This post contains affiliate links, which means I will earn a commission if you click through and buy something, at no additional cost to you!
I tend to overprepare, and our first time hosting Thanksgiving dinner at our new house is no exception. But we are getting so close now! Thanksgiving is less than a week away, and so it’s down to the final details and the last post in the Host a Holiday Dinner series: all about the Thanksgiving schedule.
To see how we got here, be sure to check out the rest of the series: menu brainstorming, menu planning, and shopping tips! You can also check out some of my past posts on large meals, like a Christmas menu and three-course brunch formula. Now let’s get started breaking down the Thanksgiving prepping and cooking schedule.
Start with Turkey and Work Backwards
That’s it, that’s the tip. If you are working in a kitchen with only one oven, like most of us, and turkey is the centerpiece of your dinner, then that’s where you need to begin. Think about what time you’d like to serve it, and work from there.
Cooking methods vary a bit, but in general a turkey needs 20 minutes of roasting per pound, plus 30 minutes to rest and carve. If you’re eating at 4:00pm, with a 12 pound turkey, it will need to go into the oven around 11:30am.
But let’s back up even more. If you’re using a frozen turkey, it needs to thaw out before you can roast it. You may also want to brine the turkey, if it didn’t come already in a brine. If you have a fresh turkey, you’ll need to pick it up only a couple days in advance. Start writing down all these days and times, and that’s the start of your schedule. Everything else will fit around it.
Assign Pans and Oven Times
Beyond the turkey, Thanksgiving is full of other dishes that need to go into the oven. Things like bread, stuffing, casseroles, and roasted vegetables will each need to be baked or warmed before serving. Luckily, you can cook most of these dishes at the same temperature that you used for the turkey, around 350F.
Also, because these dishes tend to be smaller, you can fit a few in the oven at the same time. If you’re using smaller casserole dishes or square baking pans, you can cook four dishes in the oven while the turkey is resting. If you have more, see the next section for suggestions of what to make ahead.
Another tip that will help save you time day-of is to assign each of your dishes to a specific pan. I like to use a spreadsheet to keep track, but post-it notes are a fun visual way to do it as well. This also gives you a chance to arrange your tablescape with the empty dishes days before guests arrive.
Make it Ahead if You Can
On Thanksgiving day, you don’t want to be spending every moment in the kitchen, so it’s important to do as much as you possibly can ahead of time. Some dishes will be the best day of, like mashed potatoes. However, others like pies and stuffing can be made in advance and just reheated.
With fruit pies, like apple or pear, you can fully bake them and then freeze and reheat before serving. Pies can go in the oven to warm up while you’re eating dinner, or even after if you’d like a break between courses.
Some dishes you may not be able to fully make in advance, but you can prep specific pieces. Cutting vegetables and mixing spice blends in advance can save you tons of time. Think about it like each dish is a meal kit delivery, but you’ll be portioning in the few days before your dinner.
Plan the Week and the Day
Start adding your oven and make ahead dishes to the schedule, and you’ll begin to see it coming together. For the few days ahead of Thanksgiving, you can start slow and then ramp up how much work you’re doing in a day. Just be sure to watch for certain deadlines, like moving the turkey from the freezer to the fridge.
On Monday, start with the dishes that will take the most extra time or can afford a few days in the fridge. Leave out bread to become stale for stuffing. Make the custard for ice cream that will need to churn. Make and chill a pie crust. Prepare any soups. Cook the cranberry sauce and allow it time to set.
On Tuesday, do a double check of everything that’s left to prepare, and what might be missing. This gives you a chance to make a last minute grocery run if needed, without facing the Wednesday rush. Also, start thinking about what plates, glasses, silverware, and table linens you’re using.
On Wednesday, make your pies, stuffing, and anything else that can be reheated. Set the table, and prepare any other spaces such as those used for appetizers. This is your last chance to buy things, so many stores will be closed on Thanksgiving day.
On Thursday morning, work with your schedule. By now you should be in a good place to put together last minute dishes like appetizers and cocktails. You can cook mashed potatoes on the stove or slow cooker. All your reheated dishes should be made and ready to go back in the oven.
When the time comes, start your turkey. Then, begin plating any appetizers. You’ll want to remove cheese from the fridge about a half hour before serving. Your guests can enjoy appetizers and good conversation while you step away briefly to switch out what’s in the oven.
Then enjoy your dinner! Every meal is different, and the dishes you serve won’t be the same as mine. However, you can use this guidance to build your own schedule. Happy Thanksgiving!