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Thanksgiving Preplanned - How to Have a Stress-Free Holiday

Updated on November 16, 2017
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Jan has been cooking and writing about food for over 20 years. She has cooked on multiple television stations, including the Food Network.

Homemade green bean casserole is a favorite on many families' tables!
Homemade green bean casserole is a favorite on many families' tables!

Extra tools to help!

 I'm a To-Do list junkie. I have calendars and to-do lists tied together in Apps on my iPhone. There are tons of great applicatons out there to help you get organized - this is a great time to use them. Check for software or apps either one that will work with your device. I plug all my lists, checklists, guest lists and who I asked to do what, and my countdown into my phone. I even set alarms to remind myself to check for things. This year I even separated out a special "Thanksgiving" section, so when I check my standard daily lists of what I need to do, I can then just jump over and see what special tasks I need to address.

Early November

As a die-hard foodie, my ulitmate holiday is of course Thanksgiving. I wait for this day for 364 days, and the moment it's over I begin running ideas through the back of my head for the next one.

I know. It's not quite healthy. On the other hand, I've hosted well over 20+ Thanksgiving Dinners, and over the years served from 6-45 people. I've learned a few things from all those dinners, and I realized that I have some info that might help make everything as fun and stress free for you as it is at my house. It all comes down to planning, and thinking through things ahead of time. Nothing I make is difficult or very exotic, and because I serve so many, it's a very casual experience at my house. But it does take a little organization, and this is the time to start.

We're currently in the first week of November, and this is when it starts. Don't worry - this is the fun part. We're going to make a plan!

  1. You've got several weeks to go, so you have plenty of time to make all kinds of things happen. This is when you do your brainstorming. You need to figure out now how many guests will be coming, who they are, what they're ages are, and what you're going to feed them.
  2. Easy enough. It makes a difference if more than half your guest list is under the age of twelve - or if all of them are in the 40+ crowd. Adults approach a sherried cream soup with a far different attitude than children do. And the more guests you have, the more sides and deserts you may want to think about adding.
  3. Figure out now if there are dishes that absolutely must appear on the table. Turkey is pretty much a given, of course. Or Tofurkey. Or baked ham. Whatever is traditiona at your house. At my house at least half the menu is set in stone - there are dishes that just have to be there, or it won't equal Thanksgiving for someone. For my brother it's my grandmother's sweet potatoes. For my oldest it's Apple Cranberry Pie. Once you know if there are required dishes, you may find most of your menu planning done for you.
  4. Figure out the rest of your menu. There are awesome sites out there that offer sample menus if you're struggling. Epicurious, Food Network and AllRecipes have great choices. I will say, now is not really the time to experiment with new dishes. In the very least, make a new recipe in the next week or two to decide if you like it. Don't try to pop it out new on Thanksgiving Day. That asks for trouble.
  5. Once you've got your menu, make a quick check for any unusual or ethnic ingredients that you may need to find. This is especially true for fresh, kosher, organic or free range turkeys. You want to go ahead and place your order now. Go ahead and round up anything else, either by a trip to ethnic or gourmet stores or by working the internet. I found my ducks last night - Turducken is a must at my house, and duck is hard to find here, so I've already tracked them down for this year. Fresh turkeys especially can become hard to find, even a couple weeks ahead of the holiday, so get yours ordered.
  6. Ok - you've got a guest list, and a menu. Now figure out how you're going to serve. Buffet? Sit down? I've done sit-down formal dinners multiple times, and love them. But as our extended family has grown and the guest list has exploded, I find it much easier to handle a buffet for 40, than to try to find that much matching silver and china. Take your menu and match it to your serving pieces and dinnerware. Check off that you have a way to handle each dish - this step is more important than you realize. Do it now, so you'll know where Granny's turkey platter is, and if the crystal bowl is large enough for beans. It'll save you untold headaches when it's time to serve.
  7. Now - compare the guest list to the menu. If you want, call in the favors. Don't have a problem at all calling each adult or family on your list and requesting them to bring one item. Not a baker? Get your sister to bring pie. Or have someone bring fresh bakery breads. Because I'm insane and like to do it all myself, I have guests bring the makings for cocktails. By the second round no one really sees any of the flaws in my food anymore so that's a winner strategy.
  8. Ok - put your feet up for a while. You've maybe spent about an hour with pencil and paper, and I hope you had a pice of pie while you made notes. Take a break and come back in a few days once you're ideas have perked. K? Ok.

Going Buffet

If you're serving more than a few people, seriously consider a buffet. I love formal meals - I think they are important for special occasisons. But there is a point where it becomes an end in itself. For Thanksgiving, don't forget that anything that leds your guests relax, interact and enjoy themselves is a great thing.

Few of us have formal silver and crystal to serve more than 12 at most anyway. So consider other options. If you call early, there are some lovely items available at rental supply houses. A variety of styles, from casual to formal can be rented relatively inexpensively. Or even further - take an online shopping trip for plastic or disposable options. There are some really pretty ones out there - a far cry above the kind of paper plates you'd pass out a picnic. Some can be dressed up quite a bit.

And think about working in rustic elegance. At my house this year I'm covering tables with heavy brown butcher paper. Silverware and napkins will be bundled with raffia and berries. Menus and place cards will be printed with autumn colors, and I'm using gold and burgundy to highlight everything. My centerpieces will be a combination of things the children have made, and "arrangements" of apples, squash, pumpkin and elements from my yard. It's a great combination of elegant and casual, incredibly inexpensive, the children will be comfy, and the cleanup will be minimized. Good deal in my opinion!

Second week of November

All righty - time to sit back down for a few minutes with the notes you made. You're going to make your master shopping lists, and there will be several different ones.

  1. Break out your menu and recipes. Starting at the top write down every single ingredient AND piece of cooking equipment that you're going to need. If you want you can break it down into separate lists now, but I do through and just make one master list at this point. For ingredients that appear in more than one recipe, make a tick mark next to it each time it appears - such as butter. That way if you'll need three pounds you won't find you only picked up one pound.
  2. Do the same with the cooking equipment. Multiple dishes will need saucepans or stockpots, but since some can be done ahead, you won't need more than one. On the other hand if you'll need six casserole dishes and only have two, now is when you need to know.
  3. Now take your master list and divide it into four lists. One is for staples. One is for perishables, one is for semi-perishables and one is for equipment.
  4. Go through your pantry and fridge and cross off whatever you already have and won't need to purchase again. Now if your pumpkin pie spice or poultry seasoning has been sitting there since last year - ditch it and buy fresh. Do some organization on your cupboards and freezer now, and you'll save yourself lots of headache in another couple weeks.
  5. Decide now too if you get to splurge a little on anything. Even if doing a buffet, you'll want to check linen and napkins, glassware and serving pieces. Anything you don't have, see if you can borrow first. Call your sister back and ask if she can bring highball glasses with that pie. Ask your mama if you can use her pretty tablecloth. Extra chairs or a card table? Find it now. But however you do it, do it now. Not only will it give you time to have things cleaned and pressed, you'll get to borrow before someone else does, or get to shop while selection is still high. Start calling those in now or start the shopping.
  6. Make one final walk through of your menu. Decide now what can be made ahead of time, and how far in advance it can be made. A surprising number of things can be made now and frozen (see why you cleaned our your freezer?). This is the time to start making pie dough, bread and stock. And since many frozen turkeys go on sale in late October to Early November, this is when I buy a couple to make stock. The giblets from the 'stock' turkeys can be frozen as well for later use. This really helps with some of the messier or more time consuming processes - get them out of the way.
  7. Go Shopping! You're going to start your first shopping trip now. This is when you're going to go get absolutley everything on your non-perishables and equipment lists. If you want to go a step further, check coupon circulars and sale flyers and make that part of your planning. Many manufacturers and grocery stores begin running sales on "Thanksgiving" staples - items used in baking especially. Flour, sugar, spices, condensed milk and canned sweet potatoes and pumpkin can often be found at deep discounts. Stock up.

Herb Roasted Turkey

This Herb Roasted Turkey is a great choice. Simple, juicy and beautiful to look at, this recipe is one of the best ways to roast a turkey with the least bit of effort.
This Herb Roasted Turkey is a great choice. Simple, juicy and beautiful to look at, this recipe is one of the best ways to roast a turkey with the least bit of effort.

Homemade Sweet Potato Casserole with Praline Topping

This sweet potato casserole recipe with a praline topping is one of the reasons everyone looks forward to Thanksgiving. This particular recipe can be made ahead, making dinner even easier to put together.
This sweet potato casserole recipe with a praline topping is one of the reasons everyone looks forward to Thanksgiving. This particular recipe can be made ahead, making dinner even easier to put together.

Rosemary Roasted Potatoes

Rosemary Roasted Potatoes are another family favorite - an easy, delicious side dish people adore!
Rosemary Roasted Potatoes are another family favorite - an easy, delicious side dish people adore!

Third Week of November

You've got about two weeks to go, and you're already way ahead of the game. But now it kinda kicks up a bit.

  1. Any of the cook-ahead items on your list that can be done now should be done and stashed.
  2. Start doing any of the major cleaning you want out of the way. Don't go crazy, but it's a good time to get some stuff out of the way. Make sure you've got your equipment, non-perishables, and linens, tables, chairs and serving pieces on hand, or have arrangements to get them soon. You can also have time to check for problems (broken chair legs can knock Aunt Martha in the floor) now before there's an issue.
  3. This is a great time to take care of extra little touches you may want to use. Place cards, menus, table decorations - all of these things can be done now. Get the kiddos involved with this - they are so proud when their projects end up as centerpieces! I intend to have my daughter write on our butcher paper tablecloths with a metallic gold marker - copying quotes about food and family.
  4. Make a final run through on your fridge, freezer, and cupboards. I know I've said this earlier - but this might be one of the better things you can do. Not only will you have nice, open, organized spaces to make it easiest to find what you need, you'll also have plenty of stash space for leftovers for the big day after.
  5. Speaking of leftovers, if you don't already have enough storage containers, get some. You'll thank me.

Getting the kids in it!

If you have kids (I have lots!), get them involved in all stages. Ask about their favorite dishes, have them write out any memories they have of previous years, have each jot down why they are thankful and read their notes as part of grace before the meal.

There are acres of great Thanksgiving Day craft ideas out there. Have them make the table decorations - or make napkin rings or place cards. Get them in the kitchen with you at all stages. Show them how to make bread, or pie dough, or start sharing your mother's garlic mashed potato recipe. This is all about building tradition and memories - don't miss the chance to maximize that!

The Week Before Thanksgiving

Week Before:

  1. Pull out your lists again. Double check your guests, and remind anyone that you've delegated to bring something that they have a job to do.
  2. Your perishables list and your equipment list should be checked off - remember you did that last week. You've got two lists left - one for semi-perishabes and one for perishables. Now is when you go shopping for the non-perishables. By these I mean things like dairy products - most have a shelf life of at least two-three weeks, and often can get scarce the few days before Thanksgiving itself. So look for butter, cream or half and half, root vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes and turnips, and anything else that can be obtained with a week to go and no damage to shelf life. If you're using a frozen turkey, go ahead and grab that now if you have room in your freezer to store it a couple days

Monday and Tuesday:

  1. If you start with a frozen bird, now's the time to get it defrosted. The best way to do this is to allow it to defrost in the refrigerator. You'll need 24 hours for each five pounds of bird. So a ten pound bird needs two days. If you have a big monster bird, you'll want him in the fridge no later than Saturday.
  2. Other than any fresh seafood or if you've arranged for a fresh turkey, this is your final shopping trip. Go ahead and pull out that perishables list, and make your last trip to the stores.
  3. Go ahead and do any prep work you can. If you know that you'll need a total of 6 cups of chopped onions, get it out of the way now. Do them all at once and you'll further ease prep time. Go ahead and wash or prepare any other produce you have.
  4. Start defrosting. By Tuesday you can pull out any pie or bread dough that you've already made and frozen and stash it in the fridge. It'll be ready by the time you're ready to cook.
  5. By Tuesday, pick up your turkey if it's fresh. If for some reason there was a problem with it or if you got caught without a fresh one, you've still got time to work with a frozen bird, but time is getting short, so take care of this early.
  6. If you haven't made your stocks already, now is the time to do it. I tend to start mine early and freeze them, since I tend to go through gallons of stock. An extra turkey or two early in the month means less work now. But homemade stocks are simple, they can sit on the stove and perk for hours while you do other things, so if you haven't done this already, knock it out now.


  1. Kick it up! Today's the day you can knock out all kinds of things, so that when your guests arrive, you can actually enjoy both them and the meal!
  2. Go ahead and make any pies you want. Custard pies like pumpkin or sweet potato will need to be chilled, but fruit pies can be covered and stored at room temperature.
  3. Lots of side dishes, including soups, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and casseroles can be made the day before. Get them either ready to microwave, or get casseroles ready to pop into the oven to heat through.
  4. Make sure any salad greens are clean, washed and dried and stored in plastic bags. Homemade croutons, bacon and hardboiled eggs can be prepped and chopped and stored alongside - although don't toss the salad until last minute. Toppings get mushy and the greens will wilt.
  5. Assemble the aspects of your dressing.
  6. Start your turkey in the brine. Yes - you should brine! If you don't know how or why, check out How to Brine a Turkey.
  7. Go ahead and get all your tables, decorations and plateware out and ready to go. Actually at my house, I set things out, but because some of my children are still pretty little and I have a naughty cat that I can't keep off tables, I don't actually finish setting the table until the last minute. But I do get all of it ready to go.
  8. Wednesday night fix yourself a nice adult beverage, put your feet up and relax. You've prepped well, and the following day will be fun! Get a good night's sleep and get ready to enjoy yourself!
  9. Give yourself a cooking schedule. Check over your recipes and cooking times, and organize them backwards from when you want to serve. At my house I don't serve until supper time -usually dinner is at 7:00 PM. So not only do I not get up at the crack of dawn to start the turkey, I have lots of extra time on the day itself. But having a schedule means I know that if I want to serve at 7, and the turkey needs 3 hours in the oven, plus resting and carving time, then I need it in the oven at 3:00 PM. Do this with each of your dishes, and you'll also see where you may have potential oven conflicts.


Drinks are one thing I tend to forget. I have no idea why, but it seems everytime I entertain I find myself scrambling to make ice tea last minute, then end up serving my guests tea with the ice all melted because it was too warm.

So a couple of years ago I designated a bartender. By that I meant a buddy who was responsible for all of the wine and the mixed drink I was serving, but who also had non-alcoholic drink duty. I made it his job to make sure all drinks were ready to go on time, including the iced tea, soft drinks and punch. I also handed over to him ice-duty, wine opening, and the job of making sure that that part of the table was ready with appropriate stemware. I love it! It seemed like a simple thing, but it made a LOAD of difference, and was one more thing I didn't have to worry about.

Thanksgiving Day!

Woo hoo! I love Thanksgiving Day! Here's how I make it fun.

  1. Have any truly helpful guests come early. If you have one that's handy in the kitchen, have them come well before dinner to hang out and help prep.
  2. Stay on top of dishes. I constantly tell my kids that "a good chef is a clean chef". This is especially true today when you'll be generating tons of dishes. Got someone awesome to help? Ask if you can designate them first round dishwasher - meaning they don't help afterward if they'll help you keep it all clean ahead of time.
  3. Go ahead and finish all your other prep work and dishes. You're close enough now that you can put together all of your dishes, even if they have to wait a bit for oven or stovetop time.
  4. Make yourself a 'gravy prep' plate. Put all the ingredients you'll be using in the gravy in one little spot, so that as soon as the bird comes out and begins its rest, you'll be able to knock out the gravy in no time. Do the same with any other delicate dishes that need last-minute work. You may not be able to cook or assemble the dish until immediately before serving, but you won't be searching frantically for an ingredient to make it work either.
  5. Finish setting the table. I love turning this over to my daughter, who is a budding artist and thinks it's a fun thing to do. Or if you have an artistic friend, let him do it!
  6. Get the coffee and teapots ready so you'll only have to hit the button to have fresh coffee when it's time to serve dessert. Measure out any whipping cream you'll be using last minute and stash it in the coldest part of the fridge, in the mixing bowl with the whisk. It'll go together faster if all the elements are cold anyway.

Guess what? You're done! You did it! And better than anything - you eliminated most of the stressful parts. Remember, plan ahead, make your lists, designate where you can, shop early, get prep out of the way and you've just rocked out a terrific holiday! Congratulations!

Need Help with Your Turkey?

Easy, Perfect Stuffing

© 2010 Jan Charles


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