Thanksgiving Planning and Cooking

When it comes to Thanksgiving feast, there is a lot to do before to make sure the food looks good, tastes good, and is served with style. To accomplish all of that, you will have to approach this special dinner in stages:


  • How to start

Every good cook does some planning to make sure the dishes taste and look good when the special night rolls in.

Avoid serving similar meals for dinner, like a pecan pie and spiced pecan appetizer. While both meals might be fantastic, it’ll be too much of a good thing.

Variety is always important at a table. Also pay attention to your guests with various dietary and allergy restrictions.

Visualize the table and the colors – you will definitely have enough white and brown, so add some red cranberry sauce, orange sweet potato dish, and green bean casserole.

Consider textures and flavors – don’t be afraid to experiment with creamy and roasted, spicy and sweet.

  • Count your guests

Most Thanksgiving dinners include 8-12 people, but what if you have 20? Think about the oven size, the carving crew, and consider roasting one whole turkey and another tray of just turkey parts.

If you have a smaller group, you will have more time to experiment and create interesting recipes, like sweet potato gratin, puff pastry cheese straws, or a new sauce. You can also take time and decorate the table to impress.

  • Assess your skills

If you don’t feel that you are a master chef just yet, don’t overdo it. Stick to meat, mashed potatoes, a sauce, and a vegetable. There is no need to bake a pie – a guest can bring one.

Consider making casseroles and pureed vegetable – they are easy to assemble, almost anything goes and tastes great on a plate. The best thing about them is that they all can be made in advance and reheated right before the Thanksgiving dinner, in the same oven the turkey just came out of.

Experienced cooks should make a couple of new dished each year to not get rusty. You can try a new way of cooking the turkey or experiment with a side or sauce. This could be very satisfactory not just for your guests, but you too.

  • Striking a balance

Some people around your table might be die-hard conservatives and others can be modern eaters when it comes to Thanksgiving festivities. Your task is to strike a balance between both camps. Adding new ingredients to the turkey is not the best way to go – you don’t want to offend your old-school lovers. Instead come up with a modern dish or two on the side to satisfy the innovative souls at your table.



Having a shopping list is essential. Getting as much bought in advance as you can is advisable.

Some things are understood: turkey, sweet potatoes, and cranberries. Buy 1 pound of turkey for each person. But then there are some other essential ingredients not to be forgotten:

  • Butter and lots of it - the creamier, the better.
  • Stock – if you don’t have home-made, look for it at the butcher section and freezer in the grocery store. Canned or packed stock is your last resort. You will need about 3 quarts of it.
  • Fresh herbs – for table decoration, flavor induction, and fresh salad
  • Garlic, onions, ginger, shallots, and leeks will be needed for stuffing, gravy, and many side dishes.
  • Fresh citrus brings exceptional flavor to many dishes
  • Nuts are great for casseroles and salads
  • White wine, beer, vermouth – for splashing on you meals or enjoying by the glass
  • Fresh spices
  • Molasses, light brown sugar, maple syrup – autumn flavor for sweetening pies and coffee-based drinks
  • Heavy cream, sour cream, ice cream – perfect pie toppers

What can be made ahead?

1. Turkey, gravy, sides

All of those things are best when made the day of Thanksgiving, but there are some things you can do in advance:

  • Make stock in advance and freeze. Also remove turkey packaging and use dry brine to get it going a day before.
  • Mashed potatoes won’t refrigerate good, but if you want to make mashed potato casserole with butter and chives, you can cook it before.
  • Most stuffing and dressings can be cooked in advanced and reheated.
  • Cranberry sauce can be cooked a week before and taste great.
  • Gravy can be cooked in advance.
  • Salads can be washed in advance and wrapped in paper towels in the crisper, most veggies can be cubed and prepared a couple of days before.

2. Desserts

  • Chocolate tortes and cakes stay fresh pretty well, so are good candidates for baking in advance
  • Dense and heavy desserts stay better than liquid and fluffy ones. Cakes with frosting and fondant can definitely be made in advance
  • Pies should never be made more than 24 hours in advance. The dough can be prepared and stored in the fridge or freezer.


Turkey essentials

  • Turkey is the essential part of Thanksgiving and is not that intimidating. Make sure you get one a few days in advance to allow time for defrosting. If you are ordering from a butcher, do so a few weeks ahead of time.
  • It takes about a day per pound to defrost in the refrigerator, so for a 12 pound turkey allow 3 days.
  • It’s not safe to defrost a big turkey at room temperature due to bacteria and toxins they can produce.
  • A fresh turkey will last up to 2 days in the fridge.
  • It’s your personal choice if you want to brine the turkey or dry brine with seasoning rub. There are advocates for both methods.
  • You can brine the turkey in the fridge or use a big cooler with enough ice.
  • You should truss your bird if you stuff it; otherwise keep the legs open for the meat to cook evenly.
  • Cooking stuffing inside the turkey is safe as long as it reaches 165 degrees, like the rest of the bird. If you have doubts, cook it separately.
  • You should roast your turkey on a roasting rack or just elevated from the bottom of the roasting pan. Balls of foil work fine too.
  • There is no need to rinse your turkey before cooking.
  • You should not baste the turkey for the first hour and then baste every half an hour – it helps keep the juices inside and skin crisp.
  • Roasting time depends on the size of the bird. 2.5 hours for 9-11 pounds, 3 hours for 12-14 pounds, and 3.5 hours for 15-17 pounds. Cook it even longer if bigger.


  • You can make pie dough and pie filling separately and store in the fridge, but don’t mix them until Thanksgiving.
  • Some unbaked pies can be frozen, but again, they might lose that heavenly feeling.
  • You can roll out the crust and keep it plastic covered at room temperature overnight or blind bake it and leave it covered with towel until you are ready to fill it with filling the morning of Thanksgiving.
  • If you have a frozen unbaked pie, bake it without unfreezing, just add 15 min cooking time