Whether it's your first time planning Thanksgiving or you are a seasoned pro, we are sharing our comprehensive Thanksgiving Dinner Prep Guide, complete with a week-by-week Thanksgiving dinner prep timeline (down to hours before the big dinner!), tons of tips on how to host your best holiday meal yet, Thanksgiving menu recipes and ideas, and free checklists to help you prepare for Thanksgiving dinner like a pro this year!
Thanksgiving is a holiday many of us look forward to all year long. The elaborate dinner spread, the company of loved ones, and cozy fall activities for the whole family is what this holiday is all about. But planning and hosting the perfect Thanksgiving dinner can be very overwhelming. In fact, learning how to host Thanksgiving could be a full 8-week course! We have condensed it all into this short Thanksgiving dinner guide, jam-packed with information and tips including decor ideas and cleaning tips to make your holiday as stress-free as possible.
Follow this Thanksgiving dinner prep timeline to take some of the stress out of holiday preparations.
1 Month Before
Make guest list and invite guests. One month before dinner, send out the formal invitation (whether that’s a text, phone call, digital invitation or mailed stationery). Make sure you ask guests to respond by a certain date so you can adjust the number of dishes and serving sizes.
Plan the Thanksgiving dinner menu. You can start to get a headcount and plan the menu, if you haven’t already. Plan the whole meal around the turkey, or start with your favorite sides and go from there.
Decide on a theme. Decide on a theme for thanksgiving based around colors (such as gold, white, or orange), patterns (such as plaid), fruit or vegetables (pumpkin, seasonal frutis, etc.), floral theme, or a general theme of traditional, rustic, or modern.
Order rental items. If you need to rent any times such as tables, chair, linens, plates, cutlery or anything else, now is the time to place that order.
2-3 Weeks Before
Order your turkey. Plan for a minimum of one pound per person and order in advance to get exactly what you want. The biggest ones tend to go quickly, so if you’re serving a small army, ordering ahead will prevent you from having to settle for a smaller one (or even two) from what’s left in the grocery stores.
Review recipes. Go over the recipes in your Thanksgiving menu so that you can prepare lists (tools and grocery).
Check kitchen tools. Check recipes for any kitchen equipment tools that you will need (including measuring cups and spoons, pots and pans, bakeware, serving dishes, and small kitchen appliances). Check that your small kitchen appliances are working. Shop for any required kitchen tools that you do not have.
Create a grocery shopping list. Check the recipes in your Thanksgiving menu and make a list of all the ingredients that you need, including quantities. Check the inventory in your pantry and cross off anything that you already have. Create a shopping list based on the items that are remaining. Divide your shopping list into perishable items, non-perishable items, dairy, and freezer (items from the freezer aisle).
Go grocery shopping. You can start shopping for hard to find items, non-perishable items, and freezer items.
- Order hard-to-find items. If there are any specialty items on your shopping list that you can only find online, order them now.
- Shop for non-perishable items. Start shopping for any non-perishable items that you will need and store them in your pantry. This includes flour, sugar, canned pumpkin, crackers, and drinks.
- Shop for freezer items. Shop for items from the freezer aisle such as frozen cranberry, frozen puff pastry, or frozen desserts. Store them in the freezer until needed.
Organize your freezer. Many desserts and appetizers can be made in advance and frozen to help you save precious time on Thanksgiving day. Clean out your freezer and make room so that there is space for any make ahead items that you will be preparing.
Shop for decor items. Shop for any decor items you may need to bring your Thanksgiving theme to life. Think about whether you want to include centerpieces at your dinner table, and start shopping for those.
1 Week Before
Confirm attendee list. Confirm the headcount and arrival times for your guests. Are a few guests coming early to lend a hand? Is anyone bringing small children? Will they also bring highchairs or will you have to make arrangements? Is anyone bringing last-minute extra guests? Is someone planning on bringing a side or dessert from home? Will they need oven space to heat something up before serving?
- Confirming all of these details ahead of time will save you from a derailing mishap on Thanksgiving Day, when time management is crucial to getting a meal on the table. Every minute counts when you’re on a strict schedule!
Create a cooking schedule. Review the recipes in your Thanksgiving menu and make a list of prep time, cook time, and maintenance level (some dishes can be prepped and left to cook in the oven, while others need constant attention until they are done). Review the list and make a cooking schedule for the next 7 days. You only have so much space in the oven and on the stove top, so you’ll have to time things efficiently to make sure all of your dishes are hot and ready on time.
Shop for dairy. Shop for dairy items and other perishable items that will last at least a week in the fridge such as butter, milk, heavy cream, eggs, and cheese.
Make freezer-friendly items ahead of time. You can make many desserts (such as pies and cookie dough), appetizers, soup, and bread dough around a week early to make preparation on the day-of more efficient. They’ll taste as fresh as if you had made them from scratch that day! Check individual recipes for instructions on where they can be made ahead and frozen.
Check storage containers. Make sure that you have enough tupperware or freezer bags to hold any leftovers. If you need more, buy them now.
3-5 Days Before
Start thawing the frozen turkey in the refrigerator. According to the USDA, you can safely start thawing a 15-pound frozen turkey no more than six days in advance. If you’re using the refrigerator method, start now! Transfer your turkey from freezer to fridge, placing a large bowl or tray underneath it to catch any perspiration or leaking fluid as it comes up to temperature.
Shop for perishable items. Shop for all the items remaining on your shopping list (perishable items). This includes fruits, vegetables, fresh herbs, and meat.
Clean the house. Wash linens and towels, vacuum the house, mop the floors, clean bathrooms, dust surfaces, clean clutter, and anything else that you need to do to get your house ready for guests.
2 Days Before
Thaw your turkey using the cold water method. If you prefer the cold water method of thawing a turkey, you can do it a maximum of two days ahead. Submerge your still-wrapped frozen turkey in a sink full of cold water, changing the water every thirty minutes for between 6-8 hours, depending on the size of your turkey.
Have all your recipes ready to go. Round up all of the recipes you intend to use and make sure they’re easily accessible for yourself and your kitchen helpers. This may look like printing them out and placing them nearby or bookmarking them digitally so you don’t have to do a bunch of Googling last-minute with butter and spices on your hands.
Pre-chop vegetables and measure spices. The day before is the perfect time to hustle through a bulk of the laborious preparation by pre-chopping many of the time-consuming vegetables. Wrap everything tightly in plastic wrap, place in Ziploc bags, or transfer them to airtight containers and refrigerate overnight for easy assembly the next day.
Prep salads. You can also prep some salads ahead of time along with and salad dressings and store them separately in the fridge.
The Day Before Thanksgiving
Brine or marinate the turkey. If you’re planning on brining your turkey, start the process the night before Thanksgiving. The turkey needs to soak in the brine for a minimum of 8 hours, but you can’t start it too early or the texture of the meat will change. Starting it right before bed If you’re marinating it in other spices, you can start earlier in the day. At minimum, you should plan to salt your turkey the night before.
Prepare appetizers. Prepare any appetizers that can be made in advance or can be prepped and popped into the oven on Thanksgiving the next day.
Set the table. Take out the fancy holiday dinnerware, flatware, glasses, placemats, and napkins and set the table the night before. Decorate the table with seasonal decor and centrepieces, if using. It's one less thing to worry about tomorrow.
Ready the servingware. Pull out all of the serving dishes that you intend to use and give them a quick rinse to make sure they’re perfectly clean and dust-free (especially if you haven’t used them since last Thanksgiving).
Last minute clean. Clean up any last minute messes, plump up pillows and clear seating spaces, clear clutter from all surfaces, add amenities to bathrooms, and wipe down counters.
All of your hard work and preparation is about to pay off. You’re in the home stretch — you just need to make it through the next few hours and then you can kick your feet up and enjoy the company of your closest friends and family (and all of their compliments on the incredible meal you’ve put together). Make a plan and stick to it, adapting where necessary to make the transition from Thanksgiving morning to dinnertime as smooth as possible.
Thaw your bread and desserts. Early in the morning, set out frozen rolls or bread dough to thaw and rise for the next few hours so they’re ready for a quick bake right before serving. Any frozen pre-made desserts should also come out of the freezer around this time.
Prep veggies and sides. If you’re serving a potato-based dish like mashed potatoes, now is also the time to start peeling them. This will ensure you have enough time to peel without panic, which can be dangerous, and also allows you plenty of buffer time to clean up stray peels. There’s no trick to storing them until they’re ready — they can go straight in the pot with water where they will sit until it’s time to start cooking.
Assemble sides. Finish prepping any other necessary vegetables and start assembling sides so you can simply pop them in the oven when it’s time. Many recipes can be started morning-of, refrigerated for a few hours, and then completed in succession to give you more time between cooking and serving.
Start roasting the turkey. Your turkey will likely take up the bulk of your baking time. The rule of thumb is 13-15 minutes per pound, and the average turkey is 12-15 pounds, so you’re looking at well over two hours of roasting time for the turkey alone. You will also need to allot time to let the turkey rest before carving.
Make turkey stock. If you are making gravy from scratch using homemade turkey stock, start making that as soon as your turkey goes in the oven. Homemade turkey stock is typically made with the turkey neck and giblets from your turkey.
Line up your sides. Set out each of the side dishes that need to be baked so they can come up to room temperature before going into the oven, and start knocking them out according to your cooking schedule.
Make gravy. If you are making gravy from scratch, you will need to wait until the turkey is done roasting so that you can use the turkey drippings along with the turkey stock to make classic gravy.
Reheat sides. Reheat any side dishes that were made ahead or have gone cold and need to be warmed.
Set out the drinks and appetizers. A few minutes before guests are set to arrive, arrange chilled drinks and set out the appetizers for pre-dinner snacking to keep guests occupied while you’re finishing up dinner.
Put food on the table. Transfer the food to your prepared serving dishes and place it on the dinner table.
Distribute serving utensils. Make sure each dish has an individual serving utensil before serving to reduce confusion and cross contamination.
Carve the turkey. Some people carve the turkey in a grand, ceremonious way at the table to officially kick off the festivities. Some prefer to carve it in the kitchen and separate light meat from dark to make serving easier. Either way, plan to carve the turkey before serving so that guests can grab the cut they prefer.
Top off beverages. Before officially sitting down to eat, make sure everyone has everything they need so you can enjoy at least a few minutes of uninterrupted conversation while you eat. Take a quick look around the table and if any drinks are less than halfway full, grab a quick refill.
Close down the kitchen. The very last thing you should do before sitting down at the table is make sure the oven and range is turned off, unless you have a dessert actively cooking or warming to be served directly after dinner.
Thanksgiving Day Tips
A few more general Thanksgiving day tips we live by:
- Clean as you go. This is one tip that both chefs and seasoned home entertainers swear by. You need all the preparation space you can get, and minimizing the mess will keep you from getting overwhelmed in the midst of all the kitchen chaos. Wash mixing bowls and cooking utensils while food is in the oven, wipe down countertops in between stirring whatever is simmering on the stovetop. Take a second to clean up spills when they happen to save yourself major time later! This is a great task to assign enthusiastic younger kitchen helpers.
- Mix homemade and store-bought. There is nothing wrong with getting some help by incorporating store-bought items into your menu. If baking a Thanksgiving dessert is stressing you out, then just pick up a pie from the store instead. Does the sound of peeling and cubing a whole butternut squash for a butternut squash soup sound like too much work? No problem, pick up some pre-cubed butternut squash from the local grocery store.
- Make time for yourself. In all the bustle to get food on the table, don’t forget to schedule a few minutes for you to get ready. You may be covered in flour, bits of sauce, and sweat from working in a hot kitchen all day. Allow yourself some time to shower, change into your dinner attire, and congratulate yourself on a job well done.
Free Thanksgiving Checklists
Get our FREE Thanksgiving Checklists now which includes 5 of our essential checklists:
- Thanksgiving Checklist
- Thanksgiving Day Checklist
- Thanksgiving Dinner Menu Template
- Recipe and Cooking List
- Shopping List
Create a clean up plan. Have your storage containers on standby and space cleared in the fridge or freezer for a speedy, seamless transition from serving dinner to an efficient cleanup.
- Clear the table and collect all of the used plates, cups, bowls and utensils. Transfer all of your leftovers into your preferred storage containers or distribute them to guests.
- Do the dishes in batches: scrape plates and serving dishes all at once, organizing dirty dishes in groups next to the sink. Rinse and load them in the dishwasher or hand wash them by category. Large baking dishes go first, because you can arrange the smaller things around them. Then your mixing bowls, if you haven’t already cleaned them. Follow that up with cups, plates, bowls, and finally, utensils.
Use leftovers. Enjoy leftovers as is or repurpose them into something new. Scroll down to see our most popular Thanksgiving leftover recipes along with our favorite tips.
Thanksgiving Dinner Menu
Thanksgiving Mains (Turkey and Beyond)
Thanksgiving Side Dishes
Thanksgiving Soup and Salad
Personalize table settings. If you have extra time, taking a few moments to personalize a placeholder for each guest creates an even more special and intimate dining experience. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate, and many things you can order ahead of time.
- A name card with a bay leaf or a sprig of rosemary, a mini pumpkin and a metallic sharpie, a plastic-sleeved cookie with their name on it, or a disposable napkin ring with their initials can go a long way without a ton of extra effort!
Check the weather. Peek at the forecast a day or two ahead of time, and if snow or precipitation is predicted within 12-24 hours of guest arrival, you should plan to set out a tray or towel for muddy, wet shoes and make sure you have a space designated for heavy coats or umbrellas. This may also affect plans for family traditions like a touch football game or after-dinner hike, so you may have to come up with alternate indoor activities.
Set up a self-serve beverage and appetizer station. It’s not ideal for guests to meander into the kitchen as they arrive, and it may seriously derail your schedule if you have to personally pour a drink for each and every person.
- Make it easier on everyone by creating a clear self-service beverage station and setting out the appetizers where you’d like guests to hang out before sitting down for the main course.
Rent extra tables and chairs as needed. Balancing a full plate of food on your lap isn’t the most comfortable way to eat. It may also make some guests feel excluded from the dinner conversation if there isn’t room for everyone at the table.
- Rent a few extra chairs and tables to supplement the seating you already have if your headcount exceeds spaces. If you have to seat people in a few different rooms, that’s okay! As long as they have someone to chat with and a comfortable space to eat, everyone is taken care of.
Create a Thanksgiving playlist. What’s on the radio that day may not be especially holiday-friendly. Curate the perfect vibe by making a playlist of songs before the day arrives. Make sure it’s long enough to play all the way through dinner, if not a few minutes before guests arrive.
Share the wealth. Ask your guests to bring their own tupperware so they can take home some of their favorite dishes! This could significantly reduce the amount of food you have to store.
Freeze what you can’t eat immediately. If you have pounds and pounds of roasted turkey leftover when all is said and done, you likely won’t be able to stomach it all within the recommended time frame of four days. Take some of the pressure off yourself by adding Thanksgiving leftovers to your freezer stash.
Recycle leftovers. You don’t have to eat a full traditional Thanksgiving meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner for an entire week after, but you can use all your leftovers in creative ways to make new, exciting dishes. The classic Thanksgiving leftover sandwich is a cult favorite for holiday dinner enthusiasts and can utilize more than one dish, which is ideal for cutting down the amount of food taking up space in your fridge. You can also make killer quiches, pot pies, egg scrambles, stir fries, and more from holiday leftovers.