I'm not quite sure how the Thanksgiving dinner evolved into such a big and complicated meal. Who can realistically pull off roasting a massive bird and cook all the side dishes that are now deemed a standard part of the meal without going a little insane? Be smart and make bits and pieces of your meal ahead, before the madness sets in.
Let me walk you through each dish on the Thanksgiving table and give you some tips and pointers on what you can do now — and what should wait for later!
While of course not everything can be made ahead now, there are plenty of things that can be taken care of, from toasting nuts to making complete dishes that will actually do very well in the freezer.
Of course you can't make the turkey now, but there are a few other little tasks that you can tackle. Measure out and mix together brine ingredients (sans water or liquid, of course), dry brine, dry rub, or compound butter and stash it away in the pantry or freezer.
2. Mashed Potatoes
While it's true that cooked pieces of potato don't freeze well and get watery when defrosted, there is a trick for getting the mashed version to hold up well in the freezer: mashed sure the potatoes are smooth and add in lots of full-fat dairy. It's Thanksgiving and no one's counting calories anyway, so make it delicious and at the same time let the fat coat and protect the potatoes! Creamy potatoes can be frozen and gently warmed later on Thanksgiving Day.
I like to drown everything with turkey gravy, so I want to make sure there's enough of it to go around and that it's perfect. Make a big batch of turkey stock now from turkey parts, then make the gravy and freeze! You can always add turkey drippings to the made-ahead gravy at the last minute for authentic flavor and relax now that there's no furious whisking and worrying about lumps.
4. Cranberry Sauce
Cranberry sauce is another thing that can be made completely ahead of time. Since it contains a lot of sugar, it's essentially a quick jam that can be frozen or kept in the refrigerator for awhile.
Do you make a special bread or cornbread for your stuffing? Take care of that now and stash it in the freezer. Now is also the time to tackle any homemade stock or toasted nuts that go in the stuffing.
6. Green Beans
Just like the stuffing, think of the components in your green bean dish that can be made now. Toast and freeze the almonds or breadcrumbs, and if you are using a creamy bechamel sauce as the base, make and freeze that too!
7. Pumpkin, Sweet Potato, or Squash
While chunks of these vegetables don't freeze well, purees do and they don't need to be coated with fat like regular potatoes. Cook, blend, and freeze these purees for soups, pies, or side dishes.
Homemade dinner rolls are such a treat and give Thanksgiving dinner that special touch. Luckily, they are also a great make-ahead dish! The unbaked rolls can be frozen, or you can bake them all the way through, freeze, and reheat when needed. And don't forget to make and freeze any compound butters you want to slather on the rolls too!
Of course you can't toss a salad together today for Thanksgiving, but there are plenty of other things to take care of. Make the dressings (but add any fresh ingredients like garlic or herbs at the last minute), cut up bread and freeze it for croutons, or toast or candy the nuts.
There are so many ways pies can be tackled ahead of time: freeze pie crust discs, actually roll out the crusts and then freeze right in the pie dish, or completely freeze a whole unbaked pie! The added bonus is that freezing sets the crust so it will be less likely to bake up soggy and tough. Don't forget that you can also make and freeze streusel topping, and any homemade extracts you want to flavor your pie with should be made now.
Finally, cocktail hour and post-dinner drinks should not be neglected. Make your simple syrup now or take it one step further and infuse it with warm winter spices. Or throw a few cinnamon sticks or cloves in a bottle of bourbon or aged rum to spice things up!
What parts of Thanksgiving dinner do you like to make ahead?
(Image credits: Brent Hofacke/Shutterstock; Faith Durand; Emily Han; Nealey Dozier; Emma Christensen; Anjali Prasertong)