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The Ultimate Turkey Day Prep Guide: Everything You Need to Know to Plan a Perfect Thanksgiving Dinner

It’s the year’s biggest food holiday—and if you want to get a head start planning your Thanksgiving dinner, we don’t blame you.

16 min read

Since Thanksgiving includes not just menus, but kids’ snacks, desserts, and drinks, careful organizing is wise whether you’re having an intimate affair or hosting your entire extended crew. As you gather with loved ones this season, we’ve got loads of Thanksgiving dinner ideas, from the best kitchen tools to smart party tips and recipes for the leftovers. Here’s to getting everyone around the table and staying sane in the process.


Thanksgiving Tools You Need

Before you start planning your Thanksgiving dinner, take stock of your kitchen gear (it’s no fun rummaging around for a turkey baster at the last minute). And if your family is big on pie, it might be time to invest in an extra pie server. Consider stocking your pantry with these useful Thanksgiving tools:

  • Turkey thermometer: Along with a pan that’ll fit your bird, don’t get caught without a meat thermometer. Cooking to temperature (instead of time) will ensure your bird doesn’t dry out and you’ll know when to pull the turkey out when it gets to the proper temperature.
  • Turkey baster: A classic bulb baster or a basting brush is a must for moist turkey meat. And with an angled baster, you can easily suck up those delicious juices and distribute them without burning the back of your hand.
  • Potato masher: Sure, you can mash spuds with the back of a fork, but it isn’t as efficient or as easy as using an actual potato masher. Choose from a traditional wire masher, a nylon potato masher, or one made with a fine grid of stainless steel. Another idea: make the creamiest mashed potatoes ever with a potato ricer this year.
  • Casserole dish: Savvy Thanksgiving cooks make a few dishes ahead (think green bean casserole or sweet potatoes) to freeze in a 3-quart baking dish. Use a glass baking dish that can go directly from freezer to oven without needing to defrost to cut back on time. This kitchen workhorse will serve you all year, holding lasagna, chicken enchiladas, and baked rice dishes.
  • Sauce pan: A quality 3.5-quart pan is another vital kitchen tool for Thanksgiving. Use it for homemade cranberry sauce (it’s so easy), cooking potatoes, or to parboil pearl onions to cream in a casserole.
  • Pie plate: You’ll be happy you invested in a sturdy, glass pie plate where your signature dessert can cool until after dinner. Bonus: This one comes with a lid which will come in handy if you’re bringing dessert to someone else’s house.

Planning Ahead for the Big Meal

T-Day involves more than making lists and deciding who sits next to crazy Uncle Carl. Along with buying the basics, like canned pumpkin puree and chicken stock, you’ll also want to get a jump start on cleaning, planning menus for meals beyond just the big dinner, and laying out a game plan to maximize the oven space you have. Keep these do’s and don’ts in mind.

  • Do a pre-turkey deep clean: Divide and conquer your holiday house cleaning by tackling a few areas each day in the week leading up to Thanksgiving. Mopping, dusting, and giving the bathrooms a good scrub can be done two to three days before guests arrive. One day before, clear out the fridge of old condiments, set the table, and declutter kitchen counters to free up prep space.
  • Don’t skip breakfast: It’s a rookie move to try to power through the day without having a solid breakfast. Family members and guests alike will flock to eggs, whether soft or hard boiled, or you can switch things up with frozen yogurt cups. You can also place a cheese board in the living room so people gravitate there (and away from the kitchen) if they arrive before the meal is ready.
  • Do plan your oven timing: Most of us have just one oven, which means you’ll need your microwave or slow cooker to reheat dishes. One trick: With the oven off, place your casseroles inside to see which ones fit. If mashed turnip is the odd man out, prep it in a smaller dish or ask someone else to bring it.
  • Don’t forget to make a timeline: Yes, you may do the same Thanksgiving menu every year, but you still need a plan. Cooking a Thanksgiving dinner isn’t a race, but it can actually be accomplished in just four hours. If you plan it right, while your turkey roasts, you can toss together an easy stuffing recipe, whip up your signature cranberry sauce, and reheat your sweet potato casserole.

Celebrating Thanksgiving with Kids

Whether you’ve got a separate kids’ table or everyone’s mixed in together, here’s how to celebrate the holiday with kids in mind:

  • Set up a pre-meal kid’s corner: Arts and crafts are a smart go-to when you need to keep kids busy until dinner is served. Set out pre-cut paper turkeys to color or offer washable markers to decorate mini pumpkins.
  • Be ready with snacks: Quick and easy nibbles can quash a tantrum in seconds. Seasonal ones to try: trail mix with pumpkin seeds and sesame sticks or cheese balls with pretzel sticks that can look like silly turkey feathers.
  • Let baby try the menu: With a nifty food masher, you can serve your teeniest guests the same foods you’re having at Thanksgiving. Mash tender pieces of turkey, stuffing, yams, and other soft veggies—and then top your baby’s portion with a bit of gravy if you’d like.


Festive Thanksgiving Drink Ideas

Truth: the first thing guests want upon arrival is a cocktail or other festive beverage. Thanksgiving drinks, both with or without alcohol, get the ball rolling and can complement the appetizers you’re serving.

If your Thanksgiving dinner is more of a lunch meal, a Bloody Mary is a nice beverage to kick off the event and it can easily be made without vodka. Or stick to a seasonal flavor and serve a hot toddy or white wine sangria—both of which feature apple cider. Mulled wine is also a cozy cocktail when the temperatures dip low.

Of course, cranberry cocktails are spot on at Thanksgiving (think cranberry cosmos or a cranberry negroni). Bourbon is another classic fall-to-winter spirit, so you might mix a pitcher of Manhattans or old fashioneds (keep a jigger nearby for accurate pours).

Thanksgiving Menu Ideas

One of the best parts of planning Thanksgiving food ideas is coming up with a mix of menu options that include long-time favorites and new flavors. Consider adding vegetarian dishes alongside your family’s standard sausage stuffing, for instance, or you could work some new appetizers into the lineup. A few ways to plan out your menu:

  • Opt for simple yet classic: Julia Turshen, a bestselling cookbook author, adheres to a tried-and-true theme with her turkey breast with sage and mustard, sheet pan stuffing with spinach, and a colorful salad of radicchio and roasted butternut squash. It’s proof that keeping it simple can still pack a lot of flavor.
  • Freeze ahead: Pick a quiet weekend day before Thanksgiving to bake and freeze a few staples. By stocking the freezer with pie crust, premade stuffing, tangy onion rolls, and even pie fillings, you’ll save a ton of time.
  • Add veggie winners: Include a few vegetarian options for guests, such as stuffed delicata squash or a red cabbage salad with goat cheese and figs.
  • Amp up appetizers: Put fresh herbs to work in your Thanksgiving starters by flavoring cashews with rosemary. A package of puff pastry in the freezer is like an ace in the hole (stuff pinwheels with cheese, pesto, or tapenade) when you’re short on time.

Small Thanksgiving Dinner Ideas

Keeping your Thanksgiving meal on the intimate side this year? Start with a smaller bird (a chicken or capon is ideal) and serve just your favorite sides, such as smashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and green beans.

And if your Thanksgiving dinner is just for two, streamline it even more. A turkey breast roasted alongside a medley of pretty veggies (sweet potatoes, beets, red onion) is a one-pan wonder. Up the cute factor by making mini stuffing cups and hand pies for dessert.


How to Make a Thanksgiving Turkey

Don’t be nervous around that big bird—turkey is really just a large chicken. Gather your Thanksgiving tools and consider the following:

  • Go big with flavor: Yup, you can actually shoot butter or a marinade right into your turkey with a flavor injector. Create your own injection or try herbs or Italian seasoning.
  • Consider a brine: Another way to boost flavor is to apply a brine, which can be a dry rub or a classic water-and-salt mixture. And if you like crispy turkey skin (and really, who doesn’t?), brush your bird with clarified butter before cooking.
  • Take out the backbone: This method is called spatchcocking and it’s frankly genius since it allows your turkey to cook much more quickly and evenly.
  • Carve with care: Breaking down the bird into parts is key. With a sharp chef’s knife remove the legs and then the breasts in whole pieces. Slice the white meat thickly crosswise, cut away each wing, and then arrange all the pieces on a platter. Done!

How to Make Turkey Gravy

Just as you should never run out of guacamole at a Super Bowl party, the gravy must flow continuously at a Thanksgiving dinner. In short, make enough to top turkey, stuffing, and potatoes, as well as leftovers the next day. The trick to perfect gravy? Use a fat separator.

This handy tool separates the fat from the liquid in your turkey pan drippings, making it easier to mix a roux from the fat to thicken the gravy. Once the roux is ready, add back the liquid drippings plus additional chicken stock and cook until its consistency meets your liking.

Thanksgiving Dessert Ideas: All About Pie

At last—the best part! If you’re serving up pie, be sure to line up your tools (or order the ones you’re missing) before you start. These three baking tips will ensure your pies are a winner:

  • Get the right gear: A dough blender makes cutting butter into flour a breeze and a dough scraper gathers and divides dough into neat portions. These pie tools, along with a nonstick rolling pin and a pastry brush, can help you turn out gorgeous desserts.
  • Dough know-how: Did you know that dough should rest for 30 minutes after you’ve mixed it? And don’t forget to keep dough cold so it’s easier to roll.
  • Opt for glass: A glass pie plate bakes pie more slowly than one made from metal.

 Not a pie fan? Try these amazing cakes, cookies, ice cream, and no-bake delights.


What to Do with Thanksgiving Leftovers

Yes, you could default to next-day sandwiches, but we suggest creating inspired dishes with your Thanksgiving leftovers. Tuck roasted veggies into frittatas and omelets for breakfast or make a delicious afternoon soup with that leftover green bean casserole by adding milk and chicken broth.

No matter how you repurpose your leftovers, be careful with storage (use air-tight containers) and don’t let it sit around for too long. Eat turkey and stuffing within four days of storing it and homemade cranberry sauce within 10 days. As for the canned jelly version? You have up to two weeks.

For even more Thanksgiving ideas and recipes to plan a perfect holiday, check out our Thanksgiving archive.


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