Our Best Make-Ahead Tips for Your Easiest Thanksgiving Yet

updated Sep 11, 2020
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(Image credit: Brent Hofacke)

I’m not quite sure how the Thanksgiving dinner evolved into such a big and complicated meal. Even this year, as we stay home with our families in lieu of a larger gathering and set the table with a slightly smaller spread. Cooking Thanksgiving is a feat. 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? My advice: Make little bits and pieces of your meal ahead of time, before all the madness sets in. It makes the time spent in the kitchen less stressful and all around more manageable.

Here are some tips and pointers on what you can make ahead for Thanksgiving now, and what should wait for later!

1. The Turkey: Prep It for Roasting

Of course you can’t cook the turkey now, but there are a few other little tasks that you can tackle, depending on how you plan to prepare the bird. If you’re planning on brining or dry brining your turkey, that can be done anywhere between one and three days ahead of time. Or if you’re simply rubbing the bird with a compound butter before roasting it, the butter can be made and stored in the fridge for up to a week or in the freezer for up to three months.

2. Mashed Potatoes: Freeze Them or Embrace the Make-Ahead Casserole

The full-fat dairy in mashed potatoes actually coats and protects the spuds in the freezer, making them a great make-ahead choice. Just make mashed potatoes as you usually would, definitely not skimping on the butter and cream, and freeze them in a freezer bag or container. Defrost them in the fridge one to two days before Thanksgiving and then reheat them on the stove or in the oven, slow cooker, or microwave.

The reheated version may be a little more watery than the original, but a few dollops of sour cream or cream cheese stirred into them will quickly remedy that.

Another option is to make mashed potato casserole, which delivers a golden crust that’s hiding silky-smooth goodness underneath. The potato mixture can be made and refrigerated up to two days ahead of time. Then all you need to do is pop the pan in the oven an hour before dinner is served.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

3. Gravy: Yes, Even Without Roasting the Turkey

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. You can make it without drippings or roast a few turkey pieces to achieve both homemade stock and drippings to make the gravy, and then freeze it. The frozen gravy can be thawed in the fridge overnight, then reheated over low heat, whisking to smooth out any separation.

4. Cranberry Sauce: Get It Out of the Way

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 a while. They’ll be no change in consistency by making it ahead, and the taste actually benefits from letting the flavors mix and mingle. If frozen, just thaw it in the fridge overnight. Make it on the stovetop or set up your slow cooker one afternoon for a totally hands-off method.

Get a recipe: Spiced Cranberry Sauce

5. Stuffing: Bake the Bread, Toast the Nuts

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. Homemade stock can be tucked in the freezer if it’s made weeks or months in advance, or it can stay in the fridge for a few days before you need it. Store toasted nuts in the fridge or freezer as well to keep them fresh.

6. Green Beans: Prep the Garnishes or Casserole

Just like the stuffing, think of the components in your green bean dish that can be made nowalmonds or breadcrumbs can be toasted ahead and frozen. If your side dish roster includes a classic green bean casserole, that can even be assembled without the crisp onion topping and store tightly wrapped in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Top with the fried onions before baking.

Credit: Lauren Volo

7. Pumpkin, Sweet Potato, or Squash: Purée and Freeze

While chunks of these vegetables don’t freeze well, purées do and they don’t need to be coated with fat like regular potatoes. Cook, blend, and freeze these purées in freezer bags or containers for soups, pies, or side dishes. They can be defrosted and rewarmed just like mashed potatoes.

How to Make Parker House Rolls (Image credit: Emma Christensen)

8. Rolls: Ready Them for Baking

Homemade dinner rolls are such a treat and give Thanksgiving dinner that special touch. Luckily, they are also a great make-ahead dish. While you can bake your favorite dinner roll recipe all the way through, freeze, and reheat when needed, I prefer freezing the rolls unbaked. They can be baked without thawing and they’ll taste as fresh as they would if you had made the dough on Thanksgiving day.

9. Salads: Shake Up That Dressing

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.

10. Pie: Freeze the Crust or the Whole Darn Pie

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 bonus is that freezing sets the crust so it will be less likely to bake up soggy and tough. Also, don’t forget that you can also make and freeze streusel topping.

11. Drinks: Make a Fancy Cocktail a Reality

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?