How to Prep Ahead for Thanksgiving Like a Food Network Staffer

"You, too, can sit on the couch on Thanksgiving," this culinary producer says.

November 19, 2020
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Photo by: Maren Caruso/Getty

Maren Caruso/Getty

Ali Clarke is a culinary producer at Food Network, and as such, her job is often to prep dishes as efficiently as possible. Here's how she uses her expertise to get Thanksgiving prepped nearly all in advance.

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If you are like me, you look forward to making Thanksgiving dinner every year, but that doesn’t mean that you have to be in the kitchen all day. You can cook the meal and also get to spend time with your family, run that turkey trot, or just relax and enjoy the holiday like everyone else.

This is how I prepare so that all I have to do on Thanksgiving is turn on my oven and let it do most of the work, which frees me up to sit on the couch with family taste-testing which bottle of wine we should serve with dinner. If you want to follow this guide, don't feel like you have to follow it to a "t" — your schedule will depend on how much time you have to dedicate to prepping in advance, but even if you take a couple of these tips, it will help relieve some of stress of the big day.

One Month Before Thanksgiving

If you plan well enough in advance, you can make sure you'll have the dishes you'll love and get ahead some time-consuming elements. Too late? No worries, you can do some of these tasks closer to turkey day too.

  • Place orders with your butcher or baker for any specialty items you know you'll need like a fresh turkey, pies, and fresh bread.
  • Make turkey stock and freeze it. I like to use homemade turkey stock for my stuffing and gravy — it makes things that much more flavorful, and it's a great excuse to use up vegetable scraps you've been saving. This recipe for Instant Pot Turkey Stock is a great place to start. If you don’t have an electric pressure cooker, you can just make it in a Dutch oven. Bring the mixture to a low simmer and cook for at least 2 hours and up to 4 hours for a richer stock. Cool the strained and skimmed stock completely and then store in an airtight container like a quart container and freeze.
  • Make pie dough. Food Network Kitchen's Best All-Butter Pie Dough is one of those doughs that works with many different types of pies. You can make the dough up to 3 months in advance and freeze it.
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Cropped shot of young Asian woman shopping for fresh organic groceries in supermarket. She is shopping with a cotton mesh eco bag and carries a variety of fruits and vegetables. Zero waste concept

Photo by: d3sign/Getty

d3sign/Getty

The Weekend Before Thanksgiving

  • Shop for all of your ingredients. You can shop for most of your groceries almost a week before the big day — just double check that the expiration dates on all dairy and meat products are past T-day. Organize your shopping list into sections: Produce, Dairy, Meat, Baking, Dry Goods, Frozen. This will help you shop the store by section and avoid criss-crossing it multiple times. Shop early to avoid crowds — and put your shopping cart back where it belongs when you're done!
  • At home, sort all your ingredients. And clean your fridge and pantry of any items you should toss to make room. Clean delicate herbs and greens, wrap then in damp paper towels, and store in zip-top bags in the crisper drawer so they will last the week.
  • Put your turkey in the fridge. If it's frozen, for every 5 pounds of turkey it will take 24 hours to thaw in the fridge.

The Monday Before Thanksgiving

  • Get the defrosted turkey into a brine, if you want — I like to brine for two days.
  • Defrost the pie doughs.
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Cooking a mashed potatoes, top view

Photo by: Anjelika Gretskaia/Getty

Anjelika Gretskaia/Getty

The Tuesday Before Thanksgiving

  • Cut all the vegetables — except for potatoes, which won't hold up well for two days. But celery, onion, garlic, carrots, squash, Brussels sprouts, kale or other hearty greens will all keep fine. I store them in quart or pint containers or zip-top bags that are clearly labeled so I know what recipe they're for.
  • Blanch green beans for green bean casserole. Drain really well and wrap them in paper towel and store in a zip-top bag in the refrigerator.
  • If you are making a pie for which you can pre-bake your pie dough, do it today. Store the baked crust at room temperature.
  • Defrost the turkey stock.

The Wednesday Before Thanksgiving

  • Remove turkey from brine. Dry it really well and place the turkey in its roasting pan or on a sheet tray and refrigerate it uncovered. This will help dry out the skin so it will get crispy in the oven. If you aren’t brining your turkey you can still follow this step.
  • Make mashed potatoes. Cool completely in a bowl, cover tightly and refrigerate.
  • Assemble the casseroles, including ones using those vegetables you cut the day before. Leave off any toppings, especially if they are meant to be crispy, like the fried onion topping for a green bean casserole or marshmallow or meringue topping for sweet potato casserole. Cover the casseroles tightly and refrigerate.
  • Bake fruit or pumpkin pies. Let cool completely at room temperature.

Thanksgiving Day

With all the prep you've done throughout the week, Thanksgiving day is all about roasting the turkey and reheating everything else — your oven will do most of the work at this point.

  • Preheat your oven.
  • Remove the assembled casseroles, turkey and mashed potatoes from the refrigerator so they can come to room temperature. If you put them in the oven cold they will take longer to cook.
  • Roast the turkey.
  • Make gravy.
  • Bake the casseroles, adding any final toppings first.
  • Set up a double boiler with the mashed potatoes. Gently reheat the mashed potatoes over the steam, stirring every so often and adding in a little more butter or cream/milk as needed.
  • Whip cream for pies.
  • Eat!

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