container.
  4. Toast and season any nuts, breadcrumbs, croutons, or coconut you will be using. Store in an airtight container.

2 Days in Advance

  1. Place pie dough in the refrigerator to thaw.
  2. Thaw broth for gravy or use neck and giblets from your turkey to prepare.
  3. Make salad dressings and dips.
  4. Set your Thanksgiving table.
  5. Family schedule permitting, set up separate area or station for dessert and coffee out of the path of dinner prep or clean up. This can be a side table, buffet, or card table. Have coffee cups, dessert plates, flatware, and coffee maker at the ready.
  6. The same for a designated area to serve before-dinner beverages. Set out glassware, cocktail napkins, and dig out the ice bucket.

Day Before

  1. Brine turkey.
  2. Make dressing or stuffing, and assemble gratins or casseroles.
  3. Clean and prep the fresh vegetables. Careful though, Brussels sprouts or broccoli will be just fine trimmed and stored in the crisper, but potatoes will need to be kept covered in cold water if peeled in advance.
  4. Chill beverages, using ice chests if refrigerator space is limited.
  5. Assemble and bake your pies and desserts.

Thanksgiving Day

  1. Add fresh flowers and finishing touches to tablescape.
  2. Prepare turkey and get it roasting!
  3. Make mashed potatoes, place in a slow cooker or electric roaster to keep warm.
  4. Last minute prep for vegetables, salads, or fruits.
  5. Empty dishwasher and kitchen trash so scraps and dirty dishes can go right in.
  6. Fill coffee maker with water and fresh grounds, set butter out to soften.
  7. Add ice to coolers, ice buckets, uncork wine or other beverages, and set out any appetizers.
  8. If guests want to help, assign them specific tasks such as filling water glasses, dishing up the sides, or managing kitchen traffic.
  9. When the turkey comes out of the oven, let it rest under a foil tent while you make the gravy and finish cooking the side dishes that need to take advantage of the freed-up oven space.
  10. Steam fresh vegetables and assemble salads.
  11. Carve turkey, garnish dishes, and enjoy!

After the table is cleared and the pie is served, take time to reflect on what is truly the inspiration behind your effort in preparing the Thanksgiving meal: the opportunity to express your love and gratitude for the people gathered.

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