Your Guide to Everything You Need to Know to Throw Your First Thanksgiving

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

So, you’ve decided to host your very first Thanksgiving. Congratulations on this life milestone! When it comes to planning, the recipes are such a small part of what makes a successful Thanksgiving dinner. Instead, focus on a short list of priorities that will take you seamlessly from the planning to cooking, all the way through to dealing with the dirty dishes and leftovers after dinner. Here’s how to get started.

Your Step-by-Step Thanksgiving Guide

  • Make a plan and timeline.
  • Ask for help and delegate.
  • Shop for the meal.
  • Embrace make-ahead moments.
  • Put your day-of plan into action.
  • Tackle the aftermath.

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

1. Make a Plan + Timeline

A successful, stress-free Thanksgiving doesn’t happen in the kitchen — it is the result of all the planning you do beforehand. It’s sort of like reading a recipe all the way through before you start cooking. Planning and making a timeline for the week leading up to Thanksgiving and the day of let’s you figure out the tricky bits before you hit that point of the recipe.

A written timeline will help you stay on track with planning the menu, shopping, cleaning, and prep work, and will keep things running smoothly on Thanksgiving day.

Make a Thanksgiving timeline: A 10-Day Thanksgiving Timeline

Essential Thanksgiving Recipes

(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

2. Ask for Help + Delegate

Thanksgiving is a big undertaking, and getting help from friends and family is crucial. When people ask about what they can bring, be very specific. People love being told what to do! Also, if you don’t specify, you are going to end up with a lot of wine, which is, sadly, not a food.

That said, it is nice to ask your guests if they have a specialty, but you are the host, which gives you power — if you’ve already got the green beans covered, it is fine to say so.

This is also a good time to take inventory of your serving dishes and utensils (and to ask to borrow some from your nearest and dearest, if necessary).

3. Shop Like a Meal Planner

If you’re well-versed in meal planning, much of this advice will be very familiar, and you probably already do this. If not, think of shopping for Thanksgiving dinner as your crash course in meal planning.

  • Read through your recipes: First gather up all the recipes you will be making for Thanksgiving dinner, read through each one, and take note of the ingredient lists.
  • Make a list of everything you need: This is not a time to hit the store without a list in hand. As you read through the recipes make a shopping list of all the ingredients you’ll need. And if you’re the uber-organized type, arrange the list by your store’s layout for a smoother shopping trip.
  • Inventory your pantry: Before heading to the store, take an inventory of your pantry to see what items you already have handy. If you keep a stocked pantry, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to cross a few basic staples off your list.
(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

Buying the Turkey

If it’s your first time buying a turkey, it can have a way of feeling a little overwhelming. Don’t worry, though — it is a lot simpler than it seems. Here’s what you need to know.

  • Fresh vs. frozen turkey: Which one you buy depends largely on your schedule. If you want to shop well before the holiday and have the time to thaw a bird, then frozen is just fine. Otherwise plan to buy your fresh turkey 1 to 2 days before Thanksgiving.
  • How big of a bird to buy: As a rule of thumb, you will need 1 pound of bone-in turkey per person, or 1 1/2 pounds if you want enough for leftovers.

4. Embrace the Make-Ahead Moments

The surprising thing I learned the first time I hosted Thanksgiving dinner was just how many side dishes and desserts can be made well in advance. And I really can’t stress just how helpful it is to take advantage of this. Do more now, than later! Your future self will thank you come Thanksgiving day.

There is only so much space on the stovetop and in the oven, and the oven can only be set to one given temperature at time. Plus you only have so many pots and pans, and they can get used up fast on Thanksgiving day.

Get a Head Start

Also, if you’re feeling unsure and nervous about cooking your first turkey, consider giving it a dry run with a practice turkey a week or two before the big day. It’s not totally necessary, but if you feel like it would boost your confidence then go for it.

(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

5. Put Your Day-Of Plan into Action

Even after hosting Thanksgiving a bunch of times, I can say that getting the timing just right has a way of feeling overwhelming at first. But I’ve found that the smartest way to be successful here is by nailing down the time you plan to serve dinner, then working backwards on your timeline.

This will help you know when to put the turkey in the oven, get the sides going on the stovetop or in the slow cooker, and when to start pouring drinks.

Tips to Tend the Turkey While It Roasts

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

6. Tackle the Aftermath

Congrats, you did it! From the planning to the shopping, prepping, and cooking, you hosted your first Thanksgiving dinner. Now it’s time to tackle that aftermath, like the mountainous pile of dishes, the loads of leftovers, and the turkey carcass waiting to be turned into liquid gold (aka turkey stock).

Always Say Yes to Help Cleaning Up

When friends and family offer to help carry dishes to the kitchen, load the dishwasher, wash, dry, or even put away dishes, always say yes to help cleaning up after dinner.

Be Prepared to Package Up Leftovers (or Freeze Them for Later)

After dinner it’s time to tackle the leftovers. This can mean sending guests home with bags of turkey and stuffing (or perhaps they brought their own Tupperware or to-go containers), and packaging leftovers to get stored in your fridge or freezer.

Love Your Leftovers!

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

Make Turkey Stock

Enlist a willing helper to take apart the turkey and cut all the last bits of meat off the carcass right after dinner. Let the turkey stock simmer while you do the dishes or relax after dinner, or just throw everything in your slow cooker. I always prep some extra diced vegetables, then stash them along with some herbs in a bag in the fridge. That way, all that’s left to do is add the turkey bones and water to the pot or slow cooker. If you don’t plan to use the carcass to make stock right way, be sure pack the meat and bones separately.

Turn the Turkey into Liquid Gold

Have you hosted Thanksgiving before? What’s your best advice for first-timers?