One look at the Thanksgiving planning calendars, and it brings up a whole lot of stress. I was supposed to order a turkey *when*? Whether Thanksgiving falls late on the calendar, or early like this year, it doesn’t matter — it’s still never enough time for me to plan Thanksgiving dinner.
Because my sister Karen has hosted Thanksgiving at her house for nearly 20 years — and she’s a fantastic hostess and planner — I asked her to help us out with a more realistic Thanksgiving planning calendar for those of us who you know, have a little more to do than just plan Thanksgiving dinners for a living.
A realistic Thanksgiving planning calendar when you only have 2-3 weeks to plan. Maybe even less.
Updated for 2023. This post contains affiliate links and some purchases may help support our team at no additional cost to you
Guest Post By Karen Quinn
It’s true, I’ve hosted close to 20 Thanksgiving meals. Over that time, I’ve learned that a bit of planning can make things go much smoother, but that doesn’t mean devoting hours each day for multiple weeks, either.
Some of the Thanksgiving calendars I’ve seen online make it seem like if you don’t give yourself 6-8 weeks, you can’t do it.
Whether you are hosting 15 or 35 for Thanksgiving (oh please, let it not be 35), I’ve put together a realistic schedule to help you cook up a holiday you can enjoy along with your guests, even if you haven’t started yet.
I know there seems like a lot of steps here, but I find that writing down every little thing actually keeps me less frazzled. Feel free to just cross out any of my tips that doesn’t apply to you. And don’t even worry if you don’t have a gourmet kitchen with an extra fridge, or even a nanny or a housecleaner. Hey, I don’t either!
What to do 3 weeks before Thanksgiving (or as soon as possible):
- Invite your guests. This is the most important step. And yes, even if your mother-in-law comes every year, be gracious and call her.Tip: The very best guests respond with “What can I bring?” Never, ever respond, “Nothing.” Ask for a side dish like these, that can be prepped in advance and ready to reheat, or even better, a fall salad, dessert, or a bottle of wine that doesn’t require precious oven space at all.
- Look into order deadlines. If you plan on getting your turkey from a local organic farm, or have your heart set on serving desserts or rolls from a popular bakery, check deadlines ASAP. But don’t panic! Supermarkets may offer great choices and give you more ordering flexibility. Whole Foods for example always has plenty of turkeys available, and they allow for pick-up/delivery right through Thanksgiving Day (for certain zip codes). If you’re ordering from a butcher, find out if they can can keep your bird chilled until the day before (this year, November 22) to save fridge space — it’s a great idea to factor fridge space into your ordering plan.
- Lock down your turkey plan. Jane just offered some excellent tips for picking out the right Thanksgiving turkey — I agree to aim for 1-2 lbs. per person with leftovers. Or rather than one large turkey, consider a smaller turkey plus an additional breast for roasting, even if you don’t get that giant Norman Rockwell centerpiece for your photos. If the idea of roasting a turkey is giving you hives, consider ordering a precooked main protein from a local grocer (or even a restaurant) and making the sides instead. I know an amazing local BBQ joint near me that takes orders for smoked and deep-fried turkeys, yeehaw! By the way, look at this list of Thanksgiving items you should make from scratch, and which to buy. No one cares if you don’t do everything 100% homemade.
- Sketch out your general menu. If nothing else, writing things down will help you feel less stressed. I like to make sure I have some side dish that isn’t mashed, just to add a little texture to the plate. Now I have time to research that without feeling stressed.
What to do 2 weeks before Thanksgiving:
- Map out your menu and determine how much food you need. Make sure you have enough food to feed your guests. So list all your recipes (minus what others will be bringing) and make a detailed grocery list. Many online recipes include shopping lists based on the ingredients. And don’t forget appetizers for nibbling before dinner! Think items that can be put out so guests can help themselves — spiced nuts, good olives, a charcuterie board or an easy cheese platter with crackers.
- Decide whether you’re going to have a sit-down dinner or eat buffet style. This can greatly impact the kinds of items you need (spare folding chairs perhaps?) and what you don’t. If you want to have a separate kids table, decide where that will go and who is seated there — and if you’ve got kids verging on “big kid,” double check whether they’ll be cool with your choice.
- Buy the non-perishables now. Baking ingredients, canned goods, jellied sauce can all be bought now, along with items like hard cheeses, butter, and other longer-lasting fridge items–if you can spare the fridge space.
Tip:Simple white serving dishes help make the food the star, not the dishes. These are from West Elm.
- Take inventory of your cooking and serving pieces. Dinner plates? Roasting pan? Cloth napkins for 12? Gravy boat? Meat thermometer (Liz looooves this one from OXO!)? When you’re mapping out your menu, also take the time to see what you need to serve it and eat it. This way you have time to buy or borrow anything missing. Tip: I’m personally a fan of solid white buffet plates, which can be used every holiday and are easy to replace if one breaks. And don’t forget grab-and-go containers to store leftovers and send guests home with some of their own!
- Confirm or assign pot luck dishes to your guests. This is a good time to say, “you bring your famous cheesecake,” or “can you handle the sweet potatoes?” to give your guests time to plan as well.
- Triple check with your guests about food allergies or sensitivities. You never know who became a vegan this year, or is eating Keto, or avoiding lactose. It’s fairly easy to swap out chicken stock for vegetable, or skip the pecan pie in favor of apple if someone has a nut allergy.
- Consider trying out any new recipes but ONLY if you have the time This is definitely an optional step if you’re busy, but if you want to try a new pumpkin pie recipe or experiment with a gluten-free variation of a favorite Thanksgiving recipe for one of your guests, it can’t hurt to give it a test run during a weeknight dinner. But really…make this one optional.
- Book a cleaning service or housekeeper if that’s on your wishlist. Personally, I’m a fan of warning my kids that they will be helping clean the house and keeping it that way — before and after. However if you have a housekeeper you’d like to come before your guests — or after — definitely schedule someone soon.
- UNDERRATED TIP: Start eating your way through the fridge and freezer. You’re going to need room, so this is a good time to check expiration dates and “best by” dates and chuck old items — bye salad dressing that no one ever ate.
What to do 1 week before Thanksgiving:
- Make anything that can be frozen or refrigerated for a week. If you’re planning a bigger menu for more people, it can be a lifesaver to do a little in advance. Pre-make pies or other desserts that can be frozen. Homemade cranberry sauce keeps for up to two weeks in the fridge. If you plan to serve soup, this can be made ahead and frozen in batches as well. Don’t stress if you can’t get this all done but checking even one thing off your list in advance can make Thanksgiving day so much more relaxing.
- Stock up on booze, mixers, and something for the kids. This is another non-perishable you can take care of now, whether you’re all wine drinkers, you’re planning on festive seasonal cocktails or punch, or know that your uncle needs his bourbon after dinner. (Tip: Drizly may deliver liquor to your home, saving you one more run to one more store!) Don’t forget sparkling cider or ginger ale for the kids, as well as coffee and tea for dessert.
- Pull out your serving dishes and platters and set aside. This is my way of double-checking that I really do have enough serving items and utensils for everyone, and giving myself a little buffer if I need to buy or borrow anything.
- Get on that turkey defrosting! If you’ve got a frozen turkey, calculate how many days you will need to defrost it IN THE FRIDGE, which is the only safe way to defrost a turkey. You will need about three days — about 24 hours for every 5 pounds. And if you are planning to brine the turkey for a day, your turkey needs to be defrosted by Wednesday. To make things easier, your butcher may be able to keep your bird chilled in a fridge for you until the day before to save space.
- Clean your linens and polish the silver if you’re going that route. I am a fan of not getting too fussy — what’s most important is that you have enough flatware sets per person. But if you’re using a tablecloth, cloth napkins and the “good” china and silverware, just make sure they’re ready to go. P.S. Buy new cloth napkins if (when) you discover the cranberry sauce stains from last year. And don’t forget you’ll need all your dishtowels to be clean!
What to do Thanksgiving week:
- Yep, more shopping. Hey, you are hosting after all. This is when you refer to your super organized list to purchase all your cooking items, supplies, and refresh any pantry items you haven’t used since last Thanksgiving. This time of year, it never hurts to pick up brown sugar, butter, heavy cream for homemade whipped cream, cinnamon, and stock — you’ll use it all up, guaranteed.
- Set the table. You can do this several days in advance provided you don’t have little ones or pets to muck it up. Move the furniture around as needed and make sure you have enough seating, repurposing desk chairs and ottomans in a pinch.
- Plan festive decorations and KEEP IT SIMPLE. Crisp solid linens and a scattering of small pumpkins, Seckel pears, fruits and white votive candles or tea lights (unscented!) are simple and reflect the season. A bunch of flowers from local florist in a clear container filled with fresh cranberries and water can also look amazing.
This is also the time that you can put the children to work. Cool Mom Picks has loads of Thanksgiving craft ideas (like the one below) that celebrate thankfulness, many of which look great a place settings or as centerpieces. (Just to please say no to anything on Pinterest suggesting you use toilet paper rolls as napkin rings, gah!) Older LEGO fans may be more than happy to help assemble this pretty and unique floral centerpiece–grab more than one set for a larger display.
Placemat craft via Oh My Deer from our post on 10 easy Thanksgiving crafts that make great table decor. Though no longer available as a printable, this would be easy enough to DIY with a Silver Sharpie and some kraft paper.
- Prep your turkey brine at least 2 days before Thanksgiving. If this is part of your turkey cooking plan, make sure you plan for it. Everyone I know is hooked on Alton Brown’s famous brine, which needs to be boiled to dissolve the salt, so do this with enough time to let cool on the stove, then chill in the fridge until you need it. (Warm brine plus raw poultry is a dreadfully dangerous combination.)
- Check your menu again and prep anything else you can ahead of time. I swear pumpkin pie is better when it has a day to mellow, and same for lots of fruit pies. I also peel and cut potatoes and butternut squash and store in the fridge in salted water the night before Thanksgiving, as well as prepping the aromatic vegetables and fresh herbs that will be used in the turkey.
- Buy ice if you need it! You can never go wrong with a big bag of ice on hand if you’re entertaining a lot of people. It can keep white wine, beers, and sodas cold, or of course add it to water or cold drinks on the table. And don’t forget to keep check off items off as you go, which really keeps things on track and helps avoid The Great Mashed Potato Fiasco of 2016–when the peeled and cut raw potatoes were discovered in the fridge….just as everyone was filling their plates. This is now family folklore, and will be shared for generations to come.
What to do on Thanksgiving Day
Thanksgiving turkey via Whole Foods. Mmmmm.
- Turn on the TV. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is guaranteed to make all your cooking prep more fun. Plus, this year there are new floats from Snoopy, Kung Fu Panda, Blue Cat & Chugs; a new Willie Wonka float that looks outrageous; and for us older folks, performances from En Vogue, Cher, Chicago. and Bell Biv DeVoe!
- Delegate and tag team. My husband is a wonderful cook and handles all the turkey prep – removing from brine, seasoning the skin, filling with aromatic vegetables and getting in the oven – even before I finish my coffee.Whoo. If you have older kids, put them to work too.
- Pop your turkey in the oven with plenty of time! Work backwards from the roasting time: generally, an unstuffed turkey takes 15-20 minutes per pound, which means you’ll need a solid 5 hours for a 15-pound turkey. And you’ll want to aim on having your turkey full cooked about a half-hour to an hour before dinner to allow the juices to set (and free up oven space for the sides). So now you’re at 6 hours — and if you eat “dinner” at 2PM, that means your oven needs to be heated and ready by 8AM. (Tip: Always use a meat thermometer to keep an eye on that turkey. Cooked turkey is perfectly happy hanging out lightly tented under foil until the rest of your dinner is finished and beats having one that’s overcooked and dry.)
- Set out the appetizer and the bar. Anything guests can DIY is best so they’re not coming into the kitchen asking for ice or limes or more crackers for the cheese. I even put beer in a nice ice-filled bucket to free fridge space. And that’s where a good punch or seasonal sangria can come in, allowing guests to help themselves to refills easily.
- Prep any casseroles to reheat before dinner. You can do this the night before as well, but take care of the rest while the bird cooks. Mashed potatoes for example can be cooked ahead, mashed with milk and butter, and kept warm in a crock pot – yes it works!
- Fill and run the dishwasher as you go. Another good job for the kids. Just saying.
- Welcome help from your guests. Don’t say no. I mean it. It can be really bonding to chat while you slice veggies or scrub pots together.
- FINALLY… Take a breath, give thanks, and enjoy an extra slice of pie. This is most important of all.