As the calendar flips to November, everyone’s attention turns to Thanksgiving. A holiday that features perhaps the most festive meal of the year for Americans, Thanksgiving is best known for its large dinners and extended family gatherings. It’s never too early to start planning your feast. Whether you’re a restaurant, caterer, or just an ambitious cook preparing dinner in his own home kitchen, this post will help you plan your Thanksgiving Day feast.
The Thanksgiving Countdown
Preparations 1 Month Before
- Finalize the guest list: Consider how many people you can comfortably seat at your table for a formal meal or how many guests you can serve if you're serving buffet-style. Make sure to invite them via DM on social media platforms, call, text, or even email them! This is also the perfect time to find out if your guests have any special dietary needs.
- Place any necessary rental orders: If you are considering renting tables, chairs, glasses, plates, and flatware, make sure to do so now.
- Make a plan for your menu: Choose one of your favorite turkey recipes today and then prepare additional meals using the ingredients from that dish. If you prefer side dish recipes, start with your favorites and then move on to others. Make sure to select some dishes that taste good when they're not piping hot, so you don't have to be concerned about your hot entrée getting cold, or your warm desserts melting. Plan out drink options and simple appetizers to serve as guests arrive
Preparations for 2-3 Weeks Before:
- Shop for any specific gear. Now is the perfect moment to buy the supplies you'll need for the feast. Make a checklist and jot down all the things you needed last year that you were not able to have or maybe some upgrades to some of your current tools to help you with the cooking.
- Create a shopping list. Make sure you know how much of each dish will be needed. Make a list of the ingredients you'll be needing and compare them against the items you already have in your kitchen. Make sure you've finalized your shopping list before ordering any hard-to-find items online.
- Order your turkey. Make sure that your turkey can feed your guests. You can assume that an adult can have 2 pounds while 1 pound per child would suffice. You can buy your fresh turkey, or if you already have some frozen turkey, put it in the fridge.
- Shop for non-perishable goods. You can purchase flour, white granulated sugars, brown sugars, light molasses, canned pumpkins, prepared stuffing and bread, rice, and fresh cranberries before the masses arrive.
- Buy drinks. You don't want to run out of wine and liquor when you're ready to serve guests. So stock up early. A tip is to pick a signature drink that you can serve as a big batch. Serve this to guests upon their arrival or set a bar to let guests help themselves. Each guest should be served two drinks during the first half-an-hours, and one drink per subsequent hour. Treat this as an estimate and adjust as you go. Make sure to also include a nonalcoholic option on-hand such as apple cider or sparkling water.
Preparations for 2 Weeks Before:
- Prepare and Make room in your freezer. You should start cooking and freezing as much as you can now so you won't be stressed out on Thanksgiving. Clean out your freezer to make room for everything you'll be putting in.
- Make and freeze pie crust or an entire pie. Make several batches of pie dough now so you can bake them ahead of time for Thanksgiving dinner. You can store these in the freezer until you need them. Most pies can be baked a day or two ahead of time. Once assembled, place the whole pie inside a loose-fitting plastic container and seal it tightly. Put it in the fridge overnight to thaw, then bake it the next morning. You'll have a delicious, fresh, juicy pie ready for dinner in about an hour.
- Make sure to freeze homemade stock before. This is what makes the gravy good. You can get turkey necks from your butcher, roast them, and then simmer them with aromatics before putting them into your stock pot.
- Freeze rolls. Choose a bread recipe that freezes well — one that has a soft dough made from butter, buttermilk, and pureed pumpkin. On Thanksgiving Day take them out of the freezer in the morning and allow them to defrost at room temperature.
- Decide on decor. Consider whether you'll need to order flowers ahead of the event or if you'll be able to create a nonperishable table setting.
Preparations for 1 Week Before:
- Make a cooking schedule. Organizing yourself for Thanksgiving is the best way to keep your holiday from becoming stressful. Make sure you review your recipes and come up with a daily schedule for the weeks before Thanksgiving as well as a plan for the actual day itself.
- Create a seating plan, dig out serving dishes, and polish silver. If you're planning to host a dinner party, prepare place cards for your guests. Figure out a seating plan. If necessary, clean and iron linens or polish silverware. Dig out your turkey roaster and platter and any serving dishes hidden away in closets or high shelves.
- Make and Freeze soup. You can freeze the vegetable soup without having to add cream or eggs, so it makes for an easy do-ahead appetizer.
- Prepare your containers for leftovers before they go bad. Have everything you need for cooking and eating already prepared so you don't have to worry about running out of things. You should wrap leftovers up within a few hours of finishing your dinner, so better to be ready for them.
- Shop for your turkey, heavy cream, and hearty vegetables. Buy heavy cream now because it's hard to find during the holiday season. You can also shop for heartier vegetables like butternut squash, carrots, potatoes, parsnips, and turnips.
Preparations for 3 Days Before:
- Defrost your turkey. It may take some time and patience to thaw a frozen turkey. To keep your turkey from drying out too quickly, place it in the coldest part of the refrigerator with a pan underneath to collect any drippings.
- Buy perishable ingredients. Buy your salad greens, perishable veggies, and fruits at the store. Wash lettuce leaves now; dry well, and pack them in paper towels in plastic bags in the fridge.
- Set up the dining room table and chairs. You might want to prepare the tables and chairs ahead of time if there are going to be lots of people coming for dinner.
Preparations for 2 Days Before:
- If you haven't frozen soup yet, now would be a good time to do so.
- Assemble casseroles. You can store sweet potatoes or green beans casserole in the refrigerator and bake them on Thanksgiving.
- Bake rolls and bread.
- Make pie dough or thaw your pie dough and cook pumpkin pies. If you've prepped items and kept them in the freezer, take them out to defrost. Make sure to defrost any pies or stocks you've already made ahead of time. If you plan on serving pumpkin pie, you can make it entirely right now and refrigerate it.
Preparations for the Day Before:
- Set the plates out.
- Create a plan. Plan for everything so you won't have to worry about anything afterward.
- Stock your closet with an extra set of hangers for your guests' coats.
- Determine the time of your dinner tomorrow. Determine what cannot be roasted in the same oven as the turkey, either due to temperature or available space. Plan to prepare those dishes before, after, or on the cooktop while the turkey is cooking; even better, prepare them today. Create side dishes like cream soups or casseroles that reheat well.
- Prepare the food. Prepare the salad greens, dressing, garnish, and topping. If the stale bread is a need for your stuffing recipe, cut it now and spread the pieces out on a baking sheet to dry. Vegetables should be washed, sliced up, and prepared before cooking. Vegetables that are ready to eat should be covered and placed in the refrigerator.
- Make pies with apples and pecans. These pies must be prepared as close to Thanksgiving as possible because they don't keep as well as pumpkin pies.
Thanksgiving Day: Last-Minute Preparations
- Warm up frozen bread. Allow it to defrost in a warm environment.
- Cool beer and wine.
- Prepare the stuffing for the turkey. Prepare it to cook on the side or stuff it into the turkey.
- Roast the bird. Put it in the oven in accordance with the timing you determined yesterday. It can cook alongside the filling.
- While the turkey roasts, prepare other side dishes. They can be kept in the refrigerator or left out at room temperature for an hour. Let the turkey rest when it has finished cooking while you prepare salads, reheat side dishes, and create a gravy. Start preparing fresh veggies to cook just before the turkey is finished, and prepare anything else that has to go into the oven (stuffing, store-bought rolls, etc.).
- After the turkey has finished cooking, let it rest for an hour. Use foil to tent it.
- Construct the gravy.
- Rewarm anything that needs it.
- The food should be placed on a table or buffet. Don't be afraid to call on visitors to help with serving the cranberry sauce, opening wine bottles, filling glasses, and placing food in bowls.
- Grab a dish, and start eating! Don't lose out on the Thanksgiving feast you've prepared by spending the meal going back and forth to the kitchen.
Read more: How long to deep fry a turkey
What do I do with Leftovers?
Utilize the leftovers. For up to 4 days, leftovers can be kept in the refrigerator. Instead of reheating the entire portion, try to only reheat what you'll be serving at that time. It's okay to reheat everything and then store what you don't need, but it's not the best solution. Try one of our favorite recipes for turkey soup to make the most of your bird.
Tips On How to Create the Best Thanksgiving Feast
While the Thanksgiving turkey is the day’s main attraction, it’s the side dishes that enable chefs to really flex their culinary muscles. When deciding on what side dishes to offer, make a conceited effort to vary ingredients. Some dishes should be sweet, others spicy, and others sour. Variety is key to providing guest with a balanced and fulfilling Thanksgiving meal.
It’s also important not to serve too many variations of one food. For example, no Thanksgiving dinner is complete without a potato-based side dish. But at the same time, nobody wants to chow down on sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, and fingerling potatoes. So rather than overwhelm diners with starch, offer another dish that’ll broaden the scope of your food items.
Food at a Thanksgiving table should look as good as it tastes. Decorate your table with aesthetically pleasing dishes like deep-red cranberry sauce, golden cornbread, and leafy-green broccoli. All the colors will work together to make your Thanksgiving a beautiful kaleidoscope of mouth-watering food.
New Spins on Old Classics
Thanksgiving honors a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. But that doesn’t mean our forefathers would be averse to a bit of experimentation in the kitchen. For stuffing, try a cheesy spinach dish or maybe even a quinoa-based option. You can give your carrots an extra kick by infusing them with honey, curry, and olive oil then roasting them to perfection. No matter what classic dish you want to give a modern makeover, there’ll be plenty of unique recipes available for free online. Simply Google what you’re looking for and browse the results until you find the perfect recipe.
Cooking the Turkey
Undoubtedly the crown jewel of any Thanksgiving dinner, the turkey is one thing chefs can’t mess up come supper time. It’s okay to take a few chances with side dishes and give diners something they might not have had before. But being bold with the turkey is a good way to make some new enemies. It’s one thing if you’re a seasoned chef who has made plenty of turduckens and deep-fried turkeys in his day. But for novices and those who aren’t so experienced, it’s best to do things by the book and make a basic turkey that everyone will enjoy.
By the end of an enormous Thanksgiving dinner, there’s a good chance that no one will have any desire to eat dessert. But as always, diners will conjure the appetite to scarf down at least a few sugary treats. Pies are always popular choices on Thanksgiving. Apples and pumpkins are both in season come late November, and baking pies in the crisp, autumn weather just seems right. Sweet potato pie and pecan pie are also great choices, especially for a sweet tooth.
Keep in mind what dishes you served earlier when deciding what sort of pie(s) you want to feature for dessert. If you served apples in some capacity as an appetizer or in stuffing, it’s to best to make a different type of pie. The same idea applies if you made a pumpkin pot pie or served pecans as appetizers. And of course—a little whipped cream or old-fashioned vanilla ice cream will help your pie taste as delicious as possible.
Some coffee—decaf and caffeinated—should also be in order. This is especially important for diners who have long rides home. They’ll understandably be feeling a bit sluggish by this point in the evening, and a hot cup of Joe is the perfect remedy.
While turkey is certainly festive and delicious, not every attendee will be so anxious to indulge in the traditional Thanksgiving entrée. That’s why it’s important to have an alternative plan that’ll keep vegans and vegetarians both satisfied and well-fed. One option is to offer protein-dense tofu in lieu of turkey. Another idea is to offer veggie burgers. Even though there’s already likely plenty of side dishes to eat, catering to the specific needs of all diners is a nice gesture that will let your guests know you care.