Thanksgiving Prep 101

          It’s the Monday before Thanksgiving and I have a houseful coming. All’s calm…for now.

But it means I have lots to do today, and those tasks are all about preparation. I’ve catered many events and gatherings, and learned along the way that anything that can be done beforehand needs to be done beforehand.

I have the menu planned well before today, although with Thanksgiving this varies only slightly from year to year. There is always a local turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, cauliflower with cheese sauce, Mom’s creamed onions, and stuffing (cooked outside the bird). There are the side dishes and garnishes – pickles, olives, cranberry sauces, bread, and one obligatory salad. Each year, I experiment with at least one (usually more) new or forgotten side dish, and there are always unexpected offerings brought to the feast.


And, of course, there are pies. Lots of pies because everyone needs to have their favorite! That means next to the pumpkin and apple pie are strawberry-rhubarb and Key lime! Any left over will be packed up and sent home with them.

This prep work might seem like a lot, but if you do a few tasks every day, you will save considerable chaos when the actual holiday arrives. You are probably doing something similar if you are used to having a house full! If not, think of this as a way to make these tasks more enjoyable, and to reduce stress on the big day.


This is your major planning day for anything else you haven’t already thought of.

If the menu isn’t set, now is the time to do so. I actually put it on my computer and it is saved from year to year, and my first step is to copy last year’s menu and change the date! By now, I’ve asked for special requests (this year, one request for macaroni and cheese) so I know what I’ll need to prepare for.

Think about dietary requirements

My family has quite a few dietary needs: nut and some fruit and vegetable allergies, gluten and dairy intolerances, and vegetarians. If someone has an allergy, they have it whether it is Thanksgiving or not, so plan your menu accordingly. Because there will be lots of people in the kitchen and in the food line, cross-contamination is always a concern, so in my house I omit nuts which cause severe allergic reactions, and have gluten- and dairy-free alternatives available for other dishes.

Make a shopping list and a schedule. Making lists save lots of time and keeps me organized. I have a ritual for this: nice music playing in the background, fresh pot of coffee, menu at hand. First, I pull out the family recipe box, my treasure box. I love seeing my mother’s handwriting on the old recipe cards, as well as my own from when I was a teenager. Check for special ingredients, and start the shopping list. In Vermont, that actually means multiple shopping lists since I usually end up going to a couple of farm stands, a co-op, a small grocery and a supermarket before I’m done!

The schedule keeps me on track. Plus, I love checking things off the list as the days progress!

Remove the stress by thinking ahead

I’ve taught many people how to cook and host dinners, and entertaining is one thing people often list as the most stressful. One of the most important things I emphasize is doing what you can ahead of time so that you have less to do at the last minute which translates into less stress, and way less anxiety. Know your recipes, do ahead whatever you can, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. If someone asks what they can bring, give them an assignment, such as bring ice. That will save you a trip to the store, well, unless they forget.

Find and clean special serving dishesand serving flatware. I make a copy of the menu, increase the font size, and create labels that I place in the serving dishes, and arrange the dishes on the table or sideboard where they will reside. This saves an immense amount of time on many fronts. I’m not scrambling to find serving dishes at the last minute, and when people are offering to help and you need a special plate or bowl, just ask them to get the dish marked “Onions.”  If you don’t have a separate dining room and need the space, have your labels ready and your serving dishes set aside so you can put them out on the morning of. I do this even for a small dinner party.


Inventory your dishes, glasses and flatware just to make sure you have enough.  Do you need more napkins?

Clean out the refrigerator. This is a good time for a purge of all those jars of stuff tucked away in the back that probably should have been tossed. Refrigerator space this week will be valuable real estate.

Make whatever you can ahead of time. This means pie dough and cranberry sauce. The pie dough is easy, but if you are making five pies, it can be a little more time consuming. It is also messy. So I get the dough all prepped on Monday, make my messes and my little discs of dough and store them in the refrigerator.

Thaw the turkey! If you are using a frozen bird and haven’t thawed it already, you need to work on this immediately. Never place it on the counter to thaw at room temperature. Safe thawing of turkey instructions here from the CDC recommendations.


Whatever you can take care of today, do so! You have plenty of time, so take the time now for special touches.

Tuesday morning is for shopping. Usually, stores and shops will be all stocked up after the weekend, and Tuesday morning is a quiet time – the earlier the better! By shopping this early, you’ll know if you have to go to a specialty or out-of-town store. I try my hardest not to go near the store the day before Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Clean. Any special cleaning that is going to happen, happens on Monday or Tuesday.

Special touches. This is a good time to make room in the coat closet, dust off your boot caddy if you haven’t already, sweep the front porch or walk, and check your lamps for burned out light bulbs.

Buy and arrange your flowers. If you are having fresh flowers, get something long lasting such as Oriental lilies or carnations. These will keep for over a week, so you can get them arranged and set out ahead of time. To make them last even longer, store them in an unheated room or cool area until the morning of.

If you are brining your turkey for 24 hours, and then letting it dry for 24 hours, start the brining this afternoon. If you are just brining it, or dry bringing it, start Wednesday.


This is a busy day and every family will have different tasks, so plan your schedule accordingly!

Make pies and other baked goods. I make my pies when the kids will be around because they love to help, so that might be any time of the day.

Make your stuffing. I make the stuffing the night before the event and let it rest in the refrigerator overnight. If you are using a stuffing with milk and eggs and dried bread or croutons, the overnight actually makes it better! After you take your turkey out of the oven, there will be plenty of time to cook it.

I save the onion and celery trimmings for stock the next day.

Cook anything else that can be reheated! I make the cheese sauce for the cauliflower, the mushroom gravy, the filling for the June Cleaver toasts, dips, cocktail sauce for the shrimp, etc. This is why refrigerator space is so dear!

Prep anything you can’t cook. If I’m having a crudité platter, I cut all the veggies up the day before so creating the platter the next day takes only a few moments, or can be delegated to someone else; kids love this task. Label everything so you can enlist help in a rush!

I don’t prep my potatoes, but some folks precook them, then reheat and mash them just before eating. I do prep such vegetables as butternut squash and Brussels sprouts.

            Calculate how long you need to cook your turkey. If you have 22 people coming for dinner at 2 and you have a 30-lb bird to cook, you don’t want to realize at 11 a.m. the turkey should be half-cooked by now. I’ve learned this one from experience. Check a turkey-cooking guide, and remember you will need to let it rest for at least 30 minutes and up to an hour before you carve it, so calculate that in as well! I always plan on the full hour’s rest so that gives me plenty of time to pop things in the oven to cook and reheat, and to make the gravy from the pan drippings.

Set the table the night before. As soon as you are done with the table for the night, set your table for your holiday dinner! Make it beautiful. If you only have one table in your house, set it anyway! If you are using new candles (unscented please), light them and let them burn for a few minutes; they will light easier the next day.


Ready, set, go! You’ve planned ahead, so all is under control.

Get the turkey cooking. Since you’ve already calculated how long the turkey will need to cook and rest, pop it in the oven at the appropriate time, with whatever prep you use to get the bird in the oven. Everyone has their own way of cooking the turkey.

 Enlist the children.  Kids love a task, so let them help! They can make place cards, find dried leaves outside, mash potatoes, make a crudité platter, pass appetizers, etc.

Turn on the parade!

Simmer some stock. If you are not using prepared stock or broth, start a pot going. Your kitchen will now start smelling like Thanksgiving. Use the neck and giblets, plus any vegetable trimmings you have on hand. Add some poultry seasoning and a couple of bay leaves and start simmering. Use the stock in your gravy, to keep the turkey and stuffing moist, and to add to vegetables. Any leftover can be added to a soup base.

Beverage station.  Set up your beverage station, get out your glasses, chill your wine or beer, and make sure you have enough ice. If possible, set this up anywhere but the kitchen! Put it as far away as possible to help control traffic.

Set out appetizers.  An hour before people are due to arrive, get any appetizers ready and set them out.

Pour yourself a glass of wine and enjoy an appetizer or two!

Cook according to pecking order.  If you can make something early that can be reheated or served at room temperature, do so.

Bread and salad.  The bread can be cut a good hour before eating, just lightly dampen a paper or tea towel and place over the top. This keeps bread (or sandwiches) remarkably fresh for a long time.

The salad can be set out, just don’t dress it, and don’t add sloppy ingredients such as tomatoes.

Once the turkey is out of the oven place it on a platter to rest. Now the oven territory can be used for cooking the stuffing, roasting vegetables, and warming anything you cooked the day before.

Reheat your prepped items. Reheat any sauces or gravies you made the day before and keep them warm. Crockpots are great at keeping mashed potatoes and gravy warm!

The gravy. If you didn’t make gravy the day before, make it at the last so it is nice and hot. I have someone else carve the turkey, while I make the gravy.

Designate two helpers and kick everyone else out of the kitchen while you are filling your serving dishes. This is hard. They will be hovering around the turkey, and they will want to help, but a crowd in the kitchen at this point doesn’t work so well. Send them all to the beverage station to fill their glasses for the meal.

            Check your menu and list! I can’t tell you how many times something was left in the refrigerator and not placed out!

Put some good music on and enjoy the feast with your family!


© Copyright 2018 – or current year, Dorothy Grover-Read

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Sheryl says:

    sigh . . . I think that I’m at least two days behind schedule. Hopefully, I’ll get caught up tomorrow, since Thanksgiving is the next day.

    1. I’m a little behind on some things too, but ahead on others, so I’m sure it will all work out! Have a lovely day!

  2. Alicia says:

    Oops! I guess I should have read this on Monday! But I plan to get as much as I can do today, especially setting the table. I always want to make it look good, but usually run out of time.

  3. I love the notes inside the dishes, what a great idea and that pie!!!!! I should have come to your house for Thanksgiving!

    1. I started doing this many years ago catering a large function. Previously, I spent a lot of time sending people out to “find the bowl for the corn” and they would come back with the giant salad bowl! The labels serve two functions, to help in the organizing process, and they remain on the table so that I don’t have to keep telling folks which dressing is gluten-free! Saves tons of time.

      1. Perfect!

  4. Have a lovely Thanksgiving!

    1. We had a beautiful day! Thank you!

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