Food & Cooking Blog

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.

Planning a Thanksgiving Dinner

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

Roast turkey in roasting pan

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.

Thanksgiving Practice Pie

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

Refrigerator thaw

Make room in your refrigerator

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

2 days before Thanksgiving

Making Pie Dough

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. 

Pumpkin pie

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.

Baking Bites' 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.

Cranberries and Orange Zest

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.

Mashed Potatoes

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!

Your Tastiest Thanksgiving Yet

Plate of Thanksgiving Dinner

Get more tips, recipes and ideas for a delicious, memorable holiday from Craftsy cooking experts.

Let’s eat! »

13 Comments

Carol Weber

One year, because I could, and also because of time constraints imposed by my job, I cooked everything on Thanksgiving day–including homemade apple buns for an early brunch, yeasted dinner rolls from scratch and three pies. To pull that off, I made a minute-by-minute schedule of what needed to be done when. My eldest was in charge of the homemade cranberry sauce, my middle made the green bean casserole and my youngest, a first grader, “made” the frozen corn. That day remains my favorite Thanksgiving ever, because I love to cook and that detailed schedule made the whole day go entirely smoothly. Ever since then, we’ve been back around family so I’m never cooking the entire meal, but we’ll none of us forget that wonderful, busy, yummy, but peaceful Thanksgiving!

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Patricia in Texas

Thank you for sharing your Thanksgiving day schedule. Looking back over the many Thanksgiving and Christmas meals I’ve prepared and served, I can now see why I was completely overwhelmed & exhausted. I never let anyone help me, which is ridiculous. I am a do-it-yourselfer and always have been. Your story has made me revisit that flaw in my personality. This year, I’m going to designate a dish for many in the family. That way, they won’t be bored just sitting around waiting for food, and they can feel included in the big event. I need to work on preparing areas where they can work on their dish. I’m excited. I’m sharing the load and making it fun this year. Thank you, thank you!

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Gwen

For the past 30 years, I’ve hosted Thanksgiving for one side of the family or the other. In my younger days, I had no problem cooking and serving the entire meal. As I’ve grown older, the idea of a meal shared with family has settled in. Now, I still cook the majority of the meal, however when someone asks what they can bring, I let them choose what they would like and I cross it off my list. I also stopped setting the table. I have everything ready and let the younger children do that job. They enjoy it and they feel like they have contributed to the meal, too.

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Joanne

for the past 8 years I have not done Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, I have done “Thanksmas” I pick a day between the two holidays and make a magnificent feast have my only 3 family members and 5 friends. This way my daughters and the one husband can do their own thing on the holidays with their friends and I only have to cook one meal and everyone I want there is available.

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Carol

I love this idea.

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Jan

These are some excellent tips that I will be utilizing this year for not only Thanksgiving but Christmas too. I don’t have anyone to help me with food preparation or cleaning, so I’m always ridiculously exhausted and have no time to interact with company, which always makes me so sad but I’m still so thankful they have a good time. This timeline should really help, immensely. Thanks so much!

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Doreen

It has been reported in several places that slow defrosting whether in the refrigerator or at room temperature is more likely to result in the growth of bacteria. The up to date method is placing the turkey in a bag that keeps out the water and then placing it in a sink or other container with cool water. Change the water frequently and you should be able to defrost most turkeys within 24 hours.

Reply
Nicole Weston

Doreen,
Actually, as long as your refrigerator is below 40F, your defrosting turkey should be just fine in the refrigerator. The problem with the sink method is that the water will need to be changed every 30 minutes (depending on how warm your kitchen is) to keep the turkey out of the temperature “danger zone” and trying to defrost a big turkey that way means you won’t get any sleep the day before Thanksgiving. You’ll also waste quite a bit of water this way. The refrigerator is more consistent as far as temperature stability goes and, while it takes longer, it will keep your turkey from ever reaching the “danger zone” while it defrosts. The cold water method works very well for quickly defrosting smaller pieces of turkey, such as turkey breasts.

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Janis S. TheCookieMomster

We have always defrosted our turkeys in the bottom of the refrigerator with a cookie sheet underneath to help make moving the turkey around easier, and for “just in case” any liquid leaks from the bag that the turkey is in. (it never has, but better to be safe that sorry) In every instance, no one has ever gotten sick from the growth of bacteria on the refrigerated, thawing turkey! Remember to allow a full 24 hours per 4 pounds of turkey. We always get a 20 – 22 lb. turkey and it takes a full 5, up to 5 1/2 days, to completely thaw.

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Nicole Weston

Janis, You have the right idea Refrigerator defrosting, as long as your fridge is below 40F, is a safe way to defrost a turkey.

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Jeanne Neff

I’ve always worked full time, and after cooking all Thanksgiving day, I used to be totally exhausted. I found I couldn’t enjoy the day and was almost too tired to even eat the huge holiday dinner! I decided a couple of decades ago that Thanksgiving would be on Friday! That gives me the time to cook pies, prep side dishes, and then all I have to do Friday is cook the turkey and the last minute dishes. After moving Thanksgiving to Friday I’m so relaxed that I have time to visit with friends and family, and actually enjoy the holiday!

Reply

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