Hosting Thanksgiving dinner doesn't need to be stressful. Some basic planning and list-making will have you dancing into the big day fully prepared... and mostly relaxed!
This post was originally published in November 2018 and has been updated.
Menu planning and list-making
Hosting a holiday gathering - large or small - can be daunting. There's menu planning, grocery shopping, food prep, and table decor. But with some simple planning, organization, and list-making, you will be well-prepared and can enjoy the special day as much as your guests.
My Thanksgiving game plan provides a timeline for scheduling out to-do's starting three weeks in advance.
My key to preparation is making lists and organizing the to-dos. Below is an outline of the game plan that keeps me organized and well-prepared.
Three Weeks in advance
- Invite your guests. If you would like your guests to bring a dish, specify what they should bring - salad, side dish, rolls, dessert, etc. Assigning dishes helps to prevent duplicates and ensures that you will not be missing a component of the meal.
- Start planning the menu. Make note of what your guests are bringing and what dishes you will be providing. Stick with recipes you are familiar with. This isn't the time to experiment - that will only add stress! Take into consideration any dietary restrictions your guests may have.
- Start making the grocery shopping list. Go through the recipes for the dishes you plan to make and prepare a thorough grocery list. Keep adding to this list as your menu takes shape.
Two Weeks in advance
- Finalize the menu.
- Print out or bookmark the recipes you plan to use.
- Finalize the grocery shopping list.
- Make a timeline for food preparation - things to do 3 days ahead, 2 days, etc. See below for specific ingredients and dishes that can be prepared in advance.
- Plan the table setting. Iron tablecloths or napkins and clean crystal, if necessary. Purchase any seasonal decor if needed.
One Week in advance
- Do the grocery shopping for pantry items and any non-perishables.
- If roasting a frozen turkey, buy the turkey now to allow for adequate defrosting time in the refrigerator. Thawing a turkey in the refrigerator is the safest way to defrost a turkey. This method ensures the turkey stays cold to prevent the growth of bacteria.
- Plan which serving dishes will be used for each item on your menu. Set these pieces out along with serving utensils. Label each item with a sticky note indicating what it's being used for. This prevents last-minute scrambling and helps you to remember all the dishes.
3 Days in advance
- Go grocery shopping for perishables - fresh turkey, produce, and anything else you may have overlooked.
- Set the table. I like to keep dessert plates and coffee mugs on a nearby hutch or sideboard for easy access.
2 Days in advance
- Prepare produce. Dice onions and celery; peel and cut carrots; prep veggies for vegetable platters.
- Bake pies.
- Make homemade ice cream. Cinnamon Ice Cream is delicious with apple, pumpkin, or pecan pies.
1 Day in advance
- Prepare side dishes - Sides similar to these work well being prepped in advance:
- Green Bean Casserole or Loaded Green Bean Casserole
- Applesauce Cinnamon Jello
- Best Make-Ahead Mashed Potatoes, Loaded Baked Potato Casserole, Mashed Potatoes with Caramelized Shallots and Sage Brown Butter, or Garlic Red Skin Mashed Potatoes.
- Sausage Cornbread Dressing
- Broccoli Cheese Rice Casserole with Ritz Cracker Topping
- Prepare appetizers - Dips, cheese balls, and deviled eggs are just some things that can be done ahead of time. These recipes can all be made 1-2 days in advance.
- If not serving pies, Gingersnap Icebox Cake is festive and easy and should be made one day in advance.
- Prep the turkey: Remove the neck and giblets and rinse out the turkey. For those who brine, brine the turkey. For non-briners, pat the turkey dry and let it sit, uncovered, in the refrigerator overnight. This helps dry the skin which will make for crispier skin.
- Make the gravy. Yes, this can absolutely be done in advance. Simmer the giblets with aromatics to make giblet broth. Use the giblet broth to make gravy. When the gravy is reheated the next day, add the turkey drippings for additional flavor. No one will know the gravy was made a day early. This is a HUGE timesaver.
- Roast the turkey or turkey tenderloins for smaller gatherings.
- Make side dishes, such as Corn with Pancetta, Glazed Carrots, Roasted Green Beans with Orange Butter and Crispy Pancetta, or Roasted Honeynut Squash.
- Make the salad, such as Garden Salad with Balsamic Mustard Dressing, Harvest Salad with Arugula, Apples, and Blue Cheese, or Brussels Sprouts and Kale Salad.
- Reheat side dishes, such as the dressing, mashed potatoes, and green bean casserole.
- Reheat the gravy, adding the drippings from the turkey.
- Set out appetizers and set out beverages.
Making lists is my key to staying organized. With some planning, you too will have time to sit back and relax and enjoy the day.
For all of my seasonal recipe ideas, browse all Thanksgiving recipes.