Thanksgiving Countdown: How to Prepare for Thanksgiving Dinner Like a Pro

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

October 20, 2021

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Thanksgiving Countdown Planner

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

Photo by: Tara Donne

Tara Donne

There's no need to plan out your Thanksgiving to-do list because we've done it for you. Take 10 minutes to read through this day-by-day guide, which starts with all the little things you can accomplish one-month out. Check off small things every day, and come Thanksgiving, what's left will be totally manageable. Our biggest tip is to work ahead of time, and in that spirit we recommend you check out our list of Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Recipes and Tips.

1 Month Before:

  • Finalize the 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 if your great-aunt makes an awesome stuffing that she’d like to bring. Find out if your guests have any special dietary needs.
  • Place a rental order. If necessary, consider renting tables, chairs, glasses, plates and flatware.
  • 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. Select some dishes that taste good at room temperature, so you won't have to worry about your hot entree getting cold, or your cold dessert melting. Be sure to also think about drink options and simple bites to serve as guests arrive. Don't want to think about any of this? We've curated seven complete Thanksgiving menus.

3 - 2 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. You might want to cross-check our list of Essential Thanksgiving Cooking Tools.
  • Create a shopping list. Decide how much of each dish you’ll need (our Thanksgiving Dinner Portion Planner is a handy tool). List the ingredients you’ll need and compare them against the pantry items you already have on hand. Finalize the list so you can order hard-to-find ingredients online.
  • Order a turkey. Assume 2 pounds per adult and 1 pound per child (to guarantee leftovers). Order your fresh turkey, or buy your frozen turkey and put it in the freezer. For more info on all the varieties of turkey available, scope out our Turkey Buying Guide.
  • Shop for non-perishable goods. You can buy flour, sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, canned pumpkin, packaged stuffing and cornbread mixes, rice and fresh or frozen cranberries, all before the crowds descend.
  • 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:

  • Make room in 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.
  • 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 Deep-Dish 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.
  • 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.
  • Freeze rolls. Pick a roll recipe that will freeze well (see our list of Make-Ahead Breads and Rolls) — 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.
  • Decide on decor. Think about whether you’ll want to order flowers ahead of time or if you’ll create a nonperishable centerpiece, and check out our story on Table Setting Ideas.

1 Week Before:

  • Prepare a cooking schedule. 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.
  • Create a seating plan, dig out serving dishes and polish silver. Make place cards for your guests if you’ll be hosting a sit-down meal and figure out a seating plan. If necessary, wash and iron linen or polish silver. Dig out your turkey roaster and platter and any serving dishes hidden away in closets or high shelves.
  • 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's Roasted Butternut Squash Soup will still be nicely preserved when you reheat just before serving.
  • Ready your containers 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. For more info on storing leftovers, see our food safety story on Thanksgiving leftovers.
  • Pick up your turkey, heavy cream and hearty veggies. Buy heavy cream now; it's hard to find right before Thanksgiving. Shop for heartier vegetables like butternut squash, carrots, potatoes, parsnips and turnips.

3 Days Before:

  • Defrost your turkey. 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).
  • Buy perishable ingredients. Buy your salad greens and perishable vegetables. Wash lettuce leaves now, dry well, and store by packing them in paper towels in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.
  • Clean the house and set up the table and chairs. Smart tip: put non-cooking household members in charge of cleaning. If you're having a lot of guests, you may want to set up the table(s) and make sure you have enough space and chairs.

2 Days Before:

  • Make cranberry sauce and soup (if you didn't already freeze soup). These dishes can sit in the fridge for 2 days. Check out our Top Cranberry Sauce Recipes for some ideas.
  • Assemble casseroles. Sweet potato or green bean casseroles can be stored uncooked in the fridge and baked on Thanksgiving.
  • Bake rolls and breads.
  • Make pie crust or thaw your pie crust; bake pumpkin pies. 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. If you're serving pumpkin pie you can make it entirely right now and refrigerate it.

1 Day Before:

  • Set the table. Put out all the place settings, decorations and serving dishes - this way you won't have to worry about it later. Set up a coat rack with extra hangers.
  • Calculate your cooking time (and cooking order) for tomorrow. Figure out what can't be cooked along with the turkey in the oven, either in terms of temperature or space. Plan to cook those things before or after the turkey is done, or on the stovetop while it's cooking; better still, make them today.
  • Prepare reheatable side dishes. Start to make sides that will reheat well, like casseroles or creamed onions.
  • Prep ingredients. Prep garnishes, toppings, salad greens and stuffing ingredients. If your stuffing recipe calls for stale bread, cut the bread now and set the cubes on a baking sheet to dry out. Prepare your vegetables for cooking-clean, peel and chop. Cover the ready-to-go vegetables and put them in the refrigerator.
  • Bake apple and pecan pies. These pies don't keep as well as pumpkin pies and need to be made as close as possible to Thanksgiving.
  • Brine the turkey. For a how-to, check out our step-by-step guide How to Brine a Turkey, 2 Ways.

Thanksgiving Day:

For the big day, we've figured out just the right order to pull together the rest of the feast.

  1. Defrost premade bread. Let it defrost at room temperature.

  2. Chill wine and beer.

  3. Prepare the stuffing stuffing. Stuff it into the turkey or ready it to cook on the side.

  4. Roast the turkey. Get it in the oven according to the schedule you calculated yesterday. The stuffing can cook alongside it. Need a complete guide on turkey roasting? You're in luck, check out our extensive story on How to Cook a Turkey.

  5. Prepare other side dishes while the turkey roasts. 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. Just before the turkey's done, begin cooking fresh vegetables, and get anything else that needs to go into the oven ready (stuffing, storebought rolls, etc.).

  6. Remove the fully cooked turkey from the oven and rest it for 1 hour. Tent it with foil.

  7. Make the gravy.

  8. Re-heat anything that needs to be warmed.

  9. Put all the food on the table or buffet. Don't hesitate to press guests into service to put food in bowls, open wine bottles, fill glasses and dish up the cranberry sauce.

  10. Get a plate and eat! Don't spend the meal running back and forth to the kitchen and end up missing out on the Thanksgiving feast you've created.

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. Turkey soup is a great way to get every penny's worth from your bird — try one of our favorites.

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