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If you’re hosting Thanksgiving, you need to start prepping today

Nov 8, 2023, 1:37 PM

A Thanksgiving timeline that starts two weeks ahead of the big day helps food writer Casey Barber s...

A Thanksgiving timeline that starts two weeks ahead of the big day helps food writer Casey Barber serve the Super Bowl of meals without a hitch. (Photo illustration, CNN)

(Photo illustration, CNN)

(CNN) — I always think of Thanksgiving as the Super Bowl of food holidays. No offense to the wings, dips and hoagies that are consumed while watching the Super Bowl, but when it comes to an all-eyes-on-the-cook food moment, nothing beats Thanksgiving.

And as any coach will tell you, if you’re going to win the game, you need a good game plan. That’s where my Thanksgiving timeline comes in.

For more than two decades, I’ve refined my prep strategy for the big feast. I’ve single-handedly hosted Thanksgiving meals for 12 guests, and I’ve had years where I’m only cooking for my husband and me. No matter what’s on my menu — plant-based or otherwise — I make sure to start mapping out my meal plan early in November.

Whether you’re a first-time host or just need reassurance and a bit of organizational motivation, this planning timeline will benefit you.

And it’s time to start now.

Two weeks before Thanksgiving

Finalize your guest list and the menu. If you’re having your guests bring any food or beverages for the meal, this is the time to nail down all the specifics with them. Remember that they may also be slightly stressed about how much food they will need to make, so an accurate head count helps everyone.

One week before Thanksgiving

Get your shopping lists ready. This includes the grocery list as well as any other items you’ll need to acquire for the big event. Will you need to borrow or buy extra chairs, plates or linens? Do you have a roasting pan large enough for your turkey? How about some disposable containers to send leftovers home with guests?

This is also the time to start clearing space in the refrigerator(s) for all the incoming ingredients and prepped food. I like to combine my annual Thanksgiving prep time with fridge cleanout because it gives me a chance to assess all the condiments that have accumulated over the past year. (Sorry, horseradish. I know I only use you sparingly, and I hate to compost you, but it’s time.)

It’s time to clean out your refrigerator to make room for all of your Thanksgiving cooking. (Photo illustration, CNN)

Now, about that grocery list. It can feel a bit overwhelming to think of all the ingredients you’ll need for every dish, especially if you’re making everything yourself. However, it’s manageable. Here’s my strategy:

  •  Look at every single recipe you plan to make for Thanksgiving.
  • Type out every ingredient you’ll need for every recipe in a Word document or other easily editable file.
  • Organize that list by grocery category — produce, dairy, dry goods, etc.
  • Consolidate multiple quantities of the same ingredient. For example, if you need 6 tablespoons of butter for one recipe, 2 sticks of butter for another, and 2 tablespoons for another, you will need to buy 3 sticks total.
  • Voilà! A simple grocery list that you can use for in-store shopping or online ordering.

Weekend before Thanksgiving

This is the earliest date you can conceivably shop for perishable ingredients and keep them fresh before Thanksgiving. Trust me, I’ve done this for years, and no produce has ever wilted or gone moldy before it was time to use it.

Start shopping for your ingredients. (Photo illustration, CNN)

By getting the grocery shopping out of the way the weekend before Thanksgiving, you will avoid the last-minute scramble for the best ingredients and any problems arising from items being out of stock.

If you plan to cook a large frozen turkey, you may need to start thawing it in the refrigerator on Saturday or Sunday to allow it to thaw completely by Wednesday night, when you’ll need to brine it. The US Department of Agriculture recommends allowing 24 hours of thawing time for every 4 to 5 pounds of weight. Once thawed, an uncooked turkey can remain refrigerated for up to two days.

On Sunday, you can also start prepping make-ahead elements, such as gravy basepie dough and cranberry sauce, which will keep in the fridge without compromise until needed.

Thanksgiving week

On Monday and Tuesday, get the baking of any Thanksgiving desserts out of the way. Pies, tarts and cakes can be refrigerated a few days in advance, and cookies will keep in a sealed room-temperature container. Throw a heel of bread in with the cookies to stop them from going stale.

You can also chop vegetables for side dishes, such as onion and celery for stuffing or Brussels sprouts for roasting, whisk together salad dressings, and prep your turkey brine ahead of time.

Casserole-style side dishes such as stuffing, sweet potatoes or potato gratin can be baked in advance  on Wednesday to prevent an oven backup on Thursday morning. Bake your dishes according to instructions, but stop short of letting any of them brown completely on top. Let cool slightly before covering and refrigerating. You’ll reheat these casseroles on Thursday while the turkey rests.

Some food can be made the weekend before the big day. (Photo illustration, CNN)

Brine your turkey on Wednesday evening. Whether you’re using a dry brine (essentially a salty spice rub) or a wet brine, I feel this is a crucial step for ensuring your roasted turkey is moist and flavorful.

Thanksgiving Day

Estimate about 13 minutes of cooking time per pound of unstuffed turkey: A 10-pound bird should take a little more than 2 hours, while a 15-pound bird will need at least 3 hours. So set your alarm clock accordingly for when you’ll need to wake up and get started.

Bring your turkey out of the refrigerator 1 hour before it goes into the oven, rinse off the brine and pat it dry. Place in the roasting pan, add any spices or aromatics as desired, then slide it into the oven.

I like to start my turkey off at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for the first 30 to 45 minutes of roasting to get the skin brown and crispy, then drop the temperature to 325 degrees for the remaining cooking time.

While the turkey cooks, set the table and make sure any trivets and serving platters with utensils are ready. Plate any dishes that can be served at room temperature. Now’s also the time to make mashed potatoes if you’re doing so.

Bring any previously baked casseroles out of the fridge one hour before you plan to put them in the oven. This will give them a chance to take the chill off and reheat a little more quickly.

Remove the turkey from the oven when a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Allow at least 30 minutes for the turkey to rest. I like to build in a full hour’s time just in case it takes longer to cook than anticipated.

While the turkey rests, increase the oven heat to 375 degrees and reheat the casseroles uncovered until warmed through and browned. Rewarm your gravy base with any pan drippings.

Make sure one of your guests is ready with a toast and a glass of a celebratory beverage and congratulate yourself on a job well done.

To-do list (highlights)

Two weeks out:

  • Finalize your guest list and the menu

One week out:

  • Get your shopping lists ready
  • Borrow any kitchen equipment, tables and chairs you might need
  • Clean out refrigerator

Weekend before Thanksgiving:

  • Start to thaw out frozen bird (if used) and prep make-ahead dishes

Monday/Tuesday:

  • Bake make-ahead desserts

Wednesday:

  • Brine turkey
  • Make casserole-style side dishes such as stuffing, sweet potatoes or potato gratin

Thanksgiving Day:

  • Make turkey
  • Set table
  • Make mashed potatoes
  • Warm cassaroles
  • Ask your guests to pour the drinks!

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If you’re hosting Thanksgiving, you need to start prepping today