Expert Tips for Planning Thanksgiving Dinner

The experts at America’s Test Kitchen share tips and make-ahead dishes for the big day
November 7, 2019 Updated: November 7, 2019

Have you started thinking about Thanksgiving yet? The big day is only three weeks away, and if you’re hosting this year, now’s the time to ready your game plan. 

The key to pulling off a stress-free (or at least low-stress) Thanksgiving dinner is to plan ahead—and definitely don’t wait until Thursday morning to start prepping. 

For trusted guidance and time-tested advice on this high-stakes holiday meal, who better to ask than the experts at America’s Test Kitchen? Here, Tucker Shaw, editor-in-chief of Cook’s Country Magazine at America’s Test Kitchen, shares his best tips for planning, prepping, and making parts of the meal in advance—even the turkey.

The Epoch Times: How far ahead should home cooks start planning Thanksgiving dinner? And what are the first steps to think about?

Tucker Shaw: I think about three weeks out. Start by settling the big variables: Big guest list or small, buffet or sit-down, daytime or evening. Figure out if you have the infrastructure (space, dishes, chairs, etc.) needed, and if not, fill in the gaps. 

The Epoch Times: What are your best organizational tips for keeping track of everything—the menu, the timing, all the moving parts?

Mr. Shaw: My top tip is to contain your plans and expectations. You don’t need 17 side dishes. Write down your menu and then cross a couple of things off. Now, with your edited menu, read the recipes for those dishes carefully and identify any pieces you can do ahead of time. 

Many Thanksgiving dishes can be made completely, way ahead of the big day—pies, stuffing, cranberry sauce, dinner rolls. For those dishes that have to be made at the last minute, what chopping, measuring, and other prep work can you do ahead? Block off a couple of hours the day before to do some chopping.

The Epoch Times: What do home cooks too often forget about until the last minute? 

Mr. Shaw: People often talk about forgetting to defrost the turkey, so be sure to do that. Do it in the fridge and bank on one full day for every four pounds. For a 16-pound bird, that means moving it to the fridge on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

The Epoch Times: What dishes can be made ahead of time? Sides? Desserts? The turkey? 

Mr. Shaw: You can do the turkey and gravy ahead, and if you anticipate a big, hectic day with a cast of thousands (which can be super fun) then I highly recommend it. We have a full recipe for turkey and gravy the day before, with instructions for how to reheat to serve. 

We also have a fantastic recipe for pumpkin pie that you can make, bake, and freeze up to a month ahead. All you do is thaw it on the day and serve. 

The Epoch Times: What dishes are best left for the day of? 

Mr. Shaw: I always love a fresh salad on Thanksgiving. I know it sounds un-festive, but a lively, crisp salad is a welcome change in pace from all the heavy food. 

The Epoch Times: Moving from big picture planning to individual dishes, what are some of your best time-saving tips and tricks for the cooking itself? 

Mr. Shaw: Clean as you go and keep running that dishwasher. When sinks fill up with dishes and counter space gets cluttered, you can’t really do the work you need to do. If you have someone available, put them in charge of dishes, and keep them on task. Yell if you have to. 

The Epoch Times: It’s the big day. Any final pieces of advice? 

Mr. Shaw: This will sound earnest and gooey, but I really believe it: Relax. Be present. Don’t hold yourself to an unrealistic standard. The most important parts of Thanksgiving are the thanks and the giving, not a picture-perfect meal. You’ve opened your home and heart to people that you love and it’s going to be lovely.

Oh, and make sure you have enough glasses. I’ve run out of glasses more often than I care to admit. No one wants to drink that gorgeous bottle of wine out of a Dixie cup. 

RECIPE: Make-Ahead Roast Turkey and Gravy

RECIPE: Classic Bread Stuffing With Sage and Thyme

RECIPE: Make-Ahead Mashed Potato Casserole

RECIPE: Make-Ahead Pumpkin Pie With Maple-Cinnamon Whipped Cream

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