Whether or not this is your first Thanksgiving meal, preparing means juggling many moving parts. From cooking times to guest dishes, it is all a puzzle that, with some organization, can come together so everyone, yourself included, can enjoy.
Here is a brief checklist and timeline of items to consider. Of course, you need to fill in the details for your gathering, but this can give you some ideas of what to include. If you want the full checklist, you can download it here.
One Week Before
As we discussed in When to Shop for Thanksgiving, at least a week before, you want to organize and complete your shopping for those non-perishable items. Always leave some time for those last-minute items or the things you forgot.
This is also a good time to take an inventory of what you need or what you missed when shopping. Here are some ideas on things to double-check.
Pots, roasting pans, casserole dishes, baking pans, and sheet pans
Serving dishes - My Mom liked to pull everything out and label what was going in which dish. This saves a lot of remembering.
Dishes, glasses, bowls, silverware - No matter what dishes you use, you want to make sure you have everything you need for the whole day. Don't forget any drinks before dinner, and coffee and dessert after dinner.
Ingredients - Do you have everything you need? Do you have a plan to pick up last-minute items and things you forgot? Remember to delegate whenever possible.
If you are serving a frozen turkey, this is also when you want to think about how long to thaw the turkey. The standard, using your refrigerator, is 24 hours for every 5 pounds. So if you have a 20-pound turkey, you must begin thawing it at least 4 days in advance, again in the refrigerator.
This is also a good time to prepare anything you want to freeze ahead of time. You can also do this at least a month ahead if you prefer. Things you can freeze include:
Stuffing or Dressing
Cranberry Sauce - although you don't need to do this if you want to make it during this timeframe.
Casseroles - depending on the casserole. If you are having overnight or weekend guests, you can also make a breakfast casserole and freeze this.
Lastly, this is a great time to confirm with your guests the time you expect them or when you will be eating, plus the dish they may bring.
One to Two Days Before
Now it is time. to get serious. This is when you will be picking up last-minute items and starting to cook.
If you are going to brine your turkey, you want to do that 8 - 18 hours in advance. Wet brines - saltwater solution with optional herbs and spices - take a shorter time, and I recommend using a brining bag. Dry brines - salt with herbs and spices - can be done up to 2 days in advance, but no more. Double-check your turkey before brining. If you are using a kosher turkey, definitely or frozen potentially may have been pre-salted.
It is also time, depending on your refrigerator space, to assemble and cook your side dishes or defrost those that you have already frozen. Don't forget dessert. Now is the time to pick up your pies from the bakery or bake them yourself.
Finally, the night before is a good time to get your next-day plan in order. Work backward from dinner time, and plan when you want to cook things and how much oven space you will have. Your turkey should sit out about an hour before cooking, and rest at least 30 minutes after cooking, so don't forget to add that time to your plan.
Most people don't get up at the crack of dawn to put their turkeys in unless you are having an early meal, and even then, that might not be necessary.
Using Julia Child's general rule of thumb on how long to cook a turkey at 325 degrees Fahrenheit is 16-18 minutes per pound. Turkeys are all different, so this is when a thermometer is your best friend (a good thing to add to your inventory list). The turkey is done when it registers 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
The biggest thing to monitor is oven space, especially if you only have one oven. If you prepare your side dishes while the turkey is cooking, once it is done you can take it out to rest, increase the oven temperature and reheat your side dishes.
Also, think outside of the box. Several readers shared they use their crockpot to heat up mashed potatoes and other items, including gravy. Or, can you use your grill? This might be a great place to reheat casseroles, stuffing, etc. I like adding my baked pies to the warm but turned-off oven once we sit down for dinner. The cooling oven warms the pies really well.
Don't forget to delegate. Getting some helping hands while preparing, serving, and cleaning up can make everyone feel part of the meal.
Cooking a holiday meal like Thanksgiving doesn't have to be overwhelming. Getting your plan in place ahead of time, knowing how you will use your time, and getting some help are all tips you can use for any gathering.
If you want more details on the checklist, including specific times for thawing, cooking, and even some brine recipes, you can download it here.