The Ultimate Thanksgiving Timeline for Taking the Stress Out of Hosting

Liz Alterman | Nov 4, 2014 Food & Party

thanksgiving dinner turkey

Anyone who's ever hosted Thanksgiving dinner knows it's best to approach the labor-intense holiday as a marathon rather than a sprint. For anyone doing most of the cooking, half the battle may very well be figuring out how and when to begin. But have no fear. To get started, we've created a handy Thanksgiving timeline to help everything stay on track.

Being well prepared in advance for hosting the Thanksgiving meal can help take a bit of the stress out of this notoriously hectic holiday. This, of course, means starting the planning a few weeks out. It sounds insane, we know, but trust us -- good planning lowers the likelihood of running around on Thanksgiving morning like a turkey with its head cut off. (Sorry, couldn't help it!) 

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Take a look at our timeline, which starts with planning a menu about three weeks prior to the event and goes all the way up until Thanksgiving morning when the table finally gets set and the turkey goes into the oven. We all get through this hurricane of a hosting event one step at a time -- and by spending a fair amount of time focusing on the day after Thanksgiving, when we're all alone in a quiet house with half a pumpkin pie.

  • 3 Weeks Before: Plan Your Menu


    Sure, part of the fun of Thanksgiving is devouring those traditional holiday dishes, but that doesn't mean you can't get creative with the menu by putting a new spin on old favorites. Dig out those cookbooks and recipe binders and figure out what you'll be whipping up for your guests this year.

    Start working on a grocery list several weeks in advance. This way you can determine if any orders (think: fresh turkey and pies) need to be placed. Getting a headstart gives you plenty of time should you forget a key component of the big meal.

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  • 2-3 Weeks Before: Bake & Freeze


    If you're baking your own apple pie, you can do it 2-3 weeks ahead of time and freeze it. What a great way to check something off your to-do list early!

  • 1-2 Weeks Before: Confirm Guest List


    Before you can really think about how much food and wine you'll need, you'll have to know how many guests will be coming. As you confirm attendees, this is a great time to take them up on their offers to bring a side dish or dessert. Then you can plan your menu accordingly. 

  • 1-2 Weeks Before: Order Your Turkey & Pies


    Once you've got your menu and guest list down, you can think about where all that delicious food is going to come from! If you order a fresh turkey or seasonal pies, now is the time to do it. Then be sure to mark your pick-up time on your calendar so you don't forget to go get 'em!

  • Weekend Before: Pick Up Wine & Drinks


    Have you ever left your wine purchase until the last minute? If you have, you know how hard it can be to find a parking spot, let alone the selections you had in mind. It's no fun to juggle glass bottles amid a throng of harried holiday shoppers.

    Once you know how many guests you're expecting and what their favorite beverages might be, you can plan your wine list and make your purchase.

  • Weekend Before: Count Your Place Settings


    Depending on how many guests you're expecting, you may not have enough place settings, utensils, glasses, or even chairs. (I once had to pull in furniture from my porch to accommodate everyone -- yikes!) It's better to figure that out and make the necessary arrangements ahead of time instead of discovering it as your doorbell is ringing. 

  • 3-4 Days Before: Defrost Your Turkey


    If you've purchased a frozen turkey, this is the time to begin defrosting it. If you're going to thaw your bird in the fridge, allow one day for every four pounds. (Yes, I'm sorry, in addition to cooking and cleaning, math is involved as well.) You can opt to defrost your turkey in cold water, which is quicker, but this requires a bit more effort, including the following:

    Thaw the bird breast side down, in an unopened wrapper, with enough cold water to cover it completely. Change the water every 30 minutes to keep the turkey cold. Thawing time is estimated at 30 minutes per pound.

    Defrosting a turkey at room temperature is not recommended.

  • 2-3 Days Before: Do the Bulk of Your Grocery Shopping


    Grocery shopping for a Thanksgiving dinner is not for the faint of heart, which is all the more reason not to leave it until the last minute. Plus, if you forget anything, you'll have to time to go grab that missing ingredient. 

  • 2 Days Before: Prepare the Brine


    What is brine, you ask? It's a mix of water and salt that the bird can sit in overnight to ensure the meat stays moist as it cooks. You can infuse the brine with lemon and herbs to add flavor. If you're going to prepare a brine, you can do it two days ahead of Thanksgiving and then place the turkey in the brine the following evening so it'll be good to go Thanksgiving morning.

  • 2 Days Before: Make the Pumpkin Pie


    Pumpkin pie can be prepared up to two days in advance. Just remember to cover it tightly in plastic wrap. If you attempt to freeze it any earlier, experts say the crust can become soggy. 

  • The Day Before: Don't Panic


    First of all, don't stress. The main focus of that holiday is to enjoy time with friends and family. That said, you've got a lot to do today, so get moving!

    Clean your home, chill the wine, and prepare any foods that can be made ahead of time, like cranberry sauce or pies. Chop any veggies for salads, stuffing, or sides, and keep them sealed in plastic bags to eliminate prep time on the big day! If you ordered a fresh turkey or pies, this is probably your last chance to pick them up, so don't forget them! 

  • The Morning Of: Set the Table and Get Your Turkey in the Oven


    It's showtime! Depending on the size of your turkey, you may need to start cooking before the sun comes up.

    Plan on 20 minutes per pound in a 350-degree F oven for a defrosted turkey and 10 to 15 minutes per pound for fresh. A turkey will cook more evenly if it's not densely stuffed, according to the experts at the Food Network.

    Once you've got the turkey in the oven, set the table and begin preparing any side dishes. Enjoy the holiday -- you've earned it!

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