How to Plan and Organize Thanksgiving Dinner (and Get the Timing Right!)

by Marge Perry on November 17, 2011

Over the next week, I will be posting several of my favorite Thanksgiving dishes. For today, Day #1 in the One Week Countdown to Thanksgiving, here are some planning and timing guidelines.

Cooking Thanksgiving dinner can intimidate even experienced cooks. Truth is, it’s actually a fairly simple meal to pull together, and much can be done ahead of time. Why, then, the fear factor?

First, there’s the sheer size of the bird. Thanksgiving is really the only time most of us have to handle anything that big in our kitchens. But don’t let the size overwhelm you. Once the bird is seasoned, all you do is stick it in the oven and let the rest happen on its own. It’s easy to ensure the bird is cooked to moist, tender perfection with the use of a meat thermometer.

Perhaps what really scares cooks is figuring out timing: the question of what to cook when and how to get it all on the table, good and hot, at the same time. All you need do is sit down with a pencil and paper and make a list. It’s really that simple, and I will show you how.

Finally, Thanksgiving is fraught with tradition, which can lead even the self-assured to a crisis of confidence. “Will mine be as good as ______’s?” (Fill in the blank: your mother, his mother, her mother, the aunt, sister-in-law, famous chef, our founding fathers…).

Don’t bother comparing yourself. Follow your instinct, find a few good recipes ( allow me to suggest this site is a mighty good place to start) — and most of all, spend your energy planning and organizing, not fretting. Prepare as much of the meal ahead of time as possible and use far too much plastic wrap to keep everything in tip-top air-tight shape in the fridge.

Here is how to ensure you can get all that food on the table still hot and at the same time.

Plan Your Menu Wisely

To start:  make a list of the recipe slots you need to fill. At any Thanksgiving feast, you are likely to serve: turkey, gravy, stuffing, one or two vegetables, a white or sweet potato dish (or two), cranberry sauce and desserts. You may also want to start with a soup or salad (I generally don’t, because I think the meal itself is more than enough food) and offer nibbles for when guests first arrive (I generally do, because guests who have been stuck in traffic are ornery upon arrival, and tasty vittles help de-grumpify).

Surely at least one family member has offered to bring a dish. The best is dessert, because you can never have too many, and because it is unlikely to upset your soon-to-be well-planned timing. If not dessert, perhaps a salad or an appetizer that does not require re-heating.

Now, plan a menu based on recipes that work for your available time, energy and kitchen equipment.

Think about your kitchen equipment.

If you have one oven, you need to make dishes that will not require oven time on Thanksgiving day– the turkey gets dibs on the space for most of the day. But if you prepare casseroles head of time that simply require re-heating, you’re golden. You can heat them in the oven after the turkey comes out. You will have about 25 minutes while the bird rests and gets carved in which to use the oven. Just remember to place a second rack back in the oven after you take the turkey out.

Your microwave can be a big help when it comes to re-heating dishes you made in advance. It is especially useful for bringing vegetables to the table piping hot and not overcooked. (Under-cook them in advance and those few minutes in the microwave finish the job).

Your stove can be good for finishing one or two side dishes. You will be making gravy at the last minute, and that takes up a burner. It also takes time and focus at the last minute, so don’t plan on other dishes that require your close attention. Because don’t forget– besides cooking, you also have to get food onto serving platters (looking nice) with the correct serving utensils,  and then out to the table. But don’t let that overwhelm you– you can have your food nearly plated before it’s even cooked. (see the section on “Sticky Notes” below).

Choose a balance of very simple, straight-forward recipes and one or two show-stoppers.

Unless you are a very experienced and comfortable host, don’t deep fry your turkey. It is a big, challenging and somewhat dangerous mess. (And arguably, I don’t see a pay-off in flavor and texture).  A good old-fashioned roasted turkey will have a beautiful, sable-colored crisp skin and moist, tender meat when cooked correctly. Make your statement with a stunning looking dessert.

Give thanks to the supreme glory of Sticky Notes

Serving your meal– getting everything on the table piping hot and at the same time– will go a lot more smoothly if you take out all your serving plates, bowls and utensils ahead of time. By Wednesday night, choose and label with a sticky note  both a serving dish and utensil for every item on your menu.  Your gorgeous silver platter and tongs will don sticky notes that say “turkey”; the tureen and large filigreed spoon your mother-in-law gave you will be marked for the Brussels sprouts, and so on. (As an added bonus, the earlier you do this, the sooner you realize that bowl  needs a quick polish and the handle on the platter needs a shot of superglue to stop wobbling).  I promise labeling your serving pieces ahead of time makes serving the meal go a lot more smoothly– and faster.

Finally, the Recipes

Here is a menu that is balanced in terms of work load and logistics– and most importantly, also results in a spectacular feast. I will post recipes for the dishes with asterisks in the next few days. Click on the other dishes now to get the recipes.

First course:

Butternut Soup with Pesto Dollop

Turkey, Gravy and Stuffing:

* Herb-Roasted Turkey (and how to carve it)

* Gravy (lump free and easy)


Here are two good choices. I am a big believer in cooking the stuffing outside the bird. You can get a richly flavorful stuffing that is neither too wet nor too dry –because you can control it.  It is easier on the cook, safer, and allows you to cook the bird until it– and not the stuffing– is at a safe internal temperature. If your stuffing is dryer than you want it to be, drizzle it with a little broth or melted butter. Too wet? Bake it uncovered and it won’t be anymore. When you cook the stuffing separately, you can make it a day ahead and adjust to your heart’s content.

My husband did this Fennel, Sausage and Caramelized Apple Stuffing for this year’s Cooking Light Holiday Cookbook, and I just loved it. (Of course, because it has fennel in it…)

I developed this Cornbread, Cherry and Bacon Stuffing a number of years ago for Cooking Light, and I still think the combination of sweet-tart dried cherries with the smokey, salty bacon is the cat’s pajamas.


Cranberry Orange Sauce Make this tomorrow, if you like. It keeps beautifully.

* Parsnip Puree with Caramelized Onion and Fried Sage Leaves Parsnip Puree has a beguiling flavor and may be served in place of mashed potatoes.  This puree is ethereally light and balanced by meltingly sweet caramelized onion and earthy fried sage leaves. Despite all the components, this is simple dish to put together and can be done completely in advance and warmed in the oven. (Any of you who were in my class last night, feel free to comment about this dish, if you like).

Streuseled Sweet Potato Casserole I developed this recipe for Cooking Light, and it has gotten rave reviews on their web site. It is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser and can be made ahead (with minimal fuss). Make the sweet potato mixture and the steusel topping up to three days ahead but store separately. Combine in a baking dish and bake one day ahead. Re-heat when the turkey comes out of the oven.

* Brussels Sprouts with Bacon Brussels sprouts got a bad rap because for years, cooks cooked them until they were gray. When slightly crunchy and brightly colored, Brussels sprouts are gloriously tasty– and the perfect counterpoint to all the heavy casseroles and starches that weigh down Thanksgiving tables.

* Green Beans and Balsamic Glazed Onions No matter how much of this dish I make, it always seems to disappear. Make the onions a couple of days ahead and the green beans one day before and on Thanksgiving day just heat them up on the stove or in the microwave. Ideal for one-oven hosts.


Here are a few good choices. I generally like to serve one pumpkin desert and one other: an apple something or cheesecake. The simplest combination from below is Pumpkin Pie and Apple Crisp. The Pumpkin Cheesecake is gorgeous and and can be paired with the simpler Crisp, thus following my guideline above of combining simple and show-stopping. The combination of the Vanilla Cheesecake with the Apple Crisp is also well-balanced (but doesn’t put any pumpkin on your table, so if you have a family of non-pumpkin eaters, this works).

* Pumpkin Pie with Pecan Streusel Topping This is everything a pumpkin pie should be creamy, redolent with mellow, sweet spices; and very simple to make. We developed it for Anolon Cookware, and we’re  making it again for the holidays.

* Pumpkin Cheesecake The spectacular looking marbleized cheesecake is truly a show stopper. But the best part comes when you taste it…

Vanilla Cheesecake with Cherry Topping This got 5-star reviews for a reason: it is toe-curlingly creamy and rich– even when made with a combination of regular and low-fat cream cheese. The version on the website (this link) calls for a combo of fat-free and low-fat cream cheese, but I like to use low-fat and regular.

Apple Plum Crisp This is the simplest dessert to make– but no less delicious! It can be made a day or two in advance (or more, and frozen)– just be sure to hide it from family members, or there won’t be any for Thanksgiving Day.

I hope this helps with your planning. Feel free to write in with questions or comments below. I am happy to answer any questions about menu planning, T-day recipes and/or cooking anytime between now and Thanksgiving Day. And, as I wrote earlier, any recipes for which there are not links above will be posted in the upcoming week.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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