For the past 20 years, my sister Mary, her husband and three sons (as they came along) were hosted for Thanksgiving by our aunt Kay and Uncle Jim or Mary’s in-laws, alternating every other year. This year was their year to head to Mary’s in-laws. On a whim, she invited them to come spend Thanksgiving with her family in their new home. They finally have a dining room and a table for hosting, so she thought (for a minute) that it sounded like a good idea.
She called me last week in the middle of her already hectic day to tell me in a panicked tone, “My mother-in-law called to say they are actually coming to our house for Thanksgiving. I didn’t actually expect them to say yes! They always host. I was just trying to be nice.”
So, Mary is hosting Thanksgiving for the very first time next week. Sounds like so much fun to me—I love to cook and host family and friends for big meals—but to her it feels more like an insurmountable list of tasks and to-do’s.
I got another call the next day. “How in the world am I supposed to know how big of a turkey to buy? Do I need to order ahead? You have to help me, sister! And how do you get everything cooked and ready at once? What I can make ahead? Should I make stuffing from fresh bread or buy those dried-up cube things?” The list of questions went on.
If you’ve never hosted a Thanksgiving meal before or even if you always host, but it’s a chore that leaves you in an exhausted puddle by the time the turkey is carved, here’s a timeline and planner to help you (and my sister Mary) feel some ease and maybe even enjoy preparing for the big meal.
About 1 week ahead
1. Finalize your menu. And gather the recipes. Maybe you don’t need a recipe for mashed potatoes, but having one on hand helps with planning for quantities and making a shopping list.
2. Order a turkey. The general rule of thumb for size is about 1 pound of bone-in turkey per person; if you want leftovers, plan for 1 1/2 pounds turkey per person.
3. Decide what you should hand off. Most guests are happy to contribute to the meal and don’t expect the host to prepare every dish. Let guests know now what you’d like them to bring so you can cross those things off your list.
4. Make your dessert plan. If you’re not a baker, call up your favorite bakery and order the pies now. Or, if you’re hosting a baker, ask them to bring the pies.
5. Shop for beverages. Wine, beer, spirits and bubbly water all hold well in the basement or an extra refrigerator—if you have one—or even outside in a cooler. (But be sure you don’t leave them outside in cold temps without a cooler or you’ll have an exploded mess on your hands.)
6 Days ahead (Friday):
1. Make your shopping list. Almost all of the ingredients you need to make a Thanksgiving meal will keep for about a week. I am a list maker, so I like to make lists. I recommend a couple. Make one list of things that you’ll shop for this weekend and another list of things that you’ll wait until Tuesday or even Wednesday to get—I know, crazy, right? Put things like fresh vegetables (Brussels sprouts, green beans and salad greens) on your later-in-the-week list. Even in you don’t like lists, push through and really do it. Getting it all onto paper really does take away some stress. You can do it!
5 Days ahead (Saturday):
1. Do the big shop. Get up early, have a good breakfast, grab a hot mug of coffee or tea and head to the store. Buy everything on your list except the fresh vegetables that you’re planning to get later in the week. Enjoy the crowds, smile and just keep breathing.
2. Make pie crust(s). Pat each batch of dough into a flat disc, wrap separately in plastic wrap and pop them in the freezer. If making crust from scratch makes you sweat, but you’re okay with making the rest of the pie, go ahead and just buy some premade crusts. It’s okay. There are several available locally that are almost as delicious as homemade.
3. Crisp bread and toast nuts. If you’re making stuffing/dressing from scratch, cut the bread into cubes and bake them in the oven until crisp and dry. Toast any nuts you’ll be using on salads or in pies. If toasting nuts is usually a step to skip for you—try it for this special meal. It makes them taste so much better and, since you’re planning ahead, you have time to do it. Cool and store airtight.
4 Days ahead (Sunday):
1. Make cranberry sauce. It keeps well for a week in the refrigerator. So, the extras will still be good for leftover turkey sandwiches. My favorite.
3 Days ahead (Monday):
1. Pick up the turkey. If you’re to planning to make your own gravy—I highly recommend it (!)—remove the giblets and neck from the turkey and turn them into a stock for the gravy: Simmer the giblets and neck in 4 to 6 cups water with onions, carrots, celery, bay leaves and a big pinch of peppercorns for 1 to 2 hours. And, Voilà! Homemade stock. Strain and refrigerate.
2. Get the serving dishes ready. Take the stress out of last-minute digging in the cabinets for the serving dishes while you’re trying to get the meal on the table. Gather them ahead of time, label them and set them aside. If you’re the polishing silver and ironing napkins type, do those tasks on Monday too.
2 Days ahead (Tuesday):
1. Defrost pie dough. If you made your own dough, put it in the refrigerator Tuesday morning so it’s ready to roll out on Wednesday.
2. Buy fresh veggies. Head back to the store for any last minute items and the fresh vegetables. Grab a bunch or two of flowers for the table too.
3. Prepare stuffing. Assemble your stuffing in a baking dish, but don’t add any broth or stock. (Actually stuffing the bird while it roasts is a big food safety no-no. I know, some of you will probably still do it, but, just saying.) Cover and refrigerate until Thursday. Add the broth about 30 minutes before baking on Thursday.
1 day ahead (Wednesday):
1. Make pies. Remove pie dough from the refrigerator about 30 minutes before rolling out to soften up a bit. Make and bake pies. Pumpkin, pecan and apple pies will hold well at room temperature for 1 to 2 days.
2. Prep fresh vegetables. Trim green beans and Brussels sprouts. If you’re serving salad, wash and dry salad greens, prep salad vegetables, make salad dressing.
3. Prep potatoes. Peel potatoes for mashed potatoes, cut into cubes and store in water in a covered container in the refrigerator.
4. Assemble any casseroles. Most casseroles, like green bean casserole, can be assembled and refrigerated for a day. Get yours prepped and ready.
5. Brine the turkey. It does take a tiny bit of extra effort, but brining the turkey will guarantee an extra juicy, flavorful turkey—no dry, bland turkey on your table. Look up a recipe for turkey brine and you’ll find two options: wet or dry. “Wet brine” means soaking the turkey in a flavorful salted water solution overnight. “Dry brine” means rubbing the turkey under and over the skin with a flavorful salt rub. (See my dry brine recipe.)
The Big Day (Thursday)
1. Get some fresh air. Start your day with some outside time, even if the weather isn’t great. Take a short hike, run in a Turkey Trot or just take a stroll around the yard. You’re about to spend the rest of the day indoors, so fortify yourself before you start cooking.
2. Get the turkey roasting. In a 350°F oven, plan to roast the turkey for 13 to 15 minutes per pound. So, for a 20-pound bird, that’s about 3 hours 40 minutes. Add another 20 to 30 minutes to let it rest out of the oven, plus 15 to 20 more minutes to carve before serving. So, if you’re serving at 5:00 p.m. and have a 20-pound bird, it’ll need to go in the oven about 4 1/2 hours before serving or around 12:30 p.m. At a higher temperature, say 425°F, you can shave off about 2 minutes per pound.
3. Finish the sides. This is the hard part. Shortly before the turkey is ready to come out the oven, prepare the mashed potatoes, green beans, Brussels and/or other vegetable sides. Do as much of this on the stovetop as you can, then hold everything in covered pots while the turkey rests. For things that need to go into the oven, squeeze them onto the top rack while the turkey is finishing up if you can, or pop them in the oven right after the turkey is out. You’ll have 40 to 50 minutes after the turkey is out but before it’s time to serve, so most things like stuffing and casseroles can heat through in that amount of time.
4. Assign a carver and gravy maker. You’re almost there! Once the turkey is out of the oven, carefully transfer it to a large cutting board and tent with several layers of foil—or a small comforter wrapped in a clean garbage bag like my friend Hilary’s mom does—she really wants warm turkey! While you (or your assigned “carver”) work on the turkey, someone else can make the gravy. Use all of the drippings left in the pan and make it right in the roasting pan set over two burners if you have enough space on the stovetop.
5. Give thanks. Assemble around the table. Pause. Reflect. Bless. And give thanks for the glorious meal. You did it.
Garlic-Herb Dry Brine for Turkey
For a 15- to 20-pound turkey: Add 6 cloves fresh garlic, 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley, 1/4 cup fresh thyme, 1/4 cup fresh chopped sage, 1/4 cup kosher salt, 2 tablespoons black peppercorns and 2 tablespoons sugar to a food processor; pulse until finely chopped. Add 1/2 cup Loosen the skin of the breast and legs. Evenly spread the dry brine mixture under the skins, over the skin and into the cavity. Refrigerate uncovered for up to 1 day.
Stacy Fraser was the Test Kitchen Manger at EatingWell in Shelburne, Vermont for 13 years. She’s roasted (or helped roast) more than 200 turkeys, including one that caught fire and blasted open the oven door in a recipe test gone wrong. (No one was injured!) This year, she’s sharing a Thanksgiving meal in Vermont with dear friends and family. Email her your Thanksgiving meal questions.