The Ultimate Thanksgiving Planning Guide & Timeline
As of this publication, Thanksgiving is just 3 weeks away.
That’s right. Three. Weeks. Away.
And while that dwindling timeline might cause some of us to break out in a light sweat, some planning and prep can help the big day go off without a hitch.
From devising a turkey plan and mapping out the menu to taking stock of kitchen essentials and whipping up some delicious dishes, we’re here to help every step of the way.
As we count down to Turkey Day, we’ll walk you through some of our resident chefs’ and entertaining experts’ tips and tricks to ensure this year’s feast is one your loved ones will never forget.
3 Weeks Before
Finalize the Guest List
Whether you’re hosting just a few loved ones, or your home is the go-to spot this year, knowing how many guests to expect is the first step in planning your Thanksgiving dinner. Think about what style of meal you want to serve—are you hosting a more casual affair where guests can mingle and food is served buffet style? Or are you planning for something more formal?
Consider how many people you can comfortably fit around your table or in your living room and what kind of feel you want the evening to have. Then, start sending out invites. This is a great chance to check with guests for any dietary restrictions or allergies.
Order or Buy Your Turkey
When you get your turkey depends on one main factor: fresh or frozen.
If you’re opting for a fresh, raw turkey, you’ll want to wait until as close to Thanksgiving as possible since fresh turkey should be stored for no more than 2 days in the refrigerator. However, you may still be able to reserve one early, depending on the supplier.
If you’re opting for frozen, you can keep it that way until you’re ready to start the thawing process. The caveat? Don’t buy it too early.
Most stores will start stocking frozen birds at the beginning of November, but many of these are left over from whatever they couldn’t sell the year before. So, to ensure you’re getting the freshest frozen turkey, wait until mid-November when the stores have rotated through some of their stock.
Plan the Menu
Think of this step like a pyramid—your turkey shines at the top and all the other dishes work to support it. So, instead of giving that new turkey recipe a try, go for a tried-and-trusted favorite. Then, fill in the rest with some staple side dishes that are easy to prep and reheat, like these Perfect Mashed Potatoes or these Green Beans with Walnuts and Cranberries.
Also think about drinks you might want to serve or appetizers for guests to snack on when they arrive, like this Fall-Inspired Cheese Board. Not only does it look amazing, but it can be assembled early and kept in the fridge until you’re ready to serve. Plus, it’ll pair nicely with this autumnal-inspired Harvest Punch, which is a great option for guests to serve themselves while you cook away!
Need tips on menu planning or portion sizes? Check out our helpful guide, How to Plan Your Thanksgiving Menu.
Take Stock of Tools + Cookware
With 3 weeks to go, now’s the time to stock up on all the tools and gadgets you need to make Thanksgiving as stress-free as possible. Think about what you needed last year but didn’t have (like a meat thermometer, which is much more reliable than those little pop-out timers) or any items that are in need of an upgrade.
And if you don’t have a solid roasting pan, now’s the time to snag one.
Not sure what you need? Check out our handy checklist of items that will help your day go off without a hitch!
Clean and Calibrate the Oven
Sure, no one likes cleaning their oven, but doing so will actually help to promote even and efficient cooking, which is an absolute must on Thanksgiving.
Then, once it’s clean, you’ll want to calibrate it. This basically means testing your oven’s cooking temperature against a portable thermometer to ensure it’s actually heated to the correct temperature. This step-by-step guide can walk you through it based on what kind of oven you have.
And while it might seem daunting, calibration is typically only needed about once a year, and it will ensure you get that perfect roast or bake that you’re expecting.
2 Weeks Before
Make a Shopping List
Once you’ve settled on the menu, it’s time to get your supplies. Or at least the nonperishable ones.
Things like flour or sugar for pies and desserts, canned pumpkin, oils, packaged dinner items like stuffing or gravy (if applicable), frozen cranberries or green beans and any alcoholic or nonalcoholic beverages. Also consider any items that may be used for the actual meal, like paper plates or napkins, trash bags, etc.
Delegate Tasks or Dishes (if applicable)
If tackling every dish on Thanksgiving sounds like too hefty a task, reach out to your guests about bringing a few dishes. Things like rolls, pies, veggie sides or even an appetizer can help minimize the workload come Turkey Day and can usually be reheated or warmed after the turkey is set out to rest.
While this is certainly not a requirement for a fun Thanksgiving, a few pieces of well-placed décor or festive tableware can help add to the holiday cheer!
Think about what you already have (white plates and tableware is a great base to decorate around) and what you can buy that will add a touch of Thanksgiving cheer without breaking your budget. Items like festive salt and pepper shakers, cocktail napkins, table linens or even a turkey figurine in your centerpiece can go a long way toward creating a simple but elegant tablescape.
Need a few pieces to take your Thanksgiving table to the next level? Check out all of our festive linens and décor items in our Thanksgiving shop!
Clean Out Fridge + Freezer
This may seem like a no-brainer, but making space in your refrigerator and freezer is an often-overlooked part of Thanksgiving prep.
Here’s why we recommend you do it in the 2 weeks before: as you start to think about what you can prep ahead of time, what dishes guests might bring and, of course, storing the big ol’ bird, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got plenty of space to keep everything cold. Going into Thanksgiving week with a clean fridge will leave you to focus on other tasks.
Plus, this is another great way to take note of what perishable items you have or what you need to stock up on.
Make Pie Dough and Stock
If you’re planning to make your pies and gravy from scratch, now is the time to put in the prep work.
Make your pie dough, wrap it in plastic wrap and store it in the freezer. The night before you want to use your dough, pop it into the fridge. Same goes for stock—if you’re planning to make it from scratch, ask your butcher or the meat counter at your supermarket for turkey bones to use as your base. Pop the finished stock in the freezer until ready to use.
5-7 Days Before
Thaw Your Turkey
We know those three little words probably strike fear into the hearts of many of you, but thawing your turkey doesn’t have to be cause for alarm. According to the USDA, the safest way to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator as this keeps the turkey at a consistent, safe temperature throughout the process.
Here’s a rule of thumb: plan to thaw your turkey for about 24 hours per 4-5 pounds and keep up to 2 days in the refrigerator once thawed.
So, for example, let’s say you’re hosting 10 people for Thanksgiving. You can usually expect about 1-1/2 pounds of turkey per guest, which would equate to about a 15lb turkey. Plan to start thawing your turkey 3-4 days before Thanksgiving to ensure it’s ready.
Once it’s thawed, you can pop it into a dry or wet brine (if desired) to make sure it’s ready for roasting. For a wet brine, check out our Sur La Table Turkey Brine Kit that comes with a brining bag.
Buy Perishable Items
Here’s where you stock up on all the perishable items you hadn’t purchased—milk, fresh veggies and salad greens, heavy cream and hearty vegetables, like potatoes and squash. If you can, wash and store veggies and lettuce leaves by packing them in with paper towels in storage containers or plastic bags.
Chef’s Tip: Buying heavy cream the week before saves you a lot of last-minute stress as this is one item that is exceptionally hard to find right before Thanksgiving.
Clean the House and Storage Containers
Getting this out of the way will make focusing on cooking much, much easier.
Unless you’re in desperate need of a top-to-bottom clean, focus on areas guests will be using the most—guest bathroom, living room, dining room and entry way. Tidy up and declutter the kitchen to make prep easier come Thanksgiving morning, but don’t worry too much about making it look spotless.
If you’re planning to send guests home with leftovers, ask them to bring their own storage containers. Or, if you have some to spare, clean them now and set them aside where they’re easily accessible for the after-dinner cleanup but out of the way during the bulk of the cooking.
The Day Before
Prep Whatever You Can
And we mean whatever you can.
Whether that’s washing and prepping green beans or cooking your mashed potatoes and stuffing, get as much of the “make-ahead, reheat later” items done as you can.
Stuffing can be made ahead of time and left in the refrigerator until it’s ready to cook. Clean, trim and cut things like squash, beans, Brussels sprouts and carrots (potatoes are a big no-no as they will start to oxidize if they’re cut too early).
Bake your pies and rolls. These can easily be covered and stuck in the fridge until you’re ready to reheat.
Chef’s Tip: The secret to delicious, reheated mashed potatoes? A cream and butter cap! To do this, simply make your mashed potatoes according to your favorite recipe and transfer them to a sealable container. Before putting the lid on, pour a mixture of melted butter and cream or half and half over the top, covering them completely.
This “cap” helps to keep the mashed potatoes from oxidizing and drying out. The “cap” will melt and be folded into the mashed potatoes when reheated.
Set the Table
While not the most time-consuming item on the to-do list, getting your table set and ready to go just saves a lot of hassle.
If you’re having guests over that don’t know each other well, this is the time to figure out a seating chart and set out name cards. You can also plan for where you’d like certain dishes to go by writing the name of the dish on a little piece of paper and placing it on the table. You can even set out extra serving dishes as placeholders for a better idea of the layout and space.
Need some inspo for your table setting this year? Check out How to Set Your Thanksgiving Table for tips on the proper table setting, ideas and more!
Write Out a Timeline
Now that you’ve got your sides prepped and your groceries purchased, you can make a timeline of things to do.
First, think about what time you want to eat, then work backward. The turkey is the star of the show, so make that your focus and plan around it—for unstuffed turkeys, expect about 15 min/lb or 20 min/lb for a stuffed turkey.
Plan for the time needed for things like letting the turkey come to room temperature before cooking and letting it rest afterward. Then work in times for making gravy, reheating your prepped sides, baking or reheating pies, and serving apps and drinks.
In the morning, pop any alcohol that needs to be chilled into the refrigerator. If you’re short on fridge space, load up a cooler with ice and start chilling what you can until space becomes available.
Or, if you live in a chilly climate, you can store bottles of wine or beer or cans of sparkling water on your balcony or porch in a pinch!
In need of some delightful drinks that are guaranteed to impress? Check out our list of 9 Easy Cocktails to Celebrate the Holidays, with tips and tricks for turning single drinks into big batches, making nonalcoholic versions and more!
Roast the Turkey
The Main Event!
Get it in the oven based on the timeline you wrote out. Plan to baste it every 40 minutes, but keep in mind that the more often you open the oven to check on it, the longer it’ll take to cook.
About 30 minutes before it’s expected to be done, start checking the internal temperature. A turkey is considered “done” when it’s reached an internal temperature of 165°F. When it is done, you’ll want to rest it under foil for at least 30 minutes to help it retain as much moisture as possible.
Prepare Other Dishes and Clean
While your turkey is cooking, or even when it’s resting, get to work on any other dishes that need to be made or reheated. This is a good time to make any cold appetizers or prep ingredients for warm ones.
Cook the remaining dishes by working backward from those that take the longest time in the oven to the shortest.
If you have time before guests arrive, start doing any preliminary cleaning that you can to make the after-dinner cleanup easier. Take out the trash and recycling, restock paper towels and napkins and wipe down counters. This will also help create less stress as you go by having a clean slate to build upon.
So, there you have it, the ultimate Thanksgiving countdown to help you prepare dinner like a pro. Now, all you have to do is make sure you find time to enjoy your guests’ company, a sip of wine and the delicious meal you’ve made.