Thanksgiving Countdown Planner

Hosting Thanksgiving dinner and not sure where to start? Relax — getting ready for the holiday is easy with our tips and recipes.
Related To:

Brined Herb-Crusted Turkey with Apple Cider Gravy; Anne Burrell

Photo by: Tara Donne

Tara Donne

1 Month Before: Finalize Guest List

If you’ve decided to host Thanksgiving this year, now is the time to finalize your guest list. Think about how many people you can accommodate at your table for a sit-down dinner or keep things more casual and invite more guests if you're serving buffet style. There's no need for formal invitations; a phone call or email to friends and family is sufficient. This is the time to ask about dietary preferences and if your great-aunt makes an awesome stuffing that she’d like to bring. This will help you figure out your menu later on.

1 Month Before: Plan Your Menu

Pick your favorite turkey recipe today and then plan additional dishes around the bird. If you’re more a fan of side dishes, start with your favorite recipes and build from there. Think about family favorites and Thanksgiving classics to start, then add in a few new dishes. Be sure to also think about drink options and simple bites to serve as guests arrive.

3 Weeks Before: Get Your Gear

With plenty of time to hit the stores, now is the time to shop for tools you’ll need for the big day. Think about what you needed last year that you didn’t have or upgrade some of your current tools to help ease the cooking process.

3 Weeks Before: Create a Shopping List

With a little over 3 weeks to go, you can start to organize your shopping list. You should have a good idea by now of who will be coming, so take a look at each recipe and decide how much of each dish you’ll need. If guests are bringing dishes, make sure they’re in the loop about how many people are attending. If you’re cooking solo, pick easier, big-batch recipes to make the day less stressful. Once you go through each recipe, create a shopping list of all the ingredients you’ll need and compare it against the pantry items you already have on hand. Finalize the list so you can order hard-to-find ingredients online.

3 Weeks Before: Order a Turkey

With your menu set and guest list finalized, order your turkey. Assume 2 pounds per adult and 1 pound per child (to guarantee leftovers). If you’re ordering a specialty bird, those can sell out pretty early in November. If you’re getting a turkey from the supermarket, it always helps to be prepared and order ahead. If you're buying a frozen turkey, you have time — just don't wait until the last minute.

3 Weeks Before: Shop for Drinks

Wine and liquor keep well, so buy the items you need early. You probably won’t want to serve as bartender on the big day, so pick a signature drink that you can make a big batch of before guests arrive or set a bar with all of the basics and let guests help themselves. Plan on each guest drinking two drinks in the first hour, and one drink for every hour thereafter. You know your guests better than we do, so treat that as an estimate. It also wouldn’t hurt to have a nonalcoholic option on hand, like apple cider or sparkling water.

2 Weeks Before: Clean Out Your Freezer

Cooking and freezing as much as possible now will save you time on turkey day. Clean out your freezer to make room for everything you’ll be putting in.

2 Weeks Before: Make and Freeze Pie Dough, or an Entire Apple Pie

Make a few batches of pie dough now and freeze them; wrap the disks tightly in plastic wrap and thaw in the refrigerator overnight before you’re ready to use them — most pies can be made the day before Thanksgiving. Ina’s showstopping apple pie can be fully prepared and frozen up to a month in advance. After assembling, put the entire pie — greased tin and all — into a loose-fitting plastic bag and seal tightly. Transfer it to the refrigerator the night before baking to thaw, and the next day you’ll have a fresh, juicy apple pie on your table in about an hour.

2 Weeks Before: Decide on Decor

Once you’ve decided whether you’re serving buffet style or a sit-down dinner, you can start to plan for your decor. Think about whether you’ll want to order flowers ahead of time or if you’ll create a nonperishable centerpiece.

2 Weeks Before: Freeze Homemade Stock

The key to a good gravy is homemade stock. You can buy turkey bones from your butcher, roast them and then simmer with aromatics before putting your stock in the freezer.

2 Weeks Before: Freeze Rolls

Pick a roll recipe that will freeze well — one that has a moist base of butter, buttermilk, pureed pumpkin or squash. On Thanksgiving Day take them out of the freezer in the morning and allow them to defrost at room temperature.

1 Week Before: Shop for Non-Perishables

Divide up your shopping list into perishables and nonperishables and get the latter out of the way now. Nonperishables include equipment, decor, paper goods and cleaning supplies – but could also include baking ingredients like flour, sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, canned pumpkin and cranberries. Wait until the day before Thanksgiving to buy fresh vegetables, seafood and bread. Take inventory of tableware, tablecloths and napkins in case you need to pick up anything extra, and make sure each recipe has a serving bowl or platter to be paired with.

1 Week Before: Prepare a Cooking Schedule and Create a Seating Plan

Being organized is the key to keeping stress at a minimum on turkey day. Review your recipes and create a day-by-day schedule for the week leading up to Thanksgiving as well as a day-of plan. Make place cards for your guests if you’ll be hosting a sit-down meal and figure out a seating plan.

1 Week Before: Freeze Soup

Vegetable soups can be easily frozen if they don't have cream or eggs, making them an excellent do-ahead appetizer. The warm curry flavor in Ina Garten's butternut squash soup will still be nicely preserved when you reheat just before serving.

1 Week Before: Plan Ahead for Leftovers

Make it easy on yourself (and guests) by having containers and bags at the ready. Leftovers will need to be wrapped up within a few hours of finishing your meal, so better to be prepared.

1 Week Before: Pick Up Your Turkey

If you’ve ordered a turkey, now is the time to pick it up so you can be prepped to defrost it. If you haven’t planned for your turkey yet, purchase a frozen bird today so it will be able to defrost properly in the fridge.

3 Days Before: Defrost Your Turkey and Buy Perishable Ingredients

Thawing a frozen turkey takes time and patience. The best way is to thaw the bird in the coldest area of the fridge with a pan underneath to catch any drips (not on the counter). If you plan on brining (a simple, hands-off way to infuse your turkey with flavor), Anne Burrell's recipe maximizes taste but minimizes prep with a no-cook apple cider brine. Now is also the time to brave the crowds and pick up any perishable items from the store.

2 Days Before: Make Cranberry Sauce, Pie Crusts and Pie

Try fresh cranberries instead of canned this year, and buy an extra bag when you're in the produce aisle; they keep in your freezer for up to a year. Cranberry sauce can stay fresh in the fridge up to 2 weeks because of its high acidity, so make it now and refrigerate it in a jar or bowl covered in plastic wrap. If you didn’t freeze your pie crusts ahead of time, make them today and wrap the dough to store in the fridge. If you've prepped items and kept them in the freezer, take them out to defrost. This includes any pie crusts or stock you made in advance.

1 Day Before: Prepare Reheatable Side Dishes, Prep Ingredients, Bake Pies

Start to make sides that will reheat well, like casseroles or creamed onions. Prep garnishes, toppings, salad greens and stuffing ingredients. Cook soups and let cool before storing in the refrigerator if you didn’t freeze any options in advance. If your stuffing recipe calls for stale bread, cut the bread now and set the cubes on a baking sheet to dry out. You can go ahead and make your pies, especially Ree Drummond's Pecan Pie that needs to cool overnight for a natural do-ahead dessert.

Thanksgiving Day: Don’t Stress! Stick to a Day-Of Plan

Preheat your oven in the morning and get your turkey going. If you premade bread, let it defrost at room temperature. Put your wine or beer in the fridge to chill. While the turkey roasts, prepare your other side dishes since they can stand at room temperature for an hour or keep in the fridge. When the turkey is done, let it rest while you make the gravy, reheat side dishes and prep salads.

The Day After: Use Your Leftovers

You can store leftovers in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Try to reheat only what you'll be serving right then rather than reheating the entire portion. It's safe to heat it all up and then re-store what you don't use, but it’s not ideal. Soup is a great way to get every penny's worth from your bird — try one of our favorites.

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