The Ultimate Thanksgiving Timeline

Thanksgiving is a special day set aside for recognizing all that we are grateful for, bringing together family and loved ones, and of course, enjoying copious amounts of delicious holiday food. For the host, however, preparing for the holiday often comes with a hefty dose of stress. There are a lot of moving parts to consider and managing the guest list, the decor, and the meal can quickly become quite hectic. 

Whether you are hosting a non-traditional celebration or have Norman Rockwell-style visions for your Thanksgiving dinner, it is important to have a plan for tackling the big day. With lots of food to prepare, drinks to chill, and tables to set, where do you even start? From determining the guest list and how much to serve to crafting autumnal decor and perfectly orchestrating the timing of each dish, we have created the ultimate Thanksgiving timeline to help guide you to a successful holiday.

One month before

The best tip for hosting a successful Thanksgiving celebration is to plan ahead. Starting early and checking off small things along the way will make the tasks left on the day of the event much more manageable. By around mid to late October, you will want to start making your plan for the holiday. Write out your to-do list, including tasks such as inviting guests, making food, setting up decor, cleaning the home, and other preparations in a way that feels accessible and organized to you.

One of the first tasks should be creating the guest list and reaching out to invitees. Having a head count for dinner will make it easier to determine how much food to make and to recruit your guests to bring sides, drinks, desserts, games, or other contributions. Once you know who will be attending, you can start planning the menu with an awareness of any food allergies or dietary preferences you may need to accommodate. Green Wedding Shoes notes this is a great time to plan for any special touches, such as thank you notes that will make your celebration unique and incorporate them into your to-do list. Once you have written out your plan and sent out invitations, don't hesitate to ask for help from family and friends to prepare over the next few weeks.

Three weeks before

With your master to-do list to guide you, now is the time to make a grocery list and shop for shelf-stable items such as baking ingredients, spices, and any canned goods or packaged mixes you may be using. If you are ordering a fresh turkey, reserve your bird as soon as possible since quantities may be limited, and aim to have it delivered or picked up the day before you begin your brine. Whether fresh or frozen, The Pioneer Woman suggests accounting for about 1.5 pounds of turkey per person, or 2 pounds if you want to ensure leftovers. This week is also a great time to start preparing ingredients such as stock or pie dough that can easily be frozen and thawed when you are ready to use them. Touch base with guests this week to delegate and confirm which items they will be bringing (if any) and write it down next to their name on your master list.

With the menu and guest list set, you can take inventory of the cooking equipment, serving dishes, and dinnerware you will need for the big day. Write out each item and its serving platter or bowl, along with any spoons, knives, or special tools you will need, such as a turkey baster, meat thermometer, roasting pan, or pie dish. This will make it easier to borrow or shop for any tools or dinnerware you will need well before Thanksgiving week.

Two weeks before

With Thanksgiving just two weeks away, continue setting yourself up for success by cleaning and organizing the areas you will be hosting, cooking, and storing the food. By taking care of any of the more daunting and time-consuming cleaning projects now, all you will have to do later is touch up the space as it gets closer to the event. Cleaning in advance will also help dispel mental clutter as the big day approaches.

This week is also time to start cleaning out the refrigerator and freezer to make room for all those delicious holiday dishes. Incorporate some of the food currently taking up freezer space into your meals this week to minimize waste. As space becomes available, you can use this week to prepare and freeze items such as mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, dinner rolls, and desserts. Vegetables, some casseroles, gravy, and compound butters can also be prepared and frozen ahead of time. An optional task for this week would be to go shopping for wine if you have not already done so. You might also spend some time this week focusing on gathering your decorations for the event, whether you are making them yourself or need to retrieve them from a closet or attic. 

One week before

Thanksgiving Day is getting closer, and it is time to finalize your cleaning and cooking plans so you can spend the next week taking care of last-minute details and enjoying the holiday. Staying organized is the key to minimizing stress leading up to the big meal. Review your recipes and create a day-by-day schedule for the week and your cooking plan for the big day. Be sure to consider cooking times, oven temperatures, and the amount of space both in the oven and on your stovetop (via Fork My Life). Count backward from when you would like to sit down to eat, and don't forget to build in time and space to keep warm or reheat any dishes guests bring. Take a moment this week to revisit your shopping list and make any updates before going on your final grocery trip over the weekend.

As you continue tidying your kitchen and dining areas throughout the week, you might also devise a cleanup plan for during and after the event. Begin planning how you will use and store food scraps and leftovers. Designate and label bins for compost, trash, and recycling to make it easy for guests to appropriately discard items. This way, you won't spend your Friday sorting through the trash or playing a game of Tetris to fit leftovers in the fridge.

Weekend before

It's almost crunch time! Head out to the grocery store over the weekend to pick up the rest of your shopping list. Keep your pantry and fridge organized by grouping ingredients for each dish together as much as possible. This weekend is also a good time to make sure serving dishes, dinnerware, and utensils are clean and accessible.

If your turkey is frozen, you will want to start thawing it in the refrigerator several days in advance. Which day you put it in the fridge will depend on how large your bird is. The USDA recommends allowing for approximately 24 hours per 4 to 5 pounds of turkey. For example, if you have a 20-pound turkey, you will want to start thawing it by Saturday. It is safe to cook a turkey that is still frozen. However, the time will be much longer than if the bird is first completely thawed. You will also want to finalize how you plan to cook your turkey, whether roasting the traditional way, spatchcocking, or utilizing another technique.

Three days before

Monday is the time to start what chefs call mise en place, a French term for getting all of your ingredients and equipment together and ready before you start cooking. The next few days will be filled with organizing, prepping, and cooking, so today is a great opportunity to take a deep breath and review your plan. Take a moment to once again look over your to-do list for the coming days and update it with any changes or additions. Check off tasks that have already been accomplished and write down any notes or reminders to help keep yourself on track. 

Since the rest of the week will be largely focused on food, today, you might wrap up any non-food-related tasks, such as washing any remaining cookware and serving dishes, cleaning around the house, and finishing any decorative flourishes. If you really want to get ahead of the game, you could start setting up the dining table, chairs, and decorations as much as possible. 

Two days before

With two days left until Thanksgiving, you can start getting the food that has been prepared ahead of time out of the freezer to begin to thaw. Chop ingredients for items you will make closer to dinner, such as any produce for stuffing, salads, or appetizers. Today, you can make your cranberry sauce and store it in the refrigerator, as well as assemble casseroles such as sweet potato or green bean that can be stored uncooked until Thanksgiving. Now is also an excellent opportunity to prepare desserts or other dishes that can be made in advance but cannot be frozen. You might also start on your turkey brine today so you can get it on the bird first thing tomorrow morning. 

As you prepare for the bulk of the cooking and time to serve the food, it is incredibly helpful to label your serving dishes with which food will go in them so that everything is accounted for and you don't have to scramble to find extra bowls or platters the day of (via YouTube). This includes serving spoons and other utensils you might need. If you intend to have leftovers, this is a good day to designate and clean storage containers to have ready for after the meal, too. 

One day before

It's the day before Thanksgiving, so by now, you should have most of the food that was made ahead of time thawed, vegetables and other ingredients prepared for the dishes you still need to make, casseroles ready to bake, decorations finished, and the turkey ready to brine.

The first item on your list for today should be getting the brine on the meat. Regardless of whether you choose a wet or dry brine, this step is crucial for ensuring a moist and tender bird. Because turkey meat is so lean and prone to drying out in the oven, a brine will help tenderize and infuse flavor into it. You don't want to brine your meat for too long, but it is recommended to allow for approximately 1 hour of brine time per pound of turkey (via Butterball).

Other tasks on today's schedule should include chilling wine and other beverages, setting the table and any flourishes of decor, and finishing any other food items that can be made in advance. For example, you can bake your pies today and just reheat them tomorrow to save valuable time and oven space.

Thanksgiving morning

Thanksgiving morning has arrived! Take a deep breath and congratulate yourself on all that you have accomplished so far. With the table set and most of the food prepared ahead of time, your main focus is now on the turkey, finishing any last-minute items, and reheating prepared foods. Take a moment to review your schedule for the day and make any adjustments as needed.

One of your first tasks is to let the turkey sit at room temperature for about an hour before roasting it in the oven. How long your bird takes to cook will depend on its size. Butterball offers helpful tools and calculators to determine how long your turkey should stay in the oven. Don't forget to allow time for it to rest! For the first couple of hours, while the turkey is cooking, you can finish preparing any foods that don't require oven space and attend to any cleaning or decorative tasks that are outstanding. 

As you cook, be sure to clean as much as possible to minimize kitchen clutter. With about two hours until dinner time, depending on your recipes, you will want to start the process of reheating sides such as mashed potatoes and green bean casserole. Most dishes that require a different oven temperature than the turkey, such as dinner rolls, can be cooked or reheated while the turkey is resting about an hour before the meal. 

Thanksgiving afternoon and evening

You did it! The turkey is resting, the casseroles have been reheated, drinks are chilling, and your guests are about to arrive. Shortly before you expect your visitors, set out any appetizers, beverages, or other snacks for them to nibble on while they wait. If you are using pan drippings to make your gravy, you can do this as soon as the turkey comes out of the oven to rest.

Welcome your visitors and enjoy socializing as everyone settles in for dinner. Once the guests have arrived, put all the food on the table and don't hesitate to request assistance with moving the food to the dining area, opening wine bottles, or any other last-minute tasks. Before you sit down to eat, take a moment to put pies or other desserts in the oven to keep warm. Now, carve the turkey, fill your plate, celebrate this time together, and savor the feast you have worked so hard to create!

After Thanksgiving dinner and the following day

After you have enjoyed the meal and the company has headed home, taking on a few organization and cleaning tasks will help you make the most of your leftovers and keep cleanup more manageable. If you want to minimize leftovers in your fridge, send guests home with to-go containers. With whatever food remains, you will want to organize and store them, including labeling each item along with the date. The Kitchen Chalkboard has helpful resources for storing Thanksgiving leftovers that cover which dishes can and cannot be frozen and how long they generally last. 

The following day, you can tackle cleaning dishes and equipment, and taking out the trash and recycling. Put away cookware and dishes and set aside any borrowed items that need to be returned. You might also take some time to write down any notes or ideas for the next time you host a holiday meal before enjoying some much-deserved rest.