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Your adulting guide to planning a proper Thanksgiving dinner


SheKnows Editorial

Thanksgiving is almost here, and if you’re hosting, now is a good time to start preparing. It can be a daunting task to make such a huge meal, especially if you’re doing the work by yourself. Like, if I can’t consistently plan out my lunches for the week, how am I supposed to keep track of a turkey, side dishes, pie and booze for five people?

The secret lies in careful planning. Don’t save everything until the last minute, or you’ll be, well, screwed. Instead, follow this guide to ensure your Thanksgiving Day meal goes off without a hitch.

More: 22 turkey recipes to suit any taste this Thanksgiving

thanksgiving guide
Image: Yvonne Dulvenvoorden/Getty Images/design by Liz Smith/SheKnows

A month before

Decide on a menu. Figure out how you want to cook your turkey; talk yourself down from five to three side dishes; and ask yourself if you can choose between apple, pumpkin and pecan pie, or if it’s a priority to have all three.

Select and invite your guests. Having a huge family bash or a simple friendsgiving? Now’s the time to decide and to give people a little advanced notice. Once you know how many people are attending, you can figure out just how much food you’ll really need.

A few weeks before

Make a shopping list. After you’ve decided on a menu and selected the recipes you want to use, take stock of your cupboards and fridge and write down what ingredients you’ll need to purchase for your Thanksgiving meal.

We recommend any of the following apps for managing a menu with grocery shopping:

How do you even know how much food you need? Use our handy holiday dinner party guide to figure out how much food to plan based on how many guests you’re expecting.

Take stock of your kitchen. Make sure you have the following equipment:

  • Roasting pan big enough for your turkey
  • Nonstick roasting rack
  • Pots and pans for every dish you plan to serve
  • Meat thermometer (yeah, the pop-up ones that come with your bird are basically useless)
  • At least two pot holders, preferably silicone
  • One set of nesting bowls or at least one large and one medium mixing bowl
  • One set of cup measurers
  • One set of measuring spoons
  • One serving dish plus serving utensil for each menu item you’re serving
  • Gravy boat or other container for pouring gravy (even a Pyrex liquid measuring cup will do)
  • One large chef’s knife
  • One large cutting board, preferably with a trench
  • One place setting for each guest plus two more in case of last-minute guests
  • Paper or cloth napkins for everyone
  • Nice to have: Large platter for the turkey, but in a pinch, you can plate in the kitchen or serve sliced turkey on a cutting board, juices drained in a sink first
  • Also nice to have: Carving set with knife and fork, but honestly, you can just use your chef’s knife and a table fork

If you’re missing anything, you can pick it up now, before things get too crazy. Or you could borrow it from friends or family.

Plan your tablescape/decor. Whether you’re going country chic or minimalist and modern, now’s the time to do your Pinterest-ing and decide how you want to decorate.

Buy booze. As long as you leave wine and beer in a cool, dark place, you can buy it, along with any hard alcohol, a few weeks before Thanksgiving. It’s one more thing to knock off your to-do list.

Order your turkey. Whether you’re getting your bird at the supermarket or from a specialty grower, now’s the time to reserve your bird. How big a bird? Here’s the formula:

  • Just dinner: 1 pound per guest (add two guests just in case)
  • Dinner plus leftovers: 1-1/2 pounds per guest (again, adding two guests)

The week before

Make room in the cupboards, fridge and freezer. You’ll be storing tons of food in the next week, and you want to make it as easy on yourself as possible.

Buy nonperishable groceries. Seasonings, potatoes, onions, garlic, canned pumpkin, nuts, etc. — all of these can be purchased up to a week in advance. You can also purchase items like paper towels, dish soap and any other nonfood items you think you might need.

Set a cooking schedule. Decide what to cook when. Include things that you can cook ahead of time, as well as a breakdown of what is going to be in the oven or on the stove and when the day of.

Some of us are not above creating a spreadsheet for this planning. Here’s how you could lay it out.

  • Column 1: Dish
  • Column 2: Amount of prep time
  • Column 3: Amount of cooking time
  • Column 4: Make-ahead, yes or no?
  • Column 5: Means of cooking (stove, oven, slow cooker, pressure cooker, etc.)
  • Column 6: Time slot for prep and cooking (make sure you don’t have too many things on the stove or in the oven at the same time)

Keep in mind your turkey will need to rest about 30 minutes before serving.

Start cooking. You can start cooking a few things now. Cranberry sauce lasts for up to two weeks, so you can make it now and keep it in the fridge. You can make homemade stock to use in your gravy and freeze it until the day before Thanksgiving. You can even make and freeze an entire apple pie.

Purchase or make any decor items you don’t already have. Other than flowers or other live foliage you’re using, you can finish up your decor now.

More: 21 slow cooker recipes for the easiest Thanksgiving dinner ever

A few days before

Defrost your turkey. It takes about five hours of defrost time per pound of turkey, and usually about three days does the trick.

Buy veggies and perishable foods. Store them in the fridge until you’re ready to start cooking.

Make piecrust. Form it into thick discs, then wrap in plastic and refrigerate it until you make your pies.

The day before

Chop and prep your veggies. Store them in airtight containers in the fridge. You can also toast bread for stuffing or leave it out overnight to grow stale.

Bake pies. Store fruit and nut pies at room temperature and custard pies in the fridge.

Make side dishes. Most side dishes are easily reheated. You can make your stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, rolls and many other dishes the day before Thanksgiving, reheating them the next day while the turkey is resting after you’ve taken it from the oven.

Set the table. Setting the table the day before Thanksgiving may seem kind of weird, but trust, it will save you a ton of time and unnecessary hassle on the day of.

Chill white wine, beverages and beer. Just pop them in the fridge.

The day of

Roast your turkey. Plan on it taking three or four hours for a 10- to12-pound bird.

Make gravy. After your turkey is out of the oven, use the pan drippings and homemade stock to make your gravy. You should have enough time because the turkey will be resting.

Finish your sides. Whether you’re reheating side dishes you made yesterday or making them the day of, now’s the time to finish up your side dishes.

Enjoy! See what happened there, thanks to all your planning? The day of Thanksgiving you’re left with plenty of time to focus on the things that matter the most — friends, family and of course, the turkey.

More: 21 simple last-minute recipes that will save your Thanksgiving

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