Whipping up an entire Thanksgiving dinner feels like an insurmountable task at times, especially if you’re not used to cooking a massive feast. Fortunately, you have a lot of time to prep for Thanksgiving at this point — about two weeks. And between now and Turkey Day, there’s a lot to do.
The key to having a successful Thanksgiving dinner is to plan meticulously and take things slowly. We've got a detailed timeline that steps you through every task. Follow it closely, and your holiday is sure to be a success.
If you’re like many families around America, your Thanksgiving menu doesn’t change much from year to year. You eat all of the classics: turkey, gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, rolls, a variety of casseroles and pie. Whether you keep it simple, decide to try a particular brine on your turkey or get inventive with new casserole recipes, plan your holiday menu and write out your shopping list about two weeks ahead of the big day.
Thanksgiving dinner uses a lot of ingredients, so you’ll need plenty of fridge, freezer and pantry space to store them all. It’s a drag, but clean them out two weeks before Thanksgiving. Know how long things will last in your freezer and pantry, and toss any expired items (or food you frankly know you’ll never actually eat). While cleaning out your pantry, you may find some necessary Thanksgiving ingredients that have long shelf lives, like cream of mushroom soup or rice.
One of the best tips for Thanksgiving grocery shopping is to take a few trips to the store. When you’re 10 days out, stock up on non-perishable food items: canned and frozen vegetables, chicken stock (if buying instead of making), stuffing mixes, pasta, rice, canned pumpkin and anything else canned, dried, frozen or preserved you may need.
Making your own chicken or turkey stock at home can be remarkably easy, especially if you’re the thrifty sort of person who saves your turkey and chicken carcasses. You can either simmer your stock in a pot for a few hours or cook it up quickly in an Instant Pot. It freezes just fine. Just be sure to defrost your stock in the fridge two or three days before Thanksgiving.
The best part of Thanksgiving? The leftovers (and all the things you can make with them). Get ready to have tons of turkey and stuffing in your fridge by making sure you have enough plastic food storage containers for yourself and any guests you may have. If you don’t, be sure to stock up online or at a local retailer.
A frozen turkey is, well, frozen and can keep in the freezer with little-to-no quality loss for up to a year. So, really, you can buy your frozen bird at any time. Before you pick a size, determine how many people you’ll be feeding and how much turkey to buy per person. If you haven’t bought a frozen turkey yet and intend to do so, try and buy it no more than one week before Thanksgiving — turkeys need a lot of time to thaw.
Some of the best holiday pies are fruit pies like apple pie, cherry and blackberry. Luckily, you can assemble fruit pies (and pecan pies) as normal and freeze them unbaked before Thanksgiving. To do this, make your pies as normal but stop before adding an egg wash on the top crust, then place in the freezer uncovered until it’s frozen and wrap it in plastic wrap. Don’t freeze pumpkin pies ahead — you’ll have to make those later in the timeline.
Speaking of thawing your turkey, you need to do so at least three days before Thanksgiving, and likely longer, depending on its size. The best way to defrost turkey is by doing it in the fridge. Remove it from the freezer but keep it in its wrapping. Make sure you have plenty of space on the bottom shelf of your fridge, place a baking tray with sides on the shelf, then place the turkey breast-side-up on the tray. You need one day for every 4 pounds of meat, and that does not count Thanksgiving Day itself. A 24-pound turkey will need six days in the fridge, while a 12-pound turkey needs half that time.
If you’re not using a pre-cubed stuffing mix or are choosing to blend the bagged stuff with your own bread, start staling bread for stuffing four days before Thanksgiving. Doing this is remarkably simple. You just cut a loaf of French bread (or any bread of your choice) into bite-sized cubes and leave them on a baking rack on your kitchen counter for a few days. You can also do this step a day before Thanksgiving by toasting the bread cubes in a 300-degree oven for 30 to 60 minutes.
You’ll have a lot of shopping to do two or three days before Thanksgiving. Stock up on fresh produce, herbs, eggs, milk and butter closer to the holiday so they don’t crowd your fridge or go bad. And if you haven’t done it yet, three days out is also a good time to stock up on drinks for the holiday, whether you choose to serve beer, wine, soda or cocktails that pair well with dinner.
Favorite holiday pies like apple or pumpkin will be good in your fridge for a few days, so you can easily make these ahead of Thanksgiving. We recommend doing so about two or three days out so that you can pace yourself yet still have leftovers after the holiday.
Yes, you can always just pick up canned cranberry sauce at the grocery store, and that’s fine and good. But if you want to go the extra mile, this simple sauce is perhaps the easiest Thanksgiving dish you can make, and it gets better when it sits in your fridge for a couple of days. And if you don’t want to stress about making gravy using turkey pan drippings while simultaneously doing 100 other things in the kitchen on Thanksgiving Day, you can whip up a make-ahead gravy like this mushroom gravy.
Didn’t scoop up a frozen turkey earlier in our timeline? No need to panic, you can still buy a fresh one from the grocery store, just don’t do it too far in advance — one or two days is best.
The best Thanksgiving recipes require a lot of chopping — you need tons of diced celery and onions for a classic stuffing and many casserole recipes, and turkeys should be stuffed with cut aromatics like lemon, onion and garlic. Do all of this slicing, chopping and dicing the night before Thanksgiving to save yourself tons of time to focus on bringing dishes together on the day itself.
Breakfast is an oft-neglected meal on Thanksgiving, especially for the cooks, who just munch on pieces of celery and sip wine before dinner is served. Luckily, there are plenty of breakfast dishes you can make ahead for Thanksgiving morning. Do yourself and your family a favor and whip up an easy recipe, like slow cooker banana French toast or an eggs Benedict casserole.
Getting a lot of prep done on the day before Thanksgiving is what will help to make the holiday itself a breeze. Take the day before to bake your breads, whether you’re making simple rolls or a more complex loaf. You can also take the day before to make some snacks to keep you and any guests fueled before dinner itself. Keep it simple. Think deviled eggs, a cheese ball or Southern sausage balls.
Your Thanksgiving Day bar does not need to be fancy, but it’s still best to get it done the night before. Whether you decide to go all out and set up a bar cart or just toss beer, soda and bottles of water into a cooler in the garage, take a half-hour to get the drinks in order.
No matter how you choose to cook your turkey, this is one thing you have to do on Thanksgiving Day itself. If you’re keeping things traditional and roasting your turkey in the oven, how long you need to cook your turkey will depend on its size. You need about one hour for every 4 pounds at 325 degrees, so a 12-pound turkey will take three hours, while a 24-pound bird can take as long as six.
Don't judge just by time or by the color of your turkey's skin or a pop-up timer. You'll know your turkey is done when you insert an instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh and the breast and it reads 165 degrees.
While your turkey is roasting away in the oven, it’s time to get to work. Grab all of those chopped onions and garlic and start prepping your turkey day casseroles. Dump all of those canned green beans and cream of mushroom soup into a green bean casserole, add sweet potatoes and butter into a dish and top them with marshmallows, and don’t forget to add all of that cut broccoli and onions you prepped the night before into a broccoli casserole.
Your turkey needs to rest after you take it out of the oven, so prep these casseroles while the turkey cooks, then put them in the oven after you take the bird out.
Stuffing is an integral part of Thanksgiving and is best when made day-of. Take your dried bread, add all of the onions and celery and other veggies you chopped up the night before, season them liberally and coat them in all of that scrumptious homemade chicken stock. A classic stuffing recipe takes about one hour from start to finish.
No Thanksgiving is complete without the ultimate comfort food: mashed potatoes. While the casseroles and stuffing are baking, start peeling potatoes and get a pot of water boiling to make classic garlic mashed potatoes. If you want to save yourself this stress, you can easily make a slow cooker mashed potato recipe, which will be ready in about four hours. Start that as soon as your turkey is in the oven.
If you didn’t do a make-ahead gravy and want to make the most of your flavorful turkey pan drippings, whip up a savory turkey gravy. Season with whatever herbs you desire — we like herbs de Provence, but thyme, tarragon or even oregano could be scrumptious.
After your turkey rests, which should be about 45 minutes to an hour, it’s time to carve it up. Read our full guide for how to cook and carve a turkey for a step-by-step guide to making your bird look picture-perfect.
Hosting Thanksgiving is a lot of work, so you deserve to tap into that bar you set up and dive into all of that turkey, casserole and other sides. After all of this, you deserve it.
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