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The Thanksgiving Timeline: How to Organize Your Prep

The Thanksgiving Timeline takes you week by week, day by day, to pull off a fantastic dinner with style. Here’s how I plan my Thanksgiving meal.

Culturally, we Americans put a lot of pressure on ourselves for Thanksgiving, creating a whole cottage industry of one-upmanship and panic surrounding the big day.

Let’s not even get into the questions of tradition. The hundreds of Pinterest pins and comment section pixels dedicated to helping home cooks bring multiple hot dishes to the table at once is mind-boggling, as is (I suppose) the idea of large-scale entertaining for most of the population.

Thanksgiving side dishes
Photo: Casey Barber

However, one of the talents I’ve honed from my years in public relations and event planning is how to properly prepare for a big event.

A proper advance plan is the key to, well, anything in life—whether it’s opening a museum, feeding 50 finicky critics, organizing a runway show, or just having 15 people over to your house for a meal.

Orchestrating Thanksgiving is much less complex than corralling fashion photographers, but there’s a whole slew of agendas and lists I use to keep my world in order in the weeks leading up to any big party, be it the Super Bowl, a Friday night cookout, or Thanksgiving.

Here’s how it goes down.

Scroll to the bottom of the post for a fully downloadable set of Thanksgiving Timeline planning documents.

Thanksgiving stuffing
Photo: Casey Barber

How to Build Your Thanksgiving Timeline

1. Finalize the guest list and the menu.

These two things go hand in hand, because you need to know how many people will be eating at your table on Thanksgiving and if there are any ingredient restrictions before you do a lick of shopping.

2. Start making lists, beginning with all the ingredients you need to buy.

This means every ingredient for every recipe you’ll be making. I start by copy/pasting all ingredient lists into one big list, and then organizing from there.

Divide your ingredient list by category: produce, dairy, meat, dry goods, and any other outliers.

Then consolidate quantities: sticks of butter into total boxes of butter, total amounts of flour, onions, spices, etc.

(Pro tip: this is also how I organize my grocery delivery orders too, so I can zoom through placing them without hassle.)

cranberry spread and sauce
Photo: Casey Barber

3. Make a cooking plan.

Get all your recipes in one place. For me, this means having hard copies of each recipe, whether I’ve photocopied it out of one of my cookbooks or even just printed it off Good. Food. Stories.

Now make a list of the recipe names along with brief notes on cooking times and temperatures. It’s not necessary to rewrite the entire set of directions here—the key things to note are the logistical considerations.

How long it will take to make the dish? At what temperature should the oven be set? Can the dish be made in advance and reheated?

Once you see this, you’ll know what you can get out of the way first (usually desserts, salad dressings, and some casseroles that can be reheated) and what needs to wait until Thanksgiving Day.

pecan maple blue cheese tarts
Photo: Casey Barber

This is the backbone of your Thanksgiving Timeline.

Organize your recipes in the order in which you’ll be making them. I put mine on a clipboard.

Notice how the lists are becoming more and more manageable?

4. Time for the day-by-day Thanksgiving Timeline!

The Saturday or Sunday before Thanksgiving is really the earliest day you can grocery shop without worrying if any of your ingredients will spoil before the big day. Start your timeline there and get your groceries.

For Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, schedule out about an hour’s prep each night if you’re making every single last thing on your Thanksgiving menu. (It can be less if other guests are contributing to the meal.)

Thanksgiving side dishes
Photo: Casey Barber

List all the components of each recipe that can be completed, such as pre-baking, chopping ingredients so they can be dumped right into pans, baking desserts and casseroles,

By doing this prep work over the course of a few days, you’re also saving a lot of Thanksgiving Day dishwashing aggravation.

If I have time on Wednesday night, I like to set out all my serving dishes on the dining table, and label each with a Post-It note telling me what’s going inside. Make sure each dish has a serving utensil to go with it.

(Obviously, for pies, cakes, and casseroles that are already done, you’re already well aware of what’s what.)

cherry cranberry pear pie
Photo: Casey Barber

5. For Thursday, it gets even more granular.

Break the Thursday timeline down into half-hour increments.

This starts when you wake up and get the turkey going, and continues with reminders to do key things like set the table, bring the appetizers to room temperature, and get the wine out of the fridge.

If you’re the kind of person who’ll forget to shower before dinner, add that too.

Ideally, your bird should rest for a half hour before carving, but I leave an entire hour’s resting time for the turkey on the off chance that it’s not done in four hours as planned.

roasted brined Thanksgiving turkey
Photo: Casey Barber

Last year, my bird hit its temperature mark ahead of schedule and did end up resting for the full hour with no adverse effects, so don’t fear the extra time on the countertop.

Your Thanksgiving Timeline (Downloadable)

I’ve created a sample set of Thanksgiving Timeline documents using a menu of Good. Food. Stories. favorites to serve 8 people. Use them as is, or as a jumping-off point for your own Thanksgiving menu.

Download the documents below and click on the menu items to get the recipes.

Download the Thanksgiving Grocery Shopping List

Download the Thanksgiving Timeline Cooking Notes

Download the Thanksgiving Timeline

Thanksgiving Menu for 8 People

Use this sample Thanksgiving menu to host a deliciously stress-free dinner when you follow the Thanksgiving TImeline.

This post was originally published on November 15, 2010 and updated with new information in 2019.

FTC Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Good. Food. Stories. receives a minuscule commission on all purchases made through Amazon links in our posts.

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21 Comments

  1. I hear you on the organizing.. Denise and I are doing turkey day at her Nana’s down in California.. we don’t get in till Wednesday evening so we are planning ahead hard. I’m just hoping they get a bird that fits in the fryer AND they remember to thaw it :) If we nail that part we are at least going to have some fried turkey goodness (and I know from experience that if you nail that part everything else is just gravy)

  2. Such great organizational skills! I agree, it’s really the only way to get this done. I usually spend most of Tuesday and Wednesday prepping so on Thursday I can just throw it all together while I eat hors d’ouevres and drink wne.
    Have a happy holiday!

  3. Your organization is astounding! I tend to sort of organize in my head, but then, I’m only cooking for 4 people!

  4. Fabulous. I’m impressed by your organizing skills. Puts mine to shame :( And equally impressed that you own the Zuni cookbook. Have eaten there a number of times but never purchased the book. Is it well worth it? If it’s anything as good as the food there, I’m sure the answer is yes.

    1. Sheryl, I use the Zuni cookbook most often as an inspiration/jumping-off point for my meals. It’s absolutely a delight to read but I don’t always cook directly from its recipes – I just see how Judy does it and sort of adapt from there.

  5. That 5-day plan sounds like a great idea. I am going to break things down starting today. Thanks for the timeline.

  6. I usually make a copy of the recipes I’m using so I only have a stack of papers — not a big pile of cookbooks that usually won’t stay open or that get splattered. I can also write notes on these papers, take them to the groccery store if necessary, etc. Luckily I have a computer printer/ copier combo so I don’t have to lug my cookbooks to Kinkos! :-)

    1. Awesome idea, Diane! Although sometimes I feel like my cookbook splatters are like war wounds – evidence of a well-fought kitchen battle.

  7. I like Diane’s advice. We are traveling and cooking at my aunt’s. I fear T-giving may be a jumble and not organized this year…

  8. What great advice for planning a Thanksgiving dinner. You’re organization skills should be a great help for the unorganized cooks who are facing turkey day with a shudder.

  9. This is SO helpful! Thankfully, this year we’re eating with friends so I’m bringing sides–rolls, stuffed mushrooms and raspberry chocolate cheesecake. I do like to keep in mind what I can and can’t make ahead.

  10. My boyfriend’s family is hosting Thanksgiving, so we’ll just show up with a bottle of wine. But I’m always in awe of people who can orchestrate a big meal like this. The thing I struggle with is making sure all the food is ready and warm at the same time without over-cooking or having it sit on the counter for too long. I guess that’s how all the lists help.

  11. Casey, what a menu!! And what a great post! I love how you make a random item like kimchi work well on a T-day menu. SO looking forward to enjoying with you et all :)

  12. I keep a folder with copies of my Thanksgiving recipes, with notes and changes written on each. (Extra copies for sharing as well) I also have a small spiral notebook with my holiday guest list, menus, notes on what worked, what didn’t (eliminate x, make less of y), size of turkey, how long it took to cook. I’ve been doing this for years and it has made Thanksgiving dinner for 9 or 25 stress free. My only regret is that I should have done this sooner!

  13. Casey, what a menu!! And what a great post! I love how you make a random item like kimchi work well on a T-day menu. SO looking forward to enjoying with you et all

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