There’s only one way to ensure a stress-free and seamless Thanksgiving: detailed, down-to-the-minute planning. I’m typically one to take a laid-back approach to entertaining, but Thanksgiving is the one day when free-styling is usually a terrible idea. Even for seasoned entertainers, this meal has a lot going on at once. (Especially if you have a big group or are accommodating multiple dietary restrictions.) My solution: A Thanksgiving checklist. Mine is complete with a timeline that counts down everything needed to pull off the feast. And today, I’m sharing my Thanksgiving checklist to make sure your holiday goes off without a hitch.
Featured image by Christie Graham.
How to Create a Thanksgiving Checklist That Works for You
Make a Plan
I’ve learned that the more detailed my plan is on the front end, the more I can kick back and relax on the day of. Start with a list of how many people are attending. I send an email to the entire group and get specific on arrival and mealtimes with guests so everyone knows what to expect. This is also a great way to find out if there are any dietary restrictions and get some volunteers to pitch in on the menu.
Make it a Potluck
I can’t imagine hosting our big family gathering without lots of people pitching in on the menu. I’ve found that everyone loves having the chance to contribute their own traditions to the table. My dad always makes the stuffing, my mother-in-law brings her broccoli casserole and gravy, and my mom is on pie duty. Anyone who doesn’t cook is bringing wine to contribute. It takes a village, and asking for help is key to keeping my Thanksgiving Day manageable and the overwhelm at bay.
Don’t Feel Like Every “Thanksgiving Food” Has to Be Included
Especially if you’re shouldering the bulk of the cooking yourself, my biggest piece of advice is to keep the menu relatively limited. People do not need both mashed potatoes and potatoes au gratin, I promise. Just remember, every additional dish equals more groceries, more prep, and more clean-up. Take an honest look at the menu and ask yourself if you’re trying to do too much. If so, figure out what item will be missed the least, then ditch it from your menu.
Keep Drinks Simple
In years passed, I’ve had a slow cooker full of cider that I’ve dressed up with spices along with a bottle of bourbon on the side for guests who want to spike theirs. In other years, I’ve simply opened a bottle of something sparkling and served guests as they arrived. On the dinner table, set a juicy red wine, a crisp white, and a big carafe of water. Give everyone one wine glass and one water glass and let them fill and refill themselves. Done and done.
Hit Up the Rental Company
My first real job was in catering, and I quickly learned that renting glassware and silverware is kind of the most awesome thing ever. For one thing, if you’re hosting a big group, who has 20 forks and knives lying around? But the real key to this one is in the clean-up. Just imagine the feeling at the end of the night of loading all those dirty wine glasses into a crate and putting them in your car to drop off the next morning. Bliss!
Three Weeks Before Thanksgiving
Plan the menu. It all starts with a smart menu that isn’t so ambitious it turns you into a crazy person. Strategic menu planning is the key to conveying the stress-free vibe that we all want to feel on Thanksgiving. Advance planning also gives you the chance to consider how your various menu items will taste and look together, which goes a long way towards the enjoyment of the overall meal. A few things to think about:
- Variety: Thanksgiving is notorious for being monochromatic—the mashed potatoes, stuffing, rolls, and turkey can turn an entire plate an unappealing shade of cream. So, I always throw in a beautiful salad bursting with fall veggies, and this year I’m adorning my cornbread “stuffing” with jewel-toned toppings. Similarly, try not to repeat the same ingredients in multiple dishes. (If your app is bacon-wrapped figs, skip the bacon in the Brussels.)
- Dietary Restrictions: If your family and friend group is like mine, there are certainly going to be some gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegetarian eaters around the table. Thanksgiving can be tricky, since it often relies on a classic menu of recipes that aren’t by nature super accommodating. My suggestion is to make enough of the classics to keep the traditionalists happy, but make sure there’s at least a main, a veggie, and a starch that works for everyone around the table.
- Consider your timing: Ever had one of those Thanksgiving moments when it’s 30 minutes before mealtime, and suddenly everything needs to be in the oven to finish cooking at the same time? Me too. I’ve learned to get very strategic at the beginning of my planning to make sure prep can be paced out. For example, this year’s cornbread stuffing is mostly made on the stovetop, and can hang out at room temp for awhile before digging in.
Two Weeks Before Thanksgiving
Order your turkey. Plan to buy one pound per person (or you could go up to 1 1/2 pounds per person if you want leftovers.) Get our tips on how to make the ultimate Thanksgiving turkey.
Make a shopping list. A solid shopping list is an absolute necessity for this occasion. Be sure to check the staple ingredients that you might assume you always have enough of. One Thanksgiving, I randomly ran out of salt in the middle of cooking!
Buy your shelf-stable groceries. Don’t make the mistake of waiting until the day before Thanksgiving to buy cranberries, canned pumpkin, or any of the other shelf-stable necessities that could make or break the meal. In fact, I like to stock up on everything except fresh produce, dairy, and meat a couple weeks in advance so I can rest easy.
Two Days Before Thanksgiving
Hit the store for your perishables. This is a great time to double-check your grocery list to ensure you’re not forgetting anything important. In addition to your fresh produce, herbs, turkey, and refrigerated items, now’s the time to grab wine, sparkling water, flowers, extra trash bags, ice, and lots of foil for wrapping up leftovers.
The Day Before Thanksgiving
Brine your turkey and store it in the fridge.
Make the chutney, then store in an airtight container in the fridge.
Make the vinaigrette, and store in a mason jar in the fridge.
Pre-cut your squash, red onion, and kale for the salad. Store in gallon-sized Ziplock bags in the fridge.
Set the table, arrange flowers, and place serving pieces where they’ll go on the buffet.
Prep the guest bathroom, making sure the trash is empty, the soap is full, hand towels and toilet paper are well-stocked, and there’s a vase of flowers or a great-smelling candle next to the sink.
Preheat the oven to 375 F.
Chill your white wine.
Massage the kale for your salad.
Three Hours Before
Prep the turkey, and get it in the oven.
Make your cornbread stuffing. Keep it covered on the counter until it’s almost time to eat.
Two Hours Before
Make your mashed potatoes. They can hang out on the stovetop with a lid on. 15 minutes before serving, reheat over low.
Roast the veggies for your salad.
Pop open a good bottle of sparkling wine to sip while you finish cooking—it’s a holiday!
Fill a pitcher with filtered water and lemon slices, then place in the fridge to get really cold.
One Hour Before
Arrange your charcuterie board and set it out. It’ll be ready and waiting for any early arrivals, and the cheese tastes better when it has come to room temperature.
Pop red wine in the fridge to slightly chill.
Make Brussels sprouts. Cover them and set out on the stove until it’s time to eat.
Check the turkey for doneness. When it registers 165 degrees F, cover with foil and allow to rest until ready to carve. (It’ll come up 10 more degrees before you carve it.)
15 Minutes Before
If you have early-arriving guests, don’t hesitate to give them simple tasks like opening wine and slicing lemons for water. Putting them to work will actually put everyone at ease.
Rewarm mashed potatoes on the stove.
Pop the cornbread stuffing in the oven to rewarm.
Toss together all the ingredients in your salad and set it on the buffet.
Carve the turkey, place everything in its designated spot on the buffet, call your guests to help themselves, and then kick back and enjoy the feast.
This post was originally published on November 2, 2021, and has since been updated.