The weather has gotten brisk and the leaves have dropped. When the calendar turns to November, it is time to plan the Thanksgiving festivities. It can seem overwhelming to cook the big meal, but by using this post on how to plan your Thanksgiving cooking timeline and taking the tasks one by one, you can have your feast and enjoy it too.
This basic timeline will get you on track. Just follow along and the meal will come together. The first step is to make a plan, and then make the feast! Whether you are hosting a large group of friends and family, or just want to make an Instagram-worthy meal for your immediate loved ones, this timeline will work for you. It’s been trialed by fire the last few years when I’ve hosted about forty people for Thanksgiving.
We are three weeks away from the big event that is all about the food. This timeline is broken into weekly tasks if something doesn’t apply to your situation just skip it. So let’s get started:
Three Weeks Before
- Invite guests—be sure to find out any food allergies or dietary needs.
- Plan how you will serve the feast—will you serve buffet-style or pass dishes around the table?
- Plan how the seating and table arrangements will be. Decide if you need to borrow an extra table or chairs.
- Plan the menu—once you know the guest count and dietary needs, you are ready to start listing the dishes you will serve. (In a few days, I’ll post a great way to estimate how much food you will need to serve, but for now, just plan the dishes you want to have at your feast.) Make sure that you plan a menu that will provide food for all your guests, but also work with your kitchen (think oven and refrigerator space) and your budget.
- Decide what dishes, glassware, silverware, and table linens you’ll use. (If you go the paper route, make sure you buy the heavy-duty kind; I think that since it’s Thanksgiving, it’s worth the extra effort to pull out the special plates. People appreciate the extra effort stoneware or china provide and food just seems to taste better on real plates than paper goods. On a positive note, there are always enough helping hands to wash up, and some of the best memories of the holidays often occur around the kitchen sink.)
- Decide on centerpieces or decorating—simple is best, especially on the tables since the food is the main event.
- If cooking a farm-fresh turkey, call and schedule your order now.
- Assign dishes—let your guests be part of the meal by bringing something and delegate the dishes that aren’t your priority. (For instance, I’m not a fan of green bean casserole or marshmallow yams so I’m always happy to let someone else bring these dishes. It frees up oven space and serving dishes I need to worry about.) For those guests that aren’t comfortable in the kitchen, ask them to bring needed items that don’t involve cooking like ice, fruit, or cheese for an appetizer platter, etc.
- Clean your kitchen—deep clean your oven, make room in your freezer, and de-clutter your refrigerator.
Two Weeks Before
- Print out your recipes—this lets you plan your grocery lists and map out the game plan for how you will complete the dishes you are cooking.
- Make your grocery lists—plan on making a master list of everything the recipes require, (read each recipe carefully and add any utensils you don’t have or items like parchment paper to the master list. Check if there are items you can borrow, rather purchasing things that you won’t use often, like a roasting pan, large strainer, etc.). Then cross off items you have in your pantry or spice cupboard. Finally, make a second set of grocery lists that divide everything from the master list into categories like non-perishables, produce, frozen, etc. This will let you be organized at the grocery store.
- Shop for non-perishable goods and anything needed for dishes you will prepare now and freeze like pie crusts. Remember to get paper goods like foil and zip-close bags you will need and containers for leftovers for your guests to take home. Stock up on paper towels, toilet paper, and tissues so you don’t run out, especially if you’re going to host out-of-town guests.
- Buy your frozen turkey (if using) and store it in the freezer. Frozen turkeys are often on sale at a steep discount this week.
- Confirm your guest list and who is bringing what dish. This lets you have a plan in case of needing a backup dessert or side dish.
- Check the serving dishes and serving utensils, polish and clean as needed. Don’t forget you can borrow dishes from friends and family. Wash and press your table linens (or take them to the dry cleaners).
- Check the kitchen equipment—if you haven’t used your electric knife or food mill since last Thanksgiving, make sure they are operational. Check that you have baking twine to truss the turkey and enough pots and pans. You can even dry check that your turkey will fit in the roasting pan and what oven rack position they will need to be on. Note that information on your turkey recipe.
- Clean the house—take care of the deep cleaning of bathrooms and other areas in the house now, and you will only need to tidy up the day before Thanksgiving.
- Make your Thanksgiving playlist—this is a task you can assign to a guest or family member.
- Plan activities for children—ask someone to provide entertainment for any young guests to your feast. This doesn’t need to be elaborate, just something that will engage them.
- Make the pie dough and freeze—if there is room in your freezer, plan on making the dough and actually rolling it out into the pie pan before freezing. Blind bake any pie crusts that need it before freezing the crust.
- Prep anything else that can be frozen—gravy can be made now and then stir in the turkey drippings when it is reheated. Carefully read through your recipes and see if there are steps that can be completed now.
One Week Before
- Prepare a food schedule.—you can create a spreadsheet for your menu. Note the timing for cooking or thawing each dish, and the steps that are needed. Make sure to schedule cooking, baking, and food prep work. Think of it as a puzzle and you are fitting in the chunks of each recipe into the whole. (I only have one oven, so I block out the oven space needed by the hour counting backward from when I want to serve the feast. This lets me know when to start cooking or reheating each dish. Don’t forget to add in the time to preheat the oven.)
- Begin defrosting the frozen turkey in your refrigerator (plan 24 hrs for every 5 pounds). Place the turkey in a leak-proof container to catch any juices. Place the turkey on the lowest shelf of the refrigerator to avoid cross-contamination to other foods.
- Prepare for any overnight guests—include wi-fi info.
- Shop for any groceries that will last and get drinks, grilling supplies or any other shopping that you can do ahead.
- Decide on an outfit to wear and make sure it is pressed and ready for you to change into just before your guests arrive. This way you won’t sit down with your guests in food-stained sweats.
Two Days Before
- Shop for perishable food and pick up anything needed from butchers, bakeries, and specialty food shops. (Just a note, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving is the busiest day of the year for most grocery stores to be prepared and plan ahead.)
- Organize the groceries in the fridge so you know where everything is. Clean vegetables and herbs so they are good to go when you need them.
- Begin prepping vegetables—chop any vegetables for your recipes that can be ready ahead of time. Place the prepared vegetables in bags and label them with the recipe name. Group recipe components together in the fridge.
- Plan on when you will chill any beverages. Remember just as the oven space is golden, so is refrigerator space. Think of alternatives for chilling drinks, like coolers.
- Do any light cleaning to maintain your house.
- Make or purchase centerpieces for the table.
- Prepare the brine for your turkey.
- Move any frozen items you have prepared ahead to the refrigerator. (pie crusts, turkey stock, gravy, etc.)
- Fill the salt and pepper shakers.
The Day Before Thanksgiving
- Label serving pieces (bowls and serving utensils) and set them on an out of the way spot that is easy to access. Just like oven and refrigerator space is golden, counter space is now at a premium.
- Make a staging area for drinks and desserts. Arrange hot pads or a towel for guests to deposit hot dishes.
- Drape the table with linens so the wrinkles can hang out. Set the table and if you’re serving family-style, plan out where the dishes will go on the table. Place the labeled empty serving dishes on the table, arranging hot pads or towels to protect the table. Add the centerpiece and candlesticks so everything is ready for the feast.
- Make any side dishes that can be prepared now. The good news is that most casseroles, stuffings, and sauces taste better the next day after the flavors meld. Wait until Thanksgiving morning to make the mashed potatoes.
- Make the desserts—cook your pies now to free up your oven for the main event.
- Wash salad greens and prep any vegetables not done yesterday. Make your salad dressing as well.
- Refill soap dispensers and put out extra toilet paper.
- Vacuum the floors.
- Remove any items from the refrigerator that needs to be at room temperature.
Remember that schedule you made last week—now is the time to implement it. You already figured at what time the turkey needs to go in the oven, and how you will get everything else ready.
- Make your stuffing and any other casseroles so they’re ready to go in the oven according to your schedule.
- Remove turkey from the refrigerator one hour before it needs to go in the oven so it can get to room temperature. This will give you a moister turkey. Pat the turkey dry (inside and out), add butter under the skin, truss the legs together and fold the wings back and set it in the roasting pan so it is ready to go. If you are adding stuffing to the bird make sure it is at room temperature before adding it to the bird. (Some people really need the Thanksgiving bird to be stuffed. I’m in the dressing on the side camp since I want to concentrate on the meat being moist and not the stuffing being food-safe.)
- Preheat the oven
- Make the rolls and finish any desserts.
- Start cooking the turkey—remember every time you open the oven door, the temperature drops about 100°s and will take more time to get hot again. Baste if desired, but resist peeking.
- Prep the potatoes—peel them and cut them into pieces. A large pot of potatoes takes much longer to cook than you might think. You can always have them ready and mashed an hour early and hold them in a slow cooker until time for dinner.
- Make anything else that’s still on your list.
- Remove any casseroles or sides from the refrigerator so they can come to room temperature.
- Clean any dirty dish and put them away to clear counter space.
- Set out appetizers and drinks as guests begin to arrive.
- Start the playlist.
- Start checking the turkey with a thermometer 40 minutes before the timer says. You are shooting for 155°-160°F for white meat and 165°-170° for the dark meat. Once the turkey is to temperature, remove it from the oven and let sit undisturbed for 45 minutes (or up to an hour) for the juices to redistribute into the meat.
- Reheat/warm any dishes that you made ahead.
- Assign someone to fill water glasses and pitchers.
- Pour gravy into a saucepan so you can quickly add the drippings to it and heat it on the stove.
- Set out a carving board and serving tray for turkey.
- Cook any vegetable dishes that are sautéed or steam.
- Empty the dishwasher so it is ready for dishes
- Change into a clean outfit you prepared before.
- Place pies in the oven to reheat.
- Remove ice cream from the freezer to soften.
- Make whipped cream and hold it in the fridge.
- Transfer turkey onto the carving board. Add drippings to the gravy and heat.
- Have guests start transferring completed dishes to serving dishes on the table.
- Carve the turkey and bring to the table.
After the Feast
- Put any leftovers in the refrigerator within two hours
- Pack up leftovers for guests
- Clear the table and serve dessert.
The Day After Thanksgiving
- Wash table linens or take them to the dry cleaners to be washed.
- Spot clean any stains on the carpet or upholstery.
- Put away dishes and serving pieces and extra tables and chairs.
- Note any changes you would make on the recipes and file them away for next year.
A Few Days After Thanksgiving
- Make turkey broth from the carcass.
- Freeze any remaining leftovers.
- Write any thank you notes and return dishes or anything else you borrowed.
- Email any recipes guests asked for.
- Share photos with your guests.