Thanksgiving Planning Simplified: What to Cook When

Thanksgiving | Hosting | Fuss Free | Easy | Planning | Prep | Cook | Recipes

The other day I filmed a Facebook Live about “how to know when your food has gone bad”.  In it, I talked about labeling your food with the date you made it using something as simple as masking tape. This elicited an amazed “how have I never thought of it” to which I answered the same way I always do to these cooking tips “you have to pay lots of money for culinary school to learn things like this”.

Of course, I’m joking. And I’m not. There are plenty of people who know tons about cooking without ever paying a penny for school. These skills and this knowledge is hard earned, from tons of trial and error, burnt pie crusts and show stopping souffles. On the other hand, there are a tons of things I learned in my culinary program that I wouldn’t otherwise know.

From talking to many of you, I find that one of the major stumbling blocks for home cooks is knowing: what can be made ahead of time and what can’t, what keeps and what doesn’t, and how to schedule things out so you aren’t spending all day in the kitchen.

Scheduling Your Thanksgiving Cooking

Thanksgiving is the perfect example of a holiday or event where having this baseline knowledge of what to cook when is so helpful. After all, you don’t want to tear your whole kitchen apart in the morning and spend the afternoon putting it back together before the guests arrive.

No, your best bet is to do as much as you can ahead of time so that the day-of is spent readying your house for guests, doing a few last minute tasks, and warming up pre-cooked food. You might be surprised by how many things you can get done ahead of time to free up your Thanksgiving Thursday.  

First of all, you should make sure you get your menu and shopping list in order ASAP. I wrote all about how to do that quickly and effectively in this post.

Now, you should pull up all of your recipes and go down the instructions to figure out what you can make when to minimize your Thursday prep and cooking.

In my Thanksgiving Planning tool, I’ve created a space that you can do this simply and easily in a spreadsheet:


But there’s no reason you can’t also do it by hand the old fashioned way! Here’s the schedule I laid out for my mom today so that she can make turkey, cranberry relish, sweet potato pecan crisp, twice-baked creme fraiche potatoes, stuffing and pumpkin pie all with minimal day-of prep.  Here’s what that looks like:

thanksgiving schedule

What Can You Make When?

So back to that culinary school conversation up top. How in the world are you to know what you can make when, especially when recipe writers are generally so vague about this? 

Let me help! What you’ll want to do is read my tips about what can be done ahead of time below and then go through your recipes’ instructions to determine what fits in each category. Then you can translate that “schedule” to either your piece of paper or the “Game Plan” tab of the Thanksgiving Planning spreadsheet.

First off, note that most all prepared food can be kept for 3-5 days without going bad from a food safety perspective, so at this point we’re mostly worried about what holds well quality-wise not safety-wise. Ideally, you’ll shop for most of your ingredients today (Sunday) or Monday before things get crazy busy. This will also give your turkey time to thaw in the fridge (ever tried to cook a frozen turkey?) and give you time to go back for anything you might have forgotten.

Your Make Ahead Schedule

Of course, the exact timing that’s right for you will depend on your recipes, techniques, and personal schedule, but here are some general guidelines:

3-4 Days (Sunday or Monday) Ahead of Time:

  • Chop vegetables (onions and celery for stuffing, brussels sprouts, roasting veggies)
  • Saute veggies for your stuffing
  • Boil or bake your sweet potatoes
  • Chop up bread cubes for stuffing
  • Make cranberry sauce / relish
  • Make pies
  • Make salad dressing

1-2 Days (Tuesday or Wednesday) Ahead of Time:

  • Make mashed potatoes (Pioneer Woman talks all about how/why to do them ahead of time here)
  • Combine stuffing mixture (with the exception of eggs if using)
  • Brine turkey if applicable
  • Wash and prep salad ingredients
  • Make rolls

Day Of:

  • Make gravy
  • Season turkey
  • Toss together final components and ingredients
  • Heat up all dishes

Write Your Schedule Down

Now that you have an idea of what to make when, it’s time to make yourself a schedule. Seriously, don’t make this complicated. Just write down the days of the week you have remaining before and including your dinner with space for notes below. 

Here’s my spreadsheet version (from the Game Plan tab):

Game Plan Spreadsheet

Jot down what you’re going to do when based on when you have time to cook and space to store. It can be as simple as “boil sweet potatoes” or “make cranberry relish”, no need to get too detailed here because you can always refer back to your menu and recipe for details as you make things (and well you should).

Thursday or “Day-Of” is going to be your most critical day. I like to divide mine in two categories:

  • Make as early as possible (e.g. make topping for sweet potatoes and assemble, wash salad greens)
  • Instructions of what to do right before serving (e.g. take mashed potatoes out 2 hours ahead of time then heat in the oven for 20-30 minutes at 350 degrees)

Essentially the “do before serving” instructions should be the most detailed because you want this to be your all-in-one checklist that you can refer to while guests flood your home and jockey for space.

Et voila! You’re ready to get started.

Have any questions? I’m happy to help chime in on any individual plans or questions you might have.


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