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This year most of us are doing Thanksgiving a little bit different. It might be that you're cooking for fewer people or maybe you're cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the first time. Whatever the case, it helps to have a plan if you want to be successful. Lots of Thanksgiving planning guides start several weeks ahead of time but the problem with that is that if your world is anything like mine, you weren’t even thinking about Thanksgiving a few weeks ago.
The goods news is I’ve got you covered. I’ve been hosting Thanksgiving for years, and even thought we'll have a smaller group this year, the approach is the same and I never really get rolling on the “planning” until about a week ahead of time anyway. So with that, here’s my guide to planning a Thanksgiving dinner.
Thursday (1 week to go). Recognize that Thanksgiving is one week away and commit to really getting started on the planning tomorrow.
Friday. Plan the menu, but keep it simple. Thanksgiving is not the time to try a complicated recipe, cooking technique or new ingredient. Hopefully you’ve already ordered, and received, your turkey, but if not, go ahead and put that right at the top of your grocery list. General rule of thumb is about one pound per guest if you want leftovers; if not, dial it back by a pound or two.
Decide on what else you want to cook, find the recipes and make a shopping list. If it helps, at the end of this post is our traditional menu and some tried and true recipes. In addition to the main meal, think about what you want to do for dinner on Wednesday night (we usually order Chinese), Thursday breakfast (maybe leftover Chinese) and even meals on Friday and through the weekend.
And don’t forget about beverages! Wine, beer, sparkling water. Whatever it is you want to serve, make sure it’s on the list.
Saturday. Get to the grocery store as soon as it opens on Saturday. Why? Beating the crowds is great but the real reason is so that later on, when you realize you forgot something--and you will forget something--you’ll have time to get back to the store before the end of the weekend.
Another thing to do on Saturday is pull out all the place settings, silverware, glasses, serving platters, etc. that you’ll need. This gives you a chance to clean anything that needs it, but also, to buy any replacements if you find broken plates or glasses.
Sunday. The most important thing is to get the turkey in the refrigerator first thing in the morning so that it can start thawing. Assume it takes about 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds of turkey, so if you have a 12 pound bird, it should be fully thawed by Wednesday.
After that, prepare and cook anything that can be stored until Thursday. For us, this includes making our brine, gravy and the cranberry sauce (always homemade in our house). I also like to make my pie doughs on Sunday--you can keep them in the refrigerator for a few days and it will save you time when it comes time to make your pies.
Now is also a good time to clean out the fridge to make room for whatever you’re preparing in advance and of course, for leftovers. While you’re at it, go ahead and put in the refrigerator any wine or other beverages that you want to serve cold.
Monday and Tuesday. Go completely heads down at work and crank out as much as you can so that you’ll have fewer distractions on Wednesday.
Wednesday (the day before!). Today is the key to making Thanksgiving day a breeze. First thing in the morning, pull that turkey out of the refrigerator and get it into the brine (link to recipe is below). Next, knock out any of the pies on your list. Think about which takes longest to bake and start with that one--for us, it’s the pumpkin and then the apple. While pies are baking, get to work on the sides.
Depending on your menu, make anything that can be refrigerated and reheated tomorrow (mashed potatoes and mac and cheese for example). Otherwise do all the prep work possible--like washing and slicing vegetables. Store everything in the refrigerator in reusable storage containers (good thing you cleaned out the fridge a few days ago!).
By late afternoon, the cooking should be winding down and you can start putting out candles and other decorations. Some people like to go ahead and set the table on Wednesday but we usually leave that for Thursday--it’s a great way to keep from having too many cooks in the kitchen (literally!).
Last thing to do today is rotate the turkey in the brine and relax with a glass of wine and some General Tso’s Chicken.
Thursday. Obviously the timing is all based on when you want to sit down for dinner, but the sequencing is the same regardless.
Top priority is the turkey so build your schedule around that. We like to eat around 2/2:30 which means the turkey has to get in the oven usually around 11am (don’t forget to build in 20-25 minutes for resting and carving after if comes out of the oven). We’ll start our turkey prep around 10:30 or about 4 hours before mealtime.
While the turkey is cooking, turn your attention to the sides. Assemble anything you haven’t pre-made and start prepping the dishes that need reheating. If you only have one oven like us, it’s occupied, so we like to use the slow cooker as a warming/reheating dish.
After the turkey comes out of the oven, you’ve got a hot oven and about 25-30 minutes before service. This is when we cook the roasted Brussel sprouts and start to work on the gravy. If you’ve got room in your oven, go ahead and put in stuff to reheat while those Brussel sprouts are roasting.
Once the sides are ready, grab the carving knife and call everyone to the table!
Turkey Recipe (brining always works for us, so if it ain’t broke…)
Ina Garten's Grown Up Mac & Cheese (no reason you can’t serve it to the kids, but make sure it gets passed around the grown-up table first)
Roasted Brussel Sprouts (with bacon and raisins, this is one the kids might actually eat)
Stuffing Recipe (you know you shouldn’t make the stuffing in the turkey, right?)
Pie Dough (once you see how easy it is to make, you’ll never go back to store bought)
Libby’s Pumpkin Pie (why mess with perfection?)