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How to plan ahead for a stress free Thanksgiving

Hosting Thanksgiving dinner doesn't have to be a stressful ordeal if you plan ahead properly.
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Whole Roasted Turkey Dinner For Thanksgiving with All the Sides

WASHINGTON — Hosting Thanksgiving dinner can seem like a daunting task. There's food to cook, apartments or houses to clean and guests to manage. Pulling off a successful Thanksgiving is no small feat. To make sure everything goes smoothly, planning is key. 

Luckily, Thanksgiving dinner doesn't have to be difficult as long as you stay organized and have a plan. Even if you're usually more laid back, this is the one day of the year where you'll want a solid game plan. From grocery shopping to make-ahead dishes to day-of cooking and cleaning, here's a full guide to a stress-free Thanksgiving.

Ten days before Thanksgiving

Planning Thanksgiving dinner ten days ahead may feel excessive, but if you knock out a few of these details now, the rest of the month will be smooth sailing.

Finalize your guest list

Sometimes guests can be wishy-washy. Make sure you've got a solid idea of how many people will be attending your dinner so you can plan to have enough food. It's okay if a few people have to cancel last minute or if someone wants to bring a plus one later, but try not to stray too far from this final guest list as you prepare.

Decide on your menu

Write down what dishes you want to cook yourself. Make sure there's a good balance between dishes you need to cook in the oven and dishes that can be made on the stove-top. Your oven will be a precious commodity come Thanksgiving day, so make sure that not every side dish needs last minute oven time. Find some dishes you can serve cold or at room temperature. It's also a good idea to incorporate some dishes that can be made ahead, so you don't have to cook everything the day of. 

Make two shopping lists

Once you've finalized your menu, make two lists of items you'll need to buy. One list will be for things you can buy now. Include any ingredients that will last a week or more before Thanksgiving. The second list will be for your final trip a little bit before the big day. Include more fragile items that expire faster.

Check on your kitchen equipment

If you don't usually cook a lot, you'll want to make sure you have all of the necessary equipment for Thanksgiving dinner. Don't forget to check to make sure it all still works! There's nothing worse than finding out your ancient food processor isn't up to the task on Thanksgiving day. 

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Decide what to serve your food on

Go through all of your serving dishes and decide what you will use for what dish. You can take photos and label them for later reference, or use sticky notes to delegate what foods will go where. This may seem over the top, but in the chaos of Thanksgiving day you'll be thankful you made these decisions ahead of time.

Delegate tasks to guests

If you're having a potluck style Thanksgiving, make sure you've finalized who is bringing what dish. If you've got indecisive guests, try assigning them types of dishes and let them get creative. For example, tell a guest you need them to do dessert or a casserole, but let them decide what kind. You don't want to have a Thanksgiving where everyone brings cups and ice!

If you're cooking the whole dinner by yourself, don't be afraid to ask for help anyway. If guests offer to bring something, don't turn them down. Extra desserts, appetizers and alcohol will never go to waste. Just don't assign guests any dishes that will need time in the oven before serving. Remember: your oven is a hot commodity! 

One week before Thanksgiving

Check on ingredients

Check your pantry, fridge and freezer to see what ingredients you may already have on hand: things like salt, pepper, flour and other pantry staples. Check expiration dates and update your shopping lists as needed. 

Clean out your fridge

You're going to have to eat simple meals this week. Clean out the fridge to make room for all of your ingredients, including the defrosting turkey.

Make your first shopping trip

Grab your first shopping list and pick up all the non-perishables and other foods that will last a while in in the fridge. If you plan on making any dishes ahead of time, make sure to grab all the ingredients for them too. 

The weekend before Thanksgiving

Defrost your turkey

You don't need to defrost your turkey a full week in advance; it depends on how big your turkey is. For frozen turkeys, you'll need about 24 hours in the fridge for every four to five pounds of turkey. That's about: 

  • 1-3 days for a 4-12 pound turkey
  • 3-4 days for a 12-16 pound turkey
  • 4-5 days for a 16-20 pound turkey
  • 5-6 days for a 20-24 pound turkey

Make your second shopping trip

You're less than a week away. Grab the rest of your ingredients now so you're not waiting in line on Thanksgiving day for last-minute ingredients. 

Make as many dishes ahead as you can

Dishes like cranberry sauce, gravy and pie crust can be made well in advance and stored for later use. 

Monday-Tuesday of Thanksgiving week

Brine your turkey

If you're opting to brine your turkey before it's cooked, do this now. Turkey can generally be brined 24 hours to 2 days before they are cooked, depending on whether you opt for a wet brine or a dry brine. 

Make more dishes ahead

Dishes like stuffing, mac and cheese and other casseroles can easily be made ahead at this stage and reheated on Thanksgiving day. This will free up time for you to decorate your space later on in the week! Pumpkin pies last several days in the fridge and can be made at this point too. 

Day Before Thanksgiving

Prep all of your vegetables

This may seem like a silly task, but when the chaos of Thanksgiving day sets in, you'll be glad that all of your food has been prepped. Wash and trim all of the vegetables you need today and store them. It'll make cooking a lot easier when there is little to no prep involved. 

Make your desserts

If you haven't made your desserts yet, do so now. Pies and cakes usually need to chill in the fridge for a bit, so you don't want to make these Thanksgiving day.

The night before Thanksgiving

Clean up!

You've got a long day ahead Thursday. Get the cleaning over with now so that you can focus on cooking. If you can, set up tables and dishes for the guests at this time too. 

Thanksgiving morning

Take your turkey out of the fridge

Your turkey will cook much faster if it has time to come back to room temperature before cooking. A cold turkey straight from the fridge will cook slowly and unevenly, resulting in dry flesh. If you used a wet brine, take the turkey out of its water bath and pat dry. Let it continue to dry and come to room temperature. 

Preheat and prep your oven

You'll likely have a lot of dishes that need to go in the oven today. Arrange an oven rack in the center of the oven for the turkey. Arrange another rack in the lowest position. You can cook or warm up additional sides here.

Assemble your sides

Casseroles like mac and cheese, stuffing and sweet potatoes can be put in the oven now. Sides that were assembled in advance will need up to an hour sitting at room temp before they can go in the oven. You don't want them to go in cold, because they will cook unevenly. 

Four hours before dinner

Get your turkey in the oven

A 15 pound turkey will take about 3 hours in the oven. Put your turkey in the oven sooner if it is larger. Your turkey is ready when the internal temperature taken in the thickest part of the thigh reads 165°F. Invest in a thermometer; do not guess at this! There's nothing worse than dry, overcooked turkey on Thanksgiving night, except food poisoning from under cooked turkey.

Make your mashed potatoes and assemble your salads

Dishes that don't need the oven can be made now. Boil and mash your potatoes. They can be kept warm in a slow cooker or put in a casserole dish and reheated later. Salads can also be made at this time. 

Two hours before dinner

Set up the dining area

You should have already cleaned up the night before, so now put the finishing touches on your dining area! Set the table or set up the buffet area, depending on how dinner is served.

Set up appetizers and drinks

Guests will be arriving soon, so start plating appetizers and drinks. Cheese plates should be served at room temperature. Drinks can go in ice buckets. Make sure to have water out too!

One hour before dinner

Let your turkey rest

Your turkey should be done by now, but it still needs to rest before carving. If you're serving it whole, set it on its serving platter. If you're carving it first, do so 30 minutes before dinner and serve.

Make your gravy

If you didn't make your gravy ahead, use the drippings from the turkey to do so now! If your gravy is make-ahead, get it into a saucepan to reheat. Even if it's made ahead, You can always add the drippings to it to make it extra rich. 

Cook any roasted vegetable dishes

If your menu includes roasted or grilled vegetables that cook quickly, now is the time to finish cooking them. 

Add cooked sides into the oven to warm up

If the sides you've cooked need to come back up to temp, stick them in the oven to warm back up. You can turn off the heat in the oven at this point. The residual heat from the turkey cooking will be enough to keep your cooked dishes warm.

Clean up!

If you've got time, clean up your kitchen to get ready for the influx of dirty dishes that will come in after dinner. 

Dinner time

Heat up gravy

Heat up your gravy and get it into the gravy boat

Heat up pies

Place pies that should be eaten warm in the oven to heat up while guests eat dinner. 

Have a good time!

You've worked hard all day. It's time for turkey!

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Whole Roasted Turkey Dinner For Thanksgiving with All the Sides

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