First Time Cooking Thanksgiving Dinner? Here Are Some Pointers

All your turkey, pie and sides questions, answered!

Roast Turkey on a platter. Wine and candles in the background. Perfect for Christmas or Thanksgiving.


Roast Turkey on a platter. Wine and candles in the background. Perfect for Christmas or Thanksgiving.

Photo by: LOVE_LIFE


By Leah Brickley for Food Network Kitchen

You've watched your relatives pull off Turkey Day year after year, and, now the carving knife and fork have been passed on to you. Whether you've accepted the challenge with trepidation or excitement, we have tips on how to pull it off with ease. Overall, it's all about preparation. From shopping for ingredients to making sure you have enough fridge space for leftovers, we've covered everything you need to know for making Thanksgiving dinner for the first time.

First, Decide on a Menu

Before you start dreaming about your first-ever Thanksgiving menu, make sure you’re keeping everyone in mind by planning ahead for any special diets or food allergies. Collecting that info beforehand will help you draft a menu that is balanced for everyone. Perhaps that means gluten-free stuffing or extra meat-free sides for vegetarians — whatever the case, don’t be thrown off by a special request the day of. This is also a great way to get the whole family involved in the cooking — any help in the kitchen means less for you to stress about.

Once you can sit down and sketch out a menu, decide between traditional, adventurous or a combo. Then, think of the dishes as a collective meal — there should be a balance of creamy and crunchy textures, sweet and tangy flavors and a variety of color (everything shouldn't be brown!). Then, think about the best way to serve the food. Do you go 100% family style or serve soup and salad as separate courses before the main spread? All these factors will help determine the best menu for your comfort level and family.

Preparation Is Key

Shot of a unrecognizable person cutting up a roast chicken


Shot of a unrecognizable person cutting up a roast chicken

Photo by: PeopleImages


Once the menu is decided, take some time to get your plan down on paper. That includes knowing what food you need to get at the grocery store, what cookware and cooking gadgets you need to prepare that food and how long everything is going to take to cook (you’re going to want an oven schedule!). We’ve broken down everything you need to have figured out ahead of time below.

Make a shopping list. Use your menu and recipes to help write a comprehensive shopping list — don’t forget about staples like salt, oil and aluminum foil.

And make a prep list. Take a deeper dive and create a prep list based on your menu and recipes. Create a timeline for prep work and when it can be done. Some items, like stock can be made a week before, and chopping fresh herbs can be taken care of in the morning.

Take stock of your equipment. Determine if you need anything specific for your dishes — don’t get caught without a probe thermometer for the turkey or with nothing to mash the potatoes.

Have a game-day plan. Decide what time you want to serve the meal and work backwards. Look at your recipes, figure out how long the hot dishes will take to cook (or reheat) and plot out when they should go in the oven or on the stove top. Ideally, everything should be ready around the same time.

It’s All In the Details

There are a lot of specifics to a Thanksgiving dinner that you need to think about. For instance, do you know what size turkey will you need? How are you going to cook your stuffing? You don’t have to plan every single thing, but, for your first year of hosting, it’s best to be prepared. This might lead to realizing you need to cut some things out, which is totally fine (store-bought appetizers are more than fine in our book!). Here are some of the finer details to consider:

What size turkey do you need? Take your head count and calculate how big a bird to buy. The general rule is 1 1/2 pounds (uncooked) turkey per person. Next, decide what type of turkey you want — options range from kosher to free-range. As for brining, we recommend a dry brine over a traditional wet one since it’s less fuss.

Stuffing or dressing? Whether you cook inside the turkey (which would make it stuffing) or separately in a baking dish (dressing) is a personal preference. But, if you do opt for stuffing, be sure the final temperature is 165 degrees F or more.

Don't skip the gravy. Whether you make it from roasted turkey drippings or from just turkey stock, there should be ample gravy to pass around the table. You can make it a couple days ahead, reheat and loosen with a little stock if needed.

Remember store-bought is fine. There's no shame in store bought packaged foods (especially cranberry sauce) or ordering parts of the meal from a local restaurant or grocery store. It's important to enjoy time with your friends and family so don’t stress if the entire meal is not made from scratch. If you do want to cook, spend your time and energy on the main meal and consider buying appetizers. It's perfectly fine to throw frozen mini quiches in the oven or put out bowls of nuts. You can also impress with an easy cheese plate and crackers. If you really want to make everything, there are some great three-ingredient Thanksgiving appetizer ideas.

Make time for real whipped cream. Like gravy, you can never have too much whipped cream — and making it from scratch is a really simple way to make Thanksgiving dessert (like pumpkin pie) extra special. You can whip it up a couple of hours before serving and keep in the fridge.

Don’t forget drinks. Whether you’re opting for alcohol to pair with your dinner or a sparkling water to make the night feel festive, don’t forget to plan for this element of the meal, too. If wine feels intimidating to buy, check out our guide to the best wines for Thanksgiving. (Spoiler alert: Bubbles are a safe bet and Pinot Noir is a crowd-pleaser.) Just don’t forget a wine opener!

Get Your Kitchen Ready

Thanksgiving Turkey Dinner


Thanksgiving Turkey Dinner

Photo by: Liliboas


Making Thanksgiving dinner (and storing the leftovers) is a lot easier when your kitchen has been prepped beforehand. Do yourself a favor and clean out your fridge beforehand so you have plenty of space to store ingredients and extras. You’ll also want to make sure you have enough open space on the counter for extra appliances, prep work and food fresh from the oven. Here are some more tips to make your day stress-free.

Break out the small appliances. Your cook range is about to be bombarded, so be sure to free up some precious space by using your slow cooker or multi-cooker to make some of the side dishes. Slow-Cooker Mashed Potatoes saves cooktop real estate and Instant Pot Green Bean Casserole means one less thing in the oven.

Make some things ahead. Fill your freezer with Thanksgiving goodies before the big day. Set aside time to make dinner rolls or a deep-dish apple pie that can be easily reheated and served.

Have serving and decorative pieces out and ready. Depending on the dish, the correct serving piece can be important. For example, you’ll need a tureen for soup or a large, wooden bowl and serving tongs for the salad. We also have some easy ideas for decorating your Thanksgiving table for an extra special touch.

How to Fix Thanksgiving Fails

Even the most seasoned host will run into issues on Thanksgiving Day. Take a deep breath, stay calm and remember that this is all for your family — and it should be fun! If you run into trouble, use our guide for the top 10 fixes for Thanksgiving missteps — it covers everything from thawing a still frozen turkey to fixing lumpy gravy.

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