A Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Menu for 8

Gatherings from The Kitchn

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Thanksgiving is the most iconic of American gatherings, and when we were planning our year of Gatherings from The Kitchn, we were already thinking about this holiday and what we wanted to say. The classic image is so memorable: A sprawling family around the table, sideboards creaking under five kinds of pie and an 18-pound turkey burnished to perfection. It's a feast to make even experienced cooks quake under the weight of expectation, tradition, and sheer logistics.

But this image no longer reflects all of our experiences. You may be hosting a smaller gathering or "Friendsgiving," one closer to home and without the extended family around the table. If so, and especially if it's your first time doing it all yourself, then this week's feature is for you. I'm inviting you to share the Thanksgiving dinner I threw a little earlier this year. A simple meal, a swanky table, and a make-ahead menu will help you embrace this holiday for what it is — a moment to share good food with friends and family.

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A Small & Swanky Thanksgiving Dinner

For a cook, hosting Thanksgiving in his own home for the first time can be harrowing out of all proportion to the actual difficulty of the dishes involved. There is a weight of expectation to the classics: is Thanksgiving really Thanksgiving without Grandma's stuffing or the mashed potatoes made just so? When you add the Norman Rockwell image of the enormous family applauding a gleaming turkey, Thanksgiving can squeeze a cook into a pressure cooker of witless exhaustion.

A Simple Meal
It's ironic, since the meal really is so homey. Bread dressing, a big piece of poultry, potatoes, and a pie made from a vegetable: Thanksgiving is just an old-fashioned weeknight dinner pumped up for a crowd.

Our menu strips this meal back down to the basics, acknowledging that people don't want anything terribly new on Thanksgiving. You are probably going to need turkey, bread dressing, and mashed potatoes. Let's not go off-road.

A Swanky Table
But while we kept the menu simple, we also added a few grace notes to swank it up. After all, if you aren't traveling six hundred miles or hosting sixty guests, you may as well breathe a little deeper and enjoy a grown-up gathering.

Thanksgiving is our national holiday centered on the cooking of one meal. It's the cook's holiday, designed to celebrate good food and be grateful for it. Personally, I like to take that opportunity to set the table with care, and to find a few ways to make it feel like the special dinner it is. (But only, of course, if they're easy.)

A Make-Ahead Approach
If you're hosting a Thanksgiving close to home, you are probably at your desk until just before the holiday. You don't have three full days to bake pies, iron napkins, or brine a turkey (let alone a big-enough refrigerator). On the other hand, the idea of doing it all on Thanksgiving Day itself probably makes you hyperventilate (it does to me).

Our make-ahead menu coaches you through all the things you can do weeks ahead of time to prepare your meal, giving you space and the capacity to enjoy being with your guests on Thanksgiving Day itself. Which, really, is the point.

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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.

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Talking Through the Menu

Let me explain a few things about this menu and how we decided on the pieces.

First, the starters. I don't think it's nice to give guests a lot of heavy appetizers; dinner is the main event on Thanksgiving. But I do like to have a few light things to keep people occupied as they cluster in the kitchen. Bubbly wine like Prosecco or Champagne makes a festive beginning. Gougères are essentially swanky cheese puffs, and they can be made weeks in advance, frozen, then baked straight from the freezer. Shrimp, bought frozen and pre-cooked and thawed overnight in the fridge, makes a luxurious but no-work appetizer, especially served with a yogurt-Sriracha sauce. (No recipe needed: I just mix a little Sriracha into plain whole-milk yogurt until it's as spicy as I can stand.)

For dinner, we go with our basic turkey, sprinkled with salt the night before to help the skin dry out and get crispy in the oven. At its easiest, the turkey is a set-it-and-forget-it dish. You can make your gravy weeks ahead of time and freeze it, if you don't want to think about it on the day. (Here's how to make your gravy ahead.) Or you can make a quick last-minute gravy with the turkey drippings. On the side dishes we stick with the classics: sage and onion stuffing (ahem, dressing — since it won't be cooked in the bird) and golden mashed potatoes with a secret twist. The cranberry sauce has a touch of cardamom, and we start the meal with a refreshing Brussels sprout salad with brown butter vinaigrette. Missing the sweet potatoes? Sweet potato rolls fill in. With it all we drink American Pinot Noir or dry cider.

Dessert is where we went a little less traditional. Of all dishes on the classic Thanksgiving table, pumpkin pie is perhaps the most ubiquitous. There are a lot of opportunities to eat it from now until Christmas. So we leave it off and do a pumpkin creme brûlée, torched with a sprinkle of maple sugar. This is even easier to make ahead than pie (no pie crust!). With it we serve slices of dark molasses cake, which can be made days ahead or even frozen, and scoops of elegant, shell-pink quince sorbet. To tie off the meal, we pour a hot, sweet cranberry punch made spicy with peppercorns and savory with sage.

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Room in the Menu: What the Guests Can Bring

The classic Thanksgiving dinner is the ultimate potluck, not usually prepared by a solo cook. But depending on your situation (parents coming from the other side of the country, young friends without a cooking bone in their bodies) you may be making most of it yourself. So we designed a menu that can be made by one reasonably well-equipped cook.

But if your guests want to contribute to the meal, we purposefully left out some of the dishes that are most iconic and yet easy to bring.

  • Sweet potatoes
  • Vegetable side dish, such as green bean casserole
  • Pumpkin pie
  • Pecan pie

And of course the drinks, such as wine, beer, or dry cider are always good for others to bring to the table.

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Coming Up This Week

So, welcome to the Thanksgiving season! We hope you're ready to get into the Thanksgiving spirit with us this week. We're breaking down this dinner and showing you how to make it happen.

Here's a look ahead at some of what we'll share with you this week:

  • A schedule and guide for making the menu ahead
  • How to create a lush Thanksgiving centerpiece (and eat it afterwards)
  • Ideas for setting a Thanksgiving table and decorating it too
  • Recipes for classic sage stuffing, golden mashed potatoes, and quince sorbet
  • A small, swanky Thanksgiving dinner with friends

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

More posts in this series

A Small & Swanky Thanksgiving Dinner

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