There’s only one way to ensure a stress-free and seamless Thanksgiving: detailed, down-to-the-minute planning. Although I’m typically one to take a laid-back approach to entertaining, Thanksgiving is the one day when freestyling is usually a terrible idea. Even for seasoned entertainers, this is a meal that has a lot going on at once, especially if you’ve got a big group or accommodating multiple dietary restrictions. My solution: A Thanksgiving planning checklist with a timeline that counts down everything that needs to get done to pull-off the feast without a hitch. Then, I put that schedule someplace handy and follow it to the letter. Here’s what mine looks like this year:
Three weeks before Thanksgiving
Plan the menu. It all starts with a smart menu that isn’t so ambitious it turns you into a crazy person—strategic menu planning is the key to conveying the stress-free vibe that we all want to feel on Thanksgiving. Advance planning also gives you the chance to consider how your various menu items will taste and look together, which goes a long way towards the enjoyment of the overall meal. A few things to think about:
- Variety: Thanksgiving is notorious for being monochromatic—the mashed potatoes, stuffing, rolls, and turkey can turn an entire plate an unappealing shade of cream. So, I always throw in a beautiful salad bursting with fall veggies, and this year I’m adorning my cornbread “stuffing” with jewel-toned toppings. Similarly, try not to repeat the same ingredients in multiple dishes (ie if your app is bacon-wrapped figs, skip the bacon in the Brussels.)
- Dietary Restrictions: If your family and friend group is like mine, there are certainly going to be some gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegetarian eaters around the table. Thanksgiving can be tricky, since it often relies on a classic menu of recipes that aren’t by nature super accommodating. My suggestion is: make enough of the classics to keep the traditionalists happy, but make sure there’s at least a main, a veggie, and a starch that works for everyone around the table.
- Consider your timing: Ever had one of those Thanskgiving moments when it’s 30 minutes before mealtime, and suddenly everything needs to be in the oven to finish cooking at the same time? Me too. I’ve learned to get very strategic at the beginning of my planning to make sure prep can be paced out. For example, this year’s cornbread stuffing is mostly made on the stovetop, and can hang out at room temp for awhile before digging in.
Here are more tips on how to plan the Thanksgiving menu… and if you really want to make things easy on yourself: just prepare the exact menu in our Thanksgiving e-book!
Two weeks before Thanksgiving
Order your turkey. Plan to buy one pound per person (or you could go up to 1 1/2 pounds per person if you want leftovers.) Our resident turkey expert, Chef Michael Fjotasek, shared here why a fresh turkey trumps frozen every time. And if you need tips on how to make the ultimate Thanksgiving turkey, we got you.
Make a shopping list. Or, just consult our comprehensive shopping list with everything you need to make our entire 2021 Thanksgiving menu right here. In any case, a solid shopping list is an absolute necessity for this occasion, and be sure to check the staple ingredients that you might assume you always have enough of: one Thanksgiving, I randomly ran out of salt in the middle of cooking!
Buy your shelf-stable groceries. Don’t make the mistake of waiting until the day before Thanksgiving to buy cranberries, canned pumpkin, or any of the other shelf-stable necessities that could make or break the meal. In fact, I like to stock up on everything except fresh produce, dairy, and meat a couple weeks in advance so I can rest easy.
Two days before Thanksgiving
Hit the store for your perishables. It’s also a great time to double-check your grocery list to ensure you’re not forgetting anything important. In addition to your fresh produce, herbs, turkey, and refrigerated items, now’s the time to grab wine, sparkling water, flowers, extra trash bags, ice, and lots of foil for wrapping up leftovers.
The day before Thanksgiving
Brine your turkey and store in the fridge.
Make the chutney, then store in an airtight container in the fridge.
Make the vinaigrette, and store in a mason jar in the fridge.
Pre-cut your squash, red onion, and kale for the salad—store in gallon-sized Ziplocs in the fridge.
Set the table, arrange flowers and place serving pieces where they’ll go on the buffet.
Prep the guest bathroom, making sure the trash is empty, the soap is full, hand towels and toilet paper are well-stocked and there’s a vase of flowers or a great-smelling candle next to the sink.
Happy Thanksgiving! In the morning…
Preheat the oven to 375 F.
Chill your white wine.
Massage the kale for your salad.
Three hours before.
Prep the turkey, and get it in the oven.
Make your cornbread stuffing. Keep it covered on the counter until it’s almost time to eat.
Two hours before.
Make your mashed potatoes. They can hang out on the stovetop with a lid on, and then 15 minutes before serving, reheat over low.
Roast the veggies for your salad.
Pop open a good bottle of sparkling wine to sip while you finish cooking—it’s a holiday!
Fill a pitcher with filtered water and lemon slices, then place in the fridge to get really cold.
One hour before.
Arrange your charcuterie board and set it out—it’ll be ready and waiting for any early arrivals, and the cheese tastes better when it’s come to room temperature.
Pop red wine in the fridge to slightly chill.
Make brussels sprouts. Cover them and let hang out on the stove until it’s time to eat.
Check the turkey for doneness—when it registers 165 degrees F, cover with foil and allow to rest until ready to carve (it’ll come up 10 more degrees before you carve it.)
15 minutes before.
If you have early-arriving guests, don’t hesitate to give them simple tasks like opening wine and slicing lemons for water. Putting them to work will actually put everyone at ease.
Rewarm mashed potatoes on the stove.
Pop the cornbread stuffing in the oven to rewarm.
Toss together all the ingredients in your salad and set it on the buffet.
Carve that baby up, place everything in its designated spot on the buffet, call your guests to help themselves, then kick back and enjoy the feast.
Was this Thanksgiving planning checklist helpful? Bookmark it to refer back in the days leading up to the holiday, and be sure to share it with any friends who could use a little Thanksgiving help!