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