A Make-Ahead Schedule for Thanksgiving

Gatherings from The Kitchn

Yesterday I shared our small, swanky, make-ahead Thanksgiving menu, and today we're going to talk about how to get it all done. To those of you who love lists and calendars and whiteboards, welcome. To the folks who get a little overwhelmed by planning out a dinner in such detail, stick with me.

Thanksgiving, in its silly pressure and sheer scale, is nevertheless a very good opportunity to break a dinner down from beginning to end, planning what is made when and what can be done ahead. The point, ultimately, is not just to do Thanksgiving like a pro, but to carry these skills into everyday cooking.

Sweet potato rolls that were made ahead and baked on Thanksgiving itself
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The Kitchn's Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Menu

This menu is designed for about eight people, although it could be stretched for more. Eight is a good number; after that you begin to need multiple batches or larger pans than you might already have.

Preparing to make the gravy.
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I recapped the menu above, and now I want to talk about how I think about getting all this done. In all fairness, a meal for eight is not a meal for twenty or thirty. Technically, you could get it all done the day before.

But it's a substantial amount of work. I kept track of the time it took me to make this menu, and I think that if you cooked this entire menu straight through it would take about 8 to 10 hours. (Not including shopping, or things that overlap, like making mashed potatoes while the turkey cooks.)

I find it helpful to spread those hours out over a long period of time. This is especially relevant when making a meal like Thanksgiving dinner where I want to be able to relax with my guests on the holiday itself.

Here's one schedule for getting it all done, and six tips for planning. First, the tips — the things that guide my schedule-making.

I sprinkled the turkey with salt, pepper, and paprika the night before and let the skin dry out in the fridge. Here it is ready to go in the oven.
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Getting Thanksgiving Done: 6 Planning Tips

Here are a few points from this schedule that also apply to other, less weighted, meals.

1. Look for what can be frozen.
The first thing I looked for on this menu was what can I freeze? The further ahead, the better. I oriented dessert around the freezer, with quince sorbet, and the molasses cake could be frozen too, if you wanted. Beyond that, the gougères were a no-brainer (they're an amazing, delicious, easy, swanky party appetizer that you can bake straight from the freezer — convinced yet?).

Pick off anything that can be frozen and do that first. (This applies to weeknight meals too! What do you eat regularly that can be frozen ahead?)

2. Stock up early.
If your grocery store tends to run out of canned pumpkin, or if you're worried about finding a turkey, take matters into your hands and shop now, not the week of Thanksgiving, for as much as you can.

3. Give the turkey an extra day to thaw.
"Shoot, I thawed the turkey too early," said nobody ever. Give yourself margin when thawing your frozen turkey. Rule of thumb: it takes about 24 hours of thawing time for every 4 pounds of turkey. So if you have a 15-pound turkey, you need at least 4 days of fridge time. But I like to add at least an extra day of margin, just to be safe. If it thaws completely a day or two before you need to cook it, that's fine.

I love laying out all my serving dishes the night before and labeling them. It's soothing.
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4. It's never too early to iron the napkins or wash the dishes.
I think I am a linens nerd; I just love ironing napkins. I mean, I do it maybe once a year, but it feels so fancy and Downton to have really crisp, well-pressed linens. If you just aren't into that, no problem. (I may be the one with a problem.) But whether you iron or not, you probably need to pull out napkins, linens, or serving pieces you don't use frequently, and they often have unexpected stains, weird wrinkles, or a layer of dust from sitting on top of the cabinets. Pull them down, clean them off. You can do this days if not weeks ahead.

Usually I even set the table the night before. I didn't do that on this particular occasion, because we wanted to photograph the table as we set it up and put it together. If it weren't for that I certainly would have set the table the previous day.

5. Aggressively minimize your work on the day of Thanksgiving.
We started by talking about what can be frozen, and doing things ahead carries through the whole schedule below. If it can't be frozen, at least make it a day ahead, like the bread stuffing and the dessert.

My goal, when it comes to Thanksgiving, is to have nothing significant to worry about on Thanksgiving itself other than the turkey and the mashed potatoes. Everything else is just getting warmed up or baked.

My schedule for the day of Thanksgiving, helping me keep track of what needs the oven when.
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6. Make a schedule of when everything will happen.
Even if you've done a lot of the cooking ahead, or if other people are bringing dishes, you still need to have a plan for when everything gets cooked, warmed, or finished off. I like to write it all down and actually print out a schedule, especially for such an oven-intensive holiday.

I start backwards and think about the time I want to eat dinner. I know that the turkey comes out of the oven an hour before dinner, to rest and be carved. So I have an hour in between to bake or warm rolls, bake stuffing, and do last-minute prep. I look at the temperatures everything needs to bake at, and decide whether it will all fit. Then I set up a few alerts on my phone to remind me when things need to go into the oven or come out.

Again, this military-style "synchronize-your-watches" planning is an extreme version of what we all do on a weeknight — trying to get the roast chicken on the table while the potato gratin is still hot. Thinking deliberately and methodically through the schedule on Thanksgiving is good practice for the whole year.

Frozen gougères, ready to go in the oven.
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The Make-Ahead Schedule: A Recipe for Thanksgiving Ease

Thanksgiving is just one big homey meal, but its outsized pressure is a good opportunity for cooks to plan out a meal step by step. This skill is one that transfers into more frequent and everyday weeknight meals.

Most of our menu can be made days if not weeks ahead. Here's how I would do it.

3 to 4 Weeks Ahead

  • Buy wine
  • Make and freeze gougères
  • Make and freeze cranberry sauce
  • Bake and freeze rolls
  • Make turkey stock and gravy and freeze
  • Make sure you have necessary equipment, tableware, and linens, and buy or borrow anything you need.

1 Week Ahead

  • Make the shopping list
  • Make a cooking plan
  • Clean out the refrigerator

5 to 6 Days Ahead

  • Go grocery shopping
  • Put the turkey in fridge to thaw
  • Make and freeze quince sorbet (or just buy a seasonal sorbet)

3 Days Ahead

  • Make centerpiece or arrange flowers
  • Iron linens (or just make sure they're clean)
  • Gather any other table-setting accessories

2 Days Ahead

  • Make creme brûlée and refrigerate
  • Make molasses cake and wrap cooled cake tightly
  • Make shrimp sauce
  • Make sure serving dishes are clean and handy

1 Day Ahead

  • Set the table
  • Chill sparkling wine in the refrigerator
  • Thaw cranberry sauce in the refrigerator
  • Thaw frozen shrimp in the refrigerator
  • Make sage and onion dressing. Refrigerate unbaked and covered with foil.
  • Make Brussels sprout salad. Refrigerate, with apples and nuts left out
  • Remove turkey from its wrapping. Remove giblets and pat turkey dry. Sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper and return to the fridge, uncovered on a sheet pan.

Thanksgiving Morning

  • Put the turkey in the oven
  • Make the mashed potatoes. Transfer to slow cooker to keep warm.
  • Prep the hot cranberry cocktail
  • Take rolls out of the freezer and thaw at room temperature
  • Toss salad with nuts and apples and set out on the table

1 Hour Before Dinner

  • Take turkey out of the oven
  • Bake frozen gougères
  • Set out shrimp and sauce, along with bubbly and hot gougères, for guests
  • Bake dressing
  • Warm rolls
  • Warm gravy (or make it fresh)
  • Carve turkey
  • Transfer food to serving dishes
Plates, cups, and silverware washed and clean.
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Hear The Kitchn on The Splendid Table

Listen to Faith talk to Lynn Rossetto Kasper about our Thanksgiving menu on The Splendid Table's Thanksgiving episode
  • Air date: Saturday November 23
  • Listen online or on your local NPR station

Photos by Rachel Joy Photos of Columbus, Ohio

(Image credits: Rachel Joy Baransi; Faith Durand; The Splendid Table)