How To Plan The Ultimate Thanksgiving Dinner
Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and if you haven’t started planning for the big day yet, then what are you waiting for?! Thanksgiving requires an immense amount of planning and prep work, so if you’re hosting dinner this year but have no idea where to start (I get it, it’s incredibly overwhelming for first-timers and seasoned hosts alike), then fear not, because we’ve laid it all out for you in this handy Thanksgiving dinner guide.
From grocery lists, menu planning, and invites to the ultimate food prep timeline and table setting ideas, here’s everything you need to know about planning the ultimate Thanksgiving dinner.
Figure Out Your Menu and Headcount
When planning the ultimate Thanksgiving dinner, the first thing you need to do is figure out what you’re going to serve and how many people you are serving. If you only have, say, six people total, getting a 22-pound turkey is probably not the right move unless you plan on eating turkey until 2022 (we’ll get to how to figure out how big of a turkey you need based on the headcount in a bit). On the flip side, if you’re serving dinner for a large group of people, you don’t want to run out of food before everyone has a chance to fill their plate.
Menu-wise, what you serve at Thanksgiving is totally up to you. You can of course go with the traditional turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, etc. for you and your guests. However, there is no official Thanksgiving rule book, so you don’t have to if you don’t want to. Some easy replacements for a classic Thanksgiving turkey include roasted chicken, lamb, or beef wellington, but really, the sky’s the limit when it comes to your menu, and you don’t have to have just one main course (if you’re feeling up to cooking more than one).
One thing to take into consideration when planning your menu is if anyone in your group has food allergies, dietary restrictions, or preferences (think vegan or vegetarian), or if someone can’t or doesn’t consume certain foods because of religion or culture. Whenever I’m throwing a dinner party or cooking food for someone, I always ask just to make sure – there’s nothing worse than a friend or loved one showing up to your place hungry as all hell and they can’t eat anything or have to make a sad meal out of green beans and sourdough bread, and asking your guests about food restrictions/preferences takes approximately two seconds via text. Long story short – just ask.
Additionally, you need to figure out whether you will be doing all the cooking or if you want friends and family to pitch in and bring a side dish, dessert, appetizer, etc. If you’re somewhat psychotic like me and love taking on the challenge of doing everything yourself with no help, that’s totally fine! Either way, once you figure all this out, you’re going to need to organize and get into the nitty-gritty of the planning, which we’ll get to below.
Make Your Lists
Even if you’re not a type-A organized person, you’re going to want to be when planning your Thanksgiving dinner. Obviously, the fewer people you have, the easier it’s going to be to plan and cook everything, but you should still put everything on paper, or my favorite, a spreadsheet, to keep track of your menu, guests, supplies, and whatever else you need.
Once you have your menu planned out, write out all the ingredients for each dish, and go through your pantry to see what you already have, i.e. spices, canned goods, dry goods, any frozen veggies or fruits that can be used, etc. – that way you’ll save money at the grocery store, and you can focus on grabbing the groceries you need for your big dinner.
Additionally, you’ll want to make a list of supplies you already have and supplies you need. Do you have enough glassware, plates, and silverware for all of your guests? Do you have enough room to seat all your guests, or do you need to rent/borrow a table and chairs? Do you have multiple wine keys, bottle openers, and/or barware if you plan on making cocktails? What about items for a beautiful table setting? Do you have enough candles, fall decor, flowers, or whatever else you think you need for a Thanksgiving table setting? Write it down, and whatever you don’t have, pick it up at the store or borrow from a loved one or friend.
Grocery Shopping, Supplies, and Invites
Take your handy lists to the grocery store and other stores (any craft store should still have some fall decor up, and it’ll probably be on sale). Many people start stocking up for Thanksgiving weeks ahead of time, so if you’re on the hunt for canned pumpkin, pie crust, pre-made mashed potatoes, or even a turkey, you might be running around all day trying to find common Thanksgiving items.
In that case, alter your menu and find what you can. While not being able to find what you need at the store is stressful, especially when putting together a Thanksgiving dinner, we have this wonderful little tool in our pockets that can connect us to Google in literally two seconds, and you can search for recipes that contain the specific ingredients you were able to find. Remember: Google is your friend, and sometimes your savior.
As you’re finding out, Thanksgiving requires a lot of planning – especially if you are entertaining a large number of guests – so it’s important to get your invites out at least two weeks ahead of time so you know how many people to expect. If you want your guests to bring a side dish, dessert, appetizer, or something else, tell them when you send out the invites.
Note: even if you have a few Tupperware containers floating around your kitchen, you should absolutely buy a boatload of Tupperware or storage containers for leftovers – not only for yourself but for your guests, too.
Food Prep Timeline
Your Thanksgiving food prep timeline will vary depending on your menu and what you’re making yourself, but for a traditional Thanksgiving meal, the following is a rough guideline to a somewhat stress-free timeline. You should also make an oven schedule or general cooking/prep schedule in order for everything to go smoothly.
One week before: Remember, the freezer is absolutely your best friend when it comes to Thanksgiving, and you can do the following about seven days in advance: make and freeze soup and/or gravy, and if you’re making pie dough from scratch, now’s the time to make it, cut it into circles, and freeze it. If you’re going the store-bought route (honestly, I recommend it because it saves you so much hassle), just store the frozen pie crust in the freezer, then transfer the day before to the fridge. Easy as pie.
Five days before: If you have a large turkey (think over 20 pounds), you’re going to want to allow yourself one day of thawing for every four pounds. Note: the ratio of pounds of turkey to guests is about 1.5 pounds for every guest, and The Kitchn has an incredibly easy step-by-step guide on how to prepare a turkey that even first-timers can follow.
Two days before: There is a ton of prep work you can do a couple of days before the big day, including cubing bread for stuffing, chopping your veggies, and preparing any casseroles or dishes that can be baked the day of (think shepherd’s pie, cheesy broccoli bake, etc.). If you’re making cranberry sauce from scratch, you can also prep that about two days in advance. If you’re the type of person who prefers canned cranberry sauce, well, then I have some questions for you, including, “Who hurt you?”
The day before: About 24 hours before the big day, there are a few more preparations you can do, including assembling and refrigerating your stuffing, baking your pies, and if you’re making homemade mashed potatoes, peeling your potatoes (make sure you cover in cold water and pop into the refrigerator).
Thanksgiving Day: Pour yourself a large glass of wine (who cares if it’s 8 o’clock in the morning) and boil/mash your potatoes if making mashed potatoes from scratch, pop your turkey in the oven, assemble your salad or any day-of side dishes, and heat your soup, sides, gravy, casseroles, bakes, and whatever else you need to. Set up the bar/drink station with ice (if needed for cocktails), wine, wine keys, bottle openers, extra glasses, etc.
Table settings on Thanksgiving are actually a big deal – you don’t want your guests sitting at a bare table with nothing to look at other than the surface of the tabletop – and even if you aren’t Martha Stewart reincarnated, it’s quite easy to design a beautiful table setting for your guests this holiday. An easy hack to get inspiration for Thanksgiving table settings is to check out Pinterest – you can literally just take elements from the settings that you like and piece them together for your own unique table setting.
Cinderella pumpkins, small gourds, pinecones, sunflowers or other fall flowers, and candles are simple yet festive decor ideas that can be arranged any which way up and down the table; add a table cloth or a fall-themed runner and you’ve got yourself a Pinterest-worthy Thanksgiving table setting that your friends and family will be talking about for years.
The Big Day
Congratulations! You’ve made it to The Show. After everything is prepped and cooked, put on your best Thanksgiving outfit (I suggest something with an elastic waistband or a pair of pants that have some room), turn on a festive playlist, light the candles, refill your wine glass, and sit back and enjoy the fruits of your Thanksgiving labor – you deserve it.
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