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In this post: Planning on hosting Thanksgiving dinner? Follow these simple steps to prepare for Thanksgiving. Learn how to plan your dinner, what to cook, and how to make your home look great.
It can feel overwhelming to prepare for Thanksgiving dinner. But never fear, lovely hostess, this step-by-step guide will help you organize and prepare for your Thanksgiving feast, whether it’s your first or twenty-first!
Table of Contents
Thanksgiving Countdown: How to Prepare for Thanksgiving Dinner Like a Pro
Make a week-by-week, day-by-day plan
The best way to make sure you’re prepared is to create a plan leading up to turkey day. Using the rest of this post as a guide:
- First, brainstorm all the things that need to be done before and on Thanksgiving.
- Then sort out what can be done ahead of time, and what needs to be done the day of.
- Finally, write out a plan and put it in your planner (digital or otherwise).
What can I prepare in advance for Thanksgiving?
There are several things that can be prepared beforehand to make the big day stress-free, including your home and some of the food you’ll be serving.
You can prep your kitchen, bathrooms, and guest rooms ahead of time. You can also get your pantry, fridge, and freezer ready for all the yummy food too.
Here are some ideas of foods you can make ahead:
- most desserts
What shouldn’t be prepared ahead of time?
There are a few things that don’t do so well with being prepped ahead of time:
- rolls, cornbread, or buns
- salads with dressings or delicate greens
- the turkey or other proteins
1 Month Before Thanksgiving
How to Plan the Thanksgiving Dinner Menu
Here are the easy steps to planning your Thanksgiving meal(s).
Review Your Recipes
Check on the recipes you’ve collected on your Pinterest boards or online. Have a flip through your cookbooks. Look at any recipes that have been handed down to you from your mom, grandmother, aunts, or other family members.
Assess Your Skill Set
Have a good chat with yourself about what your skill level is in the kitchen.
Can you handle making pies from scratch (crusts too?) along with all the sides and stuffing? Or should you scale it back a bit and make use of some store-bought prepped things like pre-made pie crusts or more simple side dishes?
Be honest. Don’t think of what you wish you could do, but what you realistically can do without making yourself and everyone around you nuts!
Make Your Guest List
Before you plan your meal in its entirety, think of the family and friends you’d like to invite to your Thanksgiving dinner.
Do they have any food intolerances or allergies? Any strong dislikes?
Part of why we host and show hospitality is to love on others, so try to avoid any dangerous foods (like nuts if someone is allergic) and give options for foods that are simply disliked.
Also, consider how much space you have. Will this be a sit-down dinner with all the dishes at the table? Or will it be more of a buffet with everyone just pulling up a chair where they can? This will inform how many guests you should invite, and therefore how much food you need to make.
Write Out Your Meal Plan
Given the guest list, any pertinent food sensitivities, and how much you want to tackle as a host, write out a complete meal plan. From the appetizers to dessert. Write it all down.
Make Out Your Grocery List
Now, look at each and every item on your meal plan and list out the ingredients you’ll need for each one. Double-check the things you “always” have on hand, like spices, to ensure you have plenty.
Then re-write the grocery list by category: produce, meats, canned goods, frozen, etc. for ease of shopping.
Sample Thanksgiving Menu Meal Plan (with links to recipes plus shopping list)
- Stuffing (this gluten-free recipe is our favorite!)
- Mashed Potatoes
- Green Bean Casseroles
- Mashes Sweet Potatoes
- Roasted Brussel Sprouts
- Slow Cooker Glazed Carrots
- Mashed Carrots with Turnip (this recipe is great – but we don’t add any sugar)
- Oven Roasted Veggies
- Cranberry Sauce (we don’t actually include this due to a family member’s allergy to cranberries)
- Pumpkin Pie (this one is gluten and dairy-free!) and/or Pecan Pies
- Apple Pie (this one is gluten-free)
Related: See more Thanksgiving Recipes here
Order Your Turkey
If you’re planning to get a free-range or organic bird, this is especially important. You don’t want to get to the big week and find that your grocery store is out of turkeys.
Distribute Responsibilities & Figure Out Who’s Bringing What
If you’re going to ask guests to bring a contribution to the big feast, don’t leave it open-ended. Be specific and assign specific dishes to specific people. That way you will know for sure what you have to prepare and what you don’t.
Check your cookware and kitchen tools
Once you have your menu plan sorted out, you should take inventory of what cookware and kitchen tools you have and which ones you may need to get. Having the right tools will really help you during the prep.
Essential Kitchen Supplies You Need for Thanksgiving:
- meat thermometer
- a roasting pan and rack OR a shallow baking dish (large enough for your turkey) and tin/aluminum foil
- baking sheets
- parchment paper
- Dutch oven
- casserole dish(es)
- stainless steel pots & pans set (<—best purchase ever!)
- cutting board
- chef’s knife
- paring knife
- vegetable peeler
- garlic press
- potato masher
- knife sharpener
- measuring cups
- serving spoons, and forks
- serving dishes and bowls
- gravy boat
- serving platter
- pie dish
- pie lifter
- rolling pin (if you’re making your pie crust from scratch)
- airtight reusable food storage containers OR Ziplocs
- cooking twine (if you’re going to truss your bird)
2 Weeks Before Thanksgiving
Plan Thanksgiving Table Settings & Decorations
Buffet or Plated or At the Table?
You will need to decide if you will:
- Have everyone serve themselves (from a sideboard, island, or kitchen counter)
- Serve everything on individual plates (“plated”)
- Bring the sides and mains to the table for people to serve themselves once they’re seated.
Then you can plan how to set the table accordingly. For example, if you are bringing casserole dishes to the table, you will need to keep the centerpiece minimal in order to leave room. But if you’re serving Thanksgiving buffet-style, you can create a more elaborate centerpiece, if you wish.
Practice Your Table Setting
I tend not to do this because I like to grab things from the buffet cabinet and put it together last minute. But I have a lot of practice.
If you haven’t set very many tables before you will definitely want to do a “dry-run” table setting to see how you like it and make changes as necessary.
Pro Tip: Take a photo of the table setting you like on your phone so you can refer to it quickly on the day of.
Finalize Guest List & Menu
Touch base with your guests and double-check the menu you’ve got planned. (You yourself check it. I don’t mean to check with your guests!) Then give your grocery list the once-over again too.
Clean your oven
If you’re going to have help from guests in the kitchen, you may want to clean your oven before you start your holiday baking, food prep, and turkey making.
Honestly, I’m not so good at this. I think in more than twenty-five years of marriage (and 11 different homes) I have only cleaned an oven three times. My mother-in-law would be appalled – and she’s absolutely lovely!
1 Week Before Thanksgiving
Put Out Thanksgiving Decorations
If you’ve not already got the Thanksgiving decor out, add a few touches here and there. It doesn’t have to be over the top.
If you’re Canadian that will definitely mean fall decor. If you’re American, you may decide to go a little more wintry or Christmas-y.
Prep Your Fridge
Give your fridge a deep cleaning. Get out the trash bag and the paper towels. Toss the expired sauces, old leftovers, and moldy fruit. Make room for the Thanksgiving groceries.
Clear Your Countertops
Now is also the time to clear off the counters. File old papers, toss expired coupons, and put away everything that doesn’t actually belong on the counters.
You are going to want all the space you can get to prep food.
Go through the pantry, fridge, and freezer to see what you have and what you will need. Add anything that you’re out of to the grocery list.
4 Days Before Thanksgiving
Buy or Order Groceries
If you’re going to the store in person, put on your comfy shoes, make sure your trunk is empty and head out with a full stomach.
When you’re at the store, make sure you strategically place items in your cart:
- Place like with like (produce with other produce, frozen items with other frozen items, etc.). This will make bagging and putting groceries away once you’re home much easier.
- Set things in carefully so that you can fit what will likely be one of your largest grocery hauls into the cart. Trust me on this. If you toss it all in willy-nilly, you will have things falling off before you know it.
If you’re ordering your groceries online via Instacart or another pick-up or delivery service, double-check your cart with your list. And leave yourself some time to run out and pick up anything random that gets missed or that the shopper “can’t find.”
Make or Buy Ice
If you’re likely to need more ice than normal, buy a bag or two of ready-made ice. Or if you have an ice maker, make extra and bag it in Ziplocs to use when guests arrive.
Plan for Leftovers
After cleaning out your fridge, your food storage containers should be clean. But make sure you have enough ready to go the day of or ensure you have plenty of Ziplocs.
Make a schedule of events for Thanksgiving day
Will you have any games or activities? Will you watch football? Will the kiddos need anything planned to keep them occupied and happy? Plan those things out now.
Even just a few Thanksgiving-themed coloring pages or word searches will be helpful to have on hand just in case.
Clean the House
Give your house a good deep cleaning.
Start with bathrooms. Dust and then clean the floors. Wash any slipcovers or throw pillow covers. Wash the windows and clean the doorknobs. Wash the cabinet and drawer fronts in the kitchen.
I like to sanitize the common things like light switches, and doorknobs before and after guests come.
Prepare for Overnight Guests
If any of your guests are staying overnight, make sure their space is ready for them. Wash the bedding and spare towels at the very least. If you’re up for it add special touches like thanksgiving decor in the guest room or special little gifts.
3-4 Days Before Thanksgiving
How do I thaw my turkey and how long do I need to thaw my turkey are a couple of the most common turkey-making questions.
If you’ve chosen to buy a frozen turkey, you should thaw it before you cook it. I mean, you can technically cook it from frozen, but this will take a lot longer. (See below for cooking a turkey from frozen.)
To thaw a turkey safely, you can do so in one of three ways.
1. In the fridge
How long will it take? Thawing a turkey in the refrigerator will take approximately 1 day per 5 pounds of turkey. So a 15-pound turkey will take about 3 days to thaw in the fridge.
Tips for thawing a turkey in the fridge:
- Keep the turkey in its original wrapping while thawing.
- Place the turkey in a baking dish to prevent any drippings from contaminating other food in your fridge.
- Once thawed the turkey can sit in the fridge for up to 2 days before cooking.
2. In cold water
How long will it take? Thawing a turkey in cold water will take about 30 minutes per pound of turkey. So a 15-pound turkey will take about 7.5 to 8 hours to thaw in cold water.
Tips for thawing a turkey in cold water:
- Place your turkey in a CLEAN kitchen sink and cover it with water.
- Change the water every half hour.
- Cook the turkey immediately after thawing.
- Clean and disinfect the sink thoroughly after thawing your turkey and removing it from the sink.
If possible, fit your turkey into a large Ziploc bag, and seal it to thaw it in the sink, to prevent contamination.
3. In the microwave
How long will it take? That depends on your microwave. Read the manual for your particular microwave (which you can likely find online if you’ve no longer got your paper copy) to find out defrosting times and temperatures for thawing a turkey.
How to thaw a turkey in the microwave:
- Remove the turkey from its original packaging. Also, remove any tags or ties (particularly metal ones!).
- Place the bird in a microwave-safe baking dish to catch any drippings.
- Defrost following the instructions in your microwave’s manual.
- Cook the turkey immediately after thawing.
- Thoroughly clean the microwave after thawing your turkey in it to remove any contamination. (Microwaves tender to splatter everywhere.)
You can also combine turkey thawing methods. For example, you can begin to thaw your turkey by putting it in the fridge for a day or two and then finish thawing it in a sink full of cold water on Thanksgiving or Christmas day.
2 Days Before Thanksgiving
Prep Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Appetizers
Prep any appetizers you can ahead of time.
Put platters together, like meats and cheeses, cover and return them to the fridge.
If you’re serving raw veggies, get chopping! Anything you can do to get those appetizers ready ahead of time will be so helpful on Turkey Day.
Set Up the Bar
If you’re going to be serving drinks, set up a sideboard or bar cart with glasses and all the things. Leave room for mixers that need to stay in the refrigerator for now.
Set the Table
Pull out that photo you snapped while you were practicing your table setting, and set the table. Make any needed adjustments, and don’t be afraid to keep it simple.
Include place cards so everyone knows where they’re sitting when it’s dinner time. This will also help them to know which wine glass to grab!
1 Day Before Thanksgiving
Give Your Home a Last Once-Over
Start just outside your front door. Is the porch neat and tidy?
Then move into the entryway and make sure that all the boots and shoes are put away, to leave room for guests’ outdoor gear.
Continue through your home, visiting the rooms your guests will visit, like the dining room, living room, powder room, and kitchen. Do a quick pick-up and return things to the rooms they belong in. Sweep the floor.
Make Thanksgiving Desserts & Overnight Rolls
Since the turkey will likely be hogging the oven all day tomorrow, try to make any desserts and rolls that you know keep well overnight.
Do you want or need help with any last-minute tidying or cleaning? Need someone to help you lift that big turkey in and out of the oven?
Just because you’re the host, doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help. You do not have to do it all by yourself!
Cook the Turkey
The turkey is the most time-consuming thing to be cooked today. So make sure you get it into the oven in plenty of time.
Cook the Other Foods
Prep the veggies early in the morning. Peel the potatoes, and cut everything up. Then put prepped vegetables in pots on the stovetop or in casserole dishes ready to cook.
When the turkey is almost finished and then resting, cook the potatoes, carrots, casseroles, and make the gravy.
Load and Unload the Dishwasher
As you prep and cook food, load up the dishwasher. As soon as it’s full, run it. When it’s done, empty it so that it’s ready for the dinner dishes.
Carve the Turkey
Once the turkey has finished cooking and then rested for a half-hour, it’s time to carve it. Be sure to do this in the kitchen and place the cut-up meat on a platter for serving.
Keeping the Food Hot
Most casserole dishes will help to keep the food warm. But you can also place dishes in the oven on warm, until serving time.
If absolutely necessary you can reheat side dishes in the microwave before serving.
Clean Up and Pack up and store leftovers
After the meal is finished, pack up the leftovers in containers or Ziplocs. Send some home with your guests if you’d like or freeze some if you’ve got a lot.
Rinse and soak any dishes that need a little extra cleaning.
Load up the dishwasher and run it as soon as possible.
Wipe down the counters and toss tea towels and such in the laundry.
The Day After
Put the decor and special dishes away
Un-set the table, and put away the fall decorations. Put any serving dishes away. Give the table a good wipe-down. Wash the cloth napkins, tablecloths, and/or runners.