Most of the stress associated with Thanksgiving comes from trying to back out your Thanksgiving timeline. Determining when to do what and how to juggle oven times is not a walk in the park. That’s why we’ve taken out the guesswork for you and made a turkey day timeline, so you don’t have to.
10 Days Before Thanksgiving
Make a turkey plan. Sometimes this can be the trickiest part since there are so many options to choose from—fresh or frozen, organic or not, heritage? Kosher? Whatever you decide, know not all turkeys are created equal.
Injected or pre-basted turkeys (the least expensive option you can find) are pumped with saline solution and vegetable oils, so you would not want to brine one of these. Kosher turkeys are also brined in salt.
I recommend going the natural, organic, or free-range turkey route, especially if you want to brine your turkey, and you know you do. If you get a heritage turkey, keep in mind they are lower in fat, so they don’t require as much time to cook.
Order your turkey. Don’t drop the ball on ordering your turkey if you’d like to procure one from a local farm. If you want a fresh turkey, these are typically available to purchase the weekend before Thanksgiving. If you go this route, store it on the bottom shelf of your fridge.
If you’re buying a frozen turkey, don’t buy one too far in advance, because chances are it was one from last year. If buying frozen, pick up your bird 5-7 days before Thanksgiving, depending on its size (see more on that later).
Make your own turkey stock. Buy some turkey parts (wings and backs) and make your own stock. Then freeze it until the day before you’re ready to use it.
It’s all gravy. You don’t have to have your turkey to go ahead and make your gravy early. Make it with a stock using turkey or even chicken parts and pop it in the freezer. Just remember to put it in the fridge to thaw overnight, and gently rewarm it over the stove. You can also make your gravy two days prior to Thanksgiving, but it won’t keep in the fridge beyond that.
Clear your fridge. Throw out anything that’s old and make space because you’re going to need it.
1 Week Before Thanksgiving
Finalize your menu, then delegate. Make a master list of the dishes you definitely want on the table, then start assigning out. If I’m hosting for a crowd, I always make the turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes, then assign out the rest. Keep track of what categories you’ve given to whom, so you don’t end up with all pie and no sides.
Take inventory of your fridge and pantry. Then make your grocery list accordingly.
Make an oven schedule. That way you know exactly what needs to go in when.
Make pie dough. If making any pies, now’s the time to make your pie dough and freeze it for later.
How Long It Takes to Thaw a Turkey
The rule of thumb is: Allow 24 hours of defrosting time for every 4-5 pounds of bird, plus 2 days for it to brine.
Got a big bird? If you have a big bird (20 lbs or close to that), start thawing it in the fridge 5-6 days before Thanksgiving.
Got a medium-sized bird? If your turkey is 13-17 lbs, place it in the fridge 3-4 days before cooking to thaw.
Got a small bird? If you have a small turkey (anything under 12 lbs), put it in the fridge 2-3 days ahead of cooking to thaw.
TIP: Running low on fridge space? If you don’t have a second fridge, think about investing in a large cooler, or borrow one, and store your bird in there. Stick a bunch of ice packs inside with a thermometer, so you can ensure it stays the right temp (40°F). I like this probe thermometer because it’s super accurate and it also has an alarm that lets you know if the temp climbs above 40°F.
3-5 Days Before Thanksgiving
Hit the store(s). Have your list and check it twice. Organize your list according to your grocery store’s layout. One tip for saving money and sticking to the grocery budget is to shop the perimeter of the store first hit the produce since that’s usually the area you start in, then meat/seafood/deli/bakery and save the middle grocery aisles for last. This will help you get in and get out more efficiently. Also, don’t forget the ice and the alcohol.
Just chill. Start chilling any beer, wine, or ciders that need to be served cold.
2 Days Before Thanksgiving
Time to brine. Brining is the secret to an always juicy turkey but know you do have to plan ahead.
If using a wet brine, allow 24 hours for it to brine plus 12-24 hours uncovered in the refrigerator for the skin to dry.
If using a dry brine, allow 24-48 hours of dry brine time.
Prep bread for your stuffing. If using fresh bread, cube or tear your bread for stuffing and leave it on a sheet pan on your kitchen counter to dry out.
Thaw your pie dough in the refrigerator. Go ahead and par-bake single-crust pie shells that need it (think cream, chess, and pecan pies).
Toast your nuts. Any nuts you plan to include in salads, sides, or desserts need toasting, and now is the perfect time.
Prep your casseroles. Now is a great time to prep your casseroles just to the point of baking. Cover them with plastic wrap or foil until you’re ready to bake the day of—they can be baked in the hour before you want to serve your meal.
The Day Before Thanksgiving
Make and bake. Make your stuffing and bake your casseroles (you can reheat them in the oven the day of, about 30 minutes before you’re ready to serve).
Make your dessert(s). Now is the perfect time to make your pie, cake, crisp, etc. You can gently heat things that need to be served warm right before serving (the oven will be free anyway since you’ll have already eaten your meal and folks need a good break before they can dive into dessert).
Make your roll dough. If you’re making bread or rolls, prep your dough so it can proof overnight in your fridge.
Don’t forget the alcohol. Consider making a festive big batch cocktail for a crowd (the last thing you need to worry about is someone having to play bartender). Scale up your cocktail of choice store it in a pitcher or two, and refrigerate. When it’s time for you and your guests to imbibe, grab a glass, fill it up with ice, and pour.
Get set. Break out the good china and set your table now if you can—it’ll save you time and stress on the day of. Iron any linens, purchase and arrange flowers and candles, etc. Match serving ware to platters and tag with Post-It notes for the dishes to be served.
Thanksgiving Day: Morning
Bake your bread or rolls. You can cover them with foil and rewarm them in a 350°F oven for about 15 minutes, just before serving.
Put your friends and family to work! Delegate certain tasks so everyone can help out and make it all happen. Got a last-minute errand? Send someone else to the store.
Thanksgiving Day: Early Afternoon (or a few hours before mealtime)
Don’t forget the apps. Prep or cook any appetizers you can and go ahead and nibble on them to keep hunger at bay.
Ready, set, roast. Put your turkey in the oven accordingly (depending on the size of your bird, this should happen about 5 hours before you want to eat since it should need around 4 hours in the oven and 20-45 minutes or so to rest before carving. Loosely tent it with foil to keep it warm. If carving before serving, you can do this 30 minutes before you’re ready to eat. (If you’re having an earlier meal, you’ll want to start roasting your bird in the morning.)
TIP: Stay fortified! When there’s more than one cook in the kitchen, set out some simple, help-yourself-snacks for all to nosh on throughout the day (simple being the operative word here, you’ve got enough to do). Cheese and crackers, nuts, a few marinated olives, or some chopped vegetables and tzatziki or Ranch dressing always do the trick.
A Couple of Hours Before Serving
Make your gravy if you didn’t already.
Unload your dishwasher so you can re-load and run it again after eating.
Got any downtime? Wash some dishes and clean up so you won’t
have to deal with as much later.
30 Minutes to 1 Hour Before Serving
Reheat any appetizers and sides that need to be served warm.
Take out anything from the fridge that needs to be eaten cold
and take the chill off.
Add the finishing touches to the table, with salt and pepper,
butter, and cranberry sauce.
10-30 Minutes or So Before Serving
Carve your turkey. Cover loosely with foil to keep it warm. And remember, hot gravy is the cure for cooled turkey.
Fill the water glasses. This is the perfect assignment for a guest looking for something to do.
Tips for Reheating
Put your slow cookers to work. You don’t have to make something in one to use it. Transfer things like soups, mashed potatoes, or other non-casserole dishes that need to stay warm to your slow cooker or Instant Pot (and see if you can borrow one or two extras from a friend, ahead of time). Keep things nice and warm using their “warm” setting.
Invest in a single or double electric burners or hot plates (these are wicked cheap) and a great option for keeping soups, gravy, and other Thanksgiving sides warm while your stove and oven are fully occupied.
Microwave it! There’s no shame in rewarming things in the good old microwave.
Use a thermos to keep gravy hot. They’re not just for drinks! A well-insulated gravy container or water bottle (minus the straw) will keep your gravy toasty for a long time!
Welcome guests with a drink or cocktail in their hand and have appetizers ready. Having something to sip and nibble on sets a festive tone.
Make a kid’s table. Consider having a kid’s table so they’ll have more fun, and you can better enjoy the conversation. Have some blank paper and a jar or two of crayons for kiddos to stay entertained before it’s time to eat.
Don’t forget the tunes! Have a fun, festive playlist at the ready for when folks arrive and for during the meal.
Give and share thanks. Have a little piece of paper and a pen at each place setting so everyone can write down what they’re thankful for and share it during dinner.
Dish out the leftovers. Have a few eco-friendly containers on hand or put those used cottage cheese or sour cream containers to good use. If you’re hosting a Friendsgiving, consider asking your guests to bring Tupperware. Fill them up and send them with a delicious reminder of the dinner.