our menu is planned and your guests are invited; you’ve got every day for the next three weeks planned out to a T, all the way down to a detailed seating chart and cleaning schedule…wait, what? You mean you DON’T???
WE CAN HELP!! We’ve compiled a “Thanksgiving Preparation Countdown” to help you through this holiday with minimal effort and your sanity intact. Everything from making sure you have the right amount of turkey and plenty of pie plates, to inviting and confirming with guests (plus tips for making those guests feel welcomed, and maybe even getting them to bring their favorite dish!). Grab a pen and some paper and LET’S.GET.ORGANIZED!
3-4 Weeks Before Thanksgiving
Plan your menu and compile your guest list. Once you know what you’ll be serving (and to how many) you can start forming a grocery list. Start watching sales and stocking up on non-perishable items. If guests are bringing food, you’ll also want to let them know well ahead of time, so they can plan accordingly as well.
This is also the time to procure or order your turkey (know your farmer, some require more than one month’s notice as they sell out). We have a semi-local farm that we can order free-range, organic turkeys for about $2/lb, but it’s a pre-order deal and a HUGE bummer when forgotten! If ordering locally isn’t an option for you, Azure Standard offers frozen turkeys with a wide range of prices. You’ll want to check your delivery dates, to make sure you get your order in before the big day. (For more information on Azure Standard and how you can receive free groceries, check out this post.) I’ve been told to plan on 1 1/2-2 pounds of turkey per person (this includes the weight of the bones), but for our family, just over 1 pound is always plenty, including leftovers. Turkey just isn’t the star of the show at our table. If you’re unsure, be safe and round up! Leftover turkey is always wonderful!
Once your guests confirm and you have a general headcount, head on over to Food Network for their handy dandy “Thanksgiving Dinner Portion Planner”. (Our tip is to account for 4-6 extra bodies, in case you have an opportunity to extend a last minute invitation to someone without holiday plans!)
2 Weeks Before Thanksgiving
Take inventory of your dishes. What pots and pans will you need for your meal. Think about all your appetizers, side dishes, main dishes, gravies, etc. You don’t want to realize you’re short on pie plates the day you’re making pies! Better yet, use sticky notes to label what will go in each dish. My mom always did this and included the serving utensil she’d be using with the dish. (She’s a VERY smart lady…hi mom!)
Also consider special tools or kitchen appliances that are used infrequently. It might be a good idea to make sure your meat thermometer is in working order, or that you can find your turkey baster you’ve been shoving to the back of the drawer all year.
I actually like to do a “mock cooking day” where I mentally (or written out on paper) walk through the day of, noting when items will be cooked, approximately how long they’ll need to cook, and how they’ll be kept warm (or reheated) until dinner time. These notes come in very handy the day of, when your house is full of guests and your brain a bit frazzled. Try to take all the guess-work out of it and hope for a seamless day.
How about place settings? Are you using real plates? Do you have enough? And what about forks, spoons, knives and chairs? Do you need to set up an extra folding table so everyone has a place to sit? At our house, we’re pretty easy-going. We eat in the kitchen, at the table, in the living room or on the front deck and no one seems to mind the casual nature of the day. The table is set up buffet style so people can serve up seconds and thirds as desired. No one even minds when I gather up the forks after dinner and wash them real quick for dessert. But not everyone runs such an informal show, and I get that, which is why we’re planning ahead.
Since we’re planning so far ahead. How about getting some bone broth going on the stove? Once finished you can pressure can it so it’s ready to go for making gravy or stuffing the day of Thanksgiving.
1 Week Before Thanksgiving
Clear out your fridge! Eat leftovers, condense jars, re-arrange items to clear up as much space as possible. Unless you’re fortunate to live where it’s very cold this time of year, and the back porch doubles as a fridge, you’ll need all refrigerator real estate space you can get to defrost and brine your turkey, as well as store all your side dishes.
It’s also polite to check-in with your guests. This helps you to finalize your meal plans, and gives them another opportunity to bake an extra pie! You can NEVER have too much pie!
Speaking of pie. This is when I start making pie dough. I wrap them up and store in the fridge until “pie making day”. A great tip is to make up your pies and freeze before baking. (Some baked pies freeze well, but not all, so be sure you know before you freeze!) A day or two before Thanksgiving, pull them out of the freezer so they can defrost, then you can bake the day before, or just after dinner to serve up hot. (Some pies require 2+ hours to cool and “set”, so again, know your recipes!) Looking for pie-inspiration? Check out our Homemade Pear Pie or Cream Cheese Pumpkin Pie (includes our homemade, fool-proof pie crust recipe).
This is also a good time to soak and then dehydrate any nuts or seeds you might be using for upcoming recipes. And if you plan on serving salad, be sure you have this DIY Ranch Seasoning on hand to whip up a salad dressing the day before.
5 Days Before Thanksgiving
Grab that bird and get it out of the freezer! Seem too early? Not if you’re planning to brine! A turkey can take 2-3 days to defrost in the refrigerator, and you’ll want a full 24 hours to brine before baking. So counting backwards, this leaves us with a small cushion, just in case that bird takes longer to defrost than anticipated. Depending on your preference, this can be done in the sink or a bucket of water in a few hours, but not everyone is comfortable with this. So pull it out of the freezer and stick it in the fridge (remember, you should have ample space in there now!).
- If, for whatever reason, your turkey isn’t defrosted when it’s time to start brining, place your bird WITH the packaging still on, in a sink or bucket of cool water. Be sure the turkey is completely covered and switch out the water every 20-30 minutes until turkey is defrosted. (Thanks Food Network for your awesome holiday tips!)
3-4 Days Before Thanksgiving
Hit the grocery store one last time for those perishable items. Grab out your menu and see which dishes can be made ahead of time. The following are a few ideas:
- Mashed potatoes – boil and mash potatoes ahead of time, add butter, cream, salt and pepper, then seal and store in the refrigerator (or freezer).
- Baked sweet potatoes – wrap sweet potatoes in foil and bake until soft. Keep them wrapped in foil, allow them to cool then store in the fridge.
- Broth – if you haven’t made it already, now is a good time to grab the turkey neck and giblets and get them going in a pot of water (hopefully your turkey is defrosted enough to remove them by now). The longer you let your broth cook, the more flavorful and nutritious your dishes will be.
- Casseroles – not traditional Thanksgiving fare in our house, but for some, casseroles are a staple. Different kinds of casseroles can be made and frozen ahead of time to pull out and bake the day of.
- Cranberry sauce – best served chilled, so cook this up ahead of time, cool completely and store in the refrigerator.
- Pies – If you haven’t made your crust, or assembled your pies yet, now is a good time to do so. (See “1 Week Before Thanksgiving” above.)
- Rolls – If you’re making sourdough rolls, or rolls that require multiple steps over multiple days, you’ll want to be sure your sourdough starter is active and fed, or that you get your dough started. Some rolls can be made ahead of time and reheated the day of, but not all rolls are this forgiving. Be sure you know if this will work before you try it! Serving up hockey pucks for bread is not an option!
2 Days Before Thanksgiving
Wash, prep and chop all the things! Do as much prep work as you can so you’re not chopping frantically later.
If fridge space allows, you can remove items previously frozen (such as potatoes, casseroles and pies) to defrost in the refrigerator.
1 Day Before Thanksgiving
Get your turkey brining! Follow this recipe to be sure you have the most delicious turkey EVER! (We call the skin, “turkey candy” because it’s so sweet and crispy!) We brine our turkey for a full 24 hours, but anywhere from 12-24 hours will be sufficient. Just be sure your turkey is in the brine before you go to bed, there won’t be enough time in the morning.
Bake up any pies that require time to set up. Your oven will likely be tied up tomorrow, so baking them tonight, putting them in the refrigerator, then allowing them to come back to room temperature tomorrow will be just fine.
Double check your menu to be sure you haven’t forgotten anything. If you’re serving a salad, whip up a couple salad dressing options like maple-poppy dressing, or this ranch dressing.
If you think you may be short on ice, go ahead and empty your ice trays (or bin) and fill up a few gallon ziplock bags to keep in the freezer. There’s nothing worse than running out of ice with a house full of company!
Before you head off to bed tonight you may want to decorate and set the table. I also like to give the house a good once over. I’ll have the kiddos do a final sweep of the kitchen floor, or vacuum the living room rug, and then we’ll check the tidiness of the bathrooms, because who wants to be cleaning on Thanksgiving?
First thing, bright and early: No time for snooze buttons today…get out of bed and get to the kitchen! Bake up any rolls and put any mashers or casseroles into the crock-pot to reheat. Remove pies from the refrigerator and be sure to find a safe spot for them. Also, how’s that ice supply? Need to empty and refill any trays?
Once that’s done, go get yourself ready for company. If you don’t do it now it likely won’t happen!
4-6* hours before dinner: Get that turkey out of the brine, rinsed, dried and slathered with butter. Season with pepper, then put him on the roasting tray and get him in the oven (be sure you’ve allowed enough time for the turkey to rest…it needs 15-30 minutes to come up to full temp and allow the juices to redistribute before carving). Take a couple minutes and watch Mr. Alton Brown roast a turkey to perfection in this video, compliments of Food Network:
* If you happen to have convection bake on your oven, you can cut the roasting time drastically, but unless you’ve used it before, Thanksgiving may not be the best time to test it!
2-3 hours before dinner: While the turkey is roasting, remove any side dishes from the fridge to come up to room temperature (this will help them reheat quicker once the turkey is out of the oven). If you’d rather not whip cream post dinner (hello food-coma!), then now’s a good time to whip your cream and get it in the refrigerator, but use this homemade Cool Whip recipe to be sure your cream holds, there’s nothing worse than deflated whipped cream!
An hour before dinner: As the turkey nears completion, it’s a good time to do a quick recap with your menu (hopefully nothing was forgotten!) and start setting out appetizers for those early arrivers. Mix up any drinks needed, get that crock-pot of salted caramel apple cider warming, and check that ice again! This is also a good time to prepare any fresh side dishes or salads you’ll be serving.
30 minutes before dinner: Hopefully the turkey is out of the oven and resting quietly. Since the oven is free, go ahead and reheat any casseroles, stuffing, rolls and sweet potatoes. If you’re pressed for space, re-heat the items that will hold their temp well (casseroles, sweet potatoes wrapped in foil, etc.), then heat up rolls and other items that will cool quickly. Remember, the goal is to eat HOT food!
It’s also time to make the gravy. Grab those pan drippings and go to town! If you have a trusted side-kick, this is a good task to delegate! It would be nice to also do a quick tidy of the kitchen. Enlist the troops (that’d be the kids) to clear away some dirty dishes and put them into the dishwasher (even get a load of dishes going if the noise won’t be disturbing). You’ll be glad later, if you slowly chip away at the mess. I can hear The Hubs now, “Clean up as you go!” I heart him!
15 minutes before dinner: All those yummy juices should be redistributed by now, so it’s time to start carving the turkey. Once the bird is carved it’s time to dig in! But wait! Don’t forget about the pies! If they’re best served warm, then place them in the still warm oven (that’s now turned off) to warm up slowly while you eat. Once dinner is done your pies will be warmed to perfection and ready to eat.
Congratulations! You did it!
We truly hope this countdown was helpful, and hope you and yours have the loveliest Thanksgiving this year. We’d love to hear any additional tips and tricks you implement during your own Thanksgiving Countdown! Let us know in the comments below.
I love your #4. That’s SUCH a good idea to make room for leftovers!!! 🙂
Thanks Megan! Yes! Fridge space is at an all time low this time of year…it NEEDS to be made a priority! Thankfully our temps are dipping this week, so the back porch doubles as a fridge! 😉
I am a scheduler like you mentioned above. It keeps me sane. Thanks for the awesome tips. By the way, I never brined a turkey. Does it add salt to it since I have to watch my salt intake.
Hi Anna! Schedules are my friend, too! Brining your turkey will add salt to the end result, which is why we make sure to use good quality salt like pink Himilayan or Celtic Sea Salt (not stripped down table salt, devoid of minerals)…I can understand needing to watch your salt intake, but most importantly is the type of salt. Check out what we wrote on salt in this post, and this post. Hopefully brining your turkey will still be a possibility as the flavor is remarkably superior! 🙂
So helpful to have tips like this for planning a holiday meal!
Thanks Emily, we agree!
I really wish I could be this organized
That’s what we’re here for! 😉
Being organized is essential! Love your tips and the schedule.
Thanks Linda, without organization I’m liable to forget to cook the turkey! 😉 Lists/schedules are my friend!