Let me start by admitting that I’m a horrible meal planner. It’s not for lack of trying. Lists have been made in the past, only to be lost or forgotten on the counter. After doing that one too many times, I took it as a sign that perhaps I was better suited to winging it. Truth be told, I like the spontaneity of “planning” meals while I’m shopping too. It offers more inspiration and frees me from the rigidity of a set menu.
Thanksgiving, though, is a different story. There are certain favorites I know I want to make every year, so when November rolls around I feel more inclined to be prepared. Two essentials I’ve needed every year are homemade stock for making gravy and pie crusts for dessert. Luckily, they’re both components you can get a jump on prepping well in advance before the holiday.
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Happy Thanksgiving! It’s time to sit back and relax — well, aside from some cooking — and make room for the big feast. Having prepared well ahead of time, you’ll impress your family and friends as the cool, calm and collected host. As much as we love the Thanksgiving meal, our favorite time of day is always the morning of, alternating between preparing the final dishes in the kitchen and sitting down to watch the parade with family and early guests. Not to mention, nothing beats the smells of a kitchen in full-on Thanksgiving mode.
• The Grand Finale: The moment you’ve been waiting for: time to roast the turkey. Unstuffed turkeys take hours to roast (anywhere from 3 to 5 hours depending on the size and the method), and you’ll want to give the bird at least 30 minutes to rest before carving, so start nice and early. One technique we like is to roast the bird at moderate heat, around 350 degrees F, only opening the oven door to baste occasionally so the heat stays inside. If the breast is getting too dark, you can cover it with foil. The turkey is done when the internal temperature of the breast is 165 degrees F and the legs are about 175 degrees F. Here’s where you get to use that meat thermometer.
Make the mashed potatoes fresh »
Take a deep breath — the finish line is in sight. You’ve made it this far, and will be happily sitting down to eat in about 36 short hours or so. The day before is a great opportunity to cross off a hefty portion of your to-do list. You only have one more trip to the store ahead of you for the flowers and then you’re home-free to hunker down in the kitchen.
• Brine Time: To ensure a moist and flavorful turkey, we highly recommend brining the bird the day before. A simple salt-and-sugar water bath will easily safeguard you from the perils of a dried-out turkey that even gravy can’t fix.
• Easy As Pie: If you’ve made or bought your pie crusts ahead of time, most Thanksgiving desserts can be a piece of cake. But if you’re looking to cross some cooking off your list the day before, make your pies ahead of time. In fact, we even prefer pies that have had a day to sit, especially pumpkin and pecan. Just remember to take them out of the fridge 2 to 3 hours before serving on the big day — and tell your family no early taste-testing.
Soup’s on and snack attacks »
Since the next two days will be a whirlwind of cooking and greeting out-of-towners, take advantage of the calm before the storm to make sure you have absolutely everything you will need. Having all of your ingredients at the ready will make Thursday a breeze. If all of the cooking seems daunting, work on finishing your table. And remember: Thanksgiving is supposed to be fun.
• Supermarket Sweep: If there is one season that you really need a decent meat thermometer, it’s now. If you don’t have one, buy one. And if you have one, make sure it’s in fine working condition. Then head to the supermarket today to pick up all of your produce — and your turkey! Everything will still be fresh by Thursday and you’ll avoid the mad rush tomorrow and the day of.
• Quick Fix: Get the cranberry sauce out of the way today if you’re planning on making your own. It won’t take you more than an hour, and then it’ll be sitting in your fridge ready to go at the last minute.
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Less than a week to go to Turkey Day and it’s time to hammer out the details. If your family vetoed your idea for an innovative reimagining of pumpkin pie, channel your creativity into designing a table centerpiece to set the mood. Also, consider four days ahead as a good time for a freezer exchange — frozen turkey (if you bought it that way) should come out, homemade pie crusts go in.
• Setting the Stage: While the food and the company always make Thanksgiving memorable, it doesn’t hurt to have a beautifully set table to sit around. Consider mixing flowers in with some artful edibles or even scout your backyard for inspiration. We like gourds, mini pumpkins, acorns, pine-cones and Indian corn to give the table a real fall feel. Gather everything you’ll need for the table (except the flowers), and stock up on candles for an extra-special touch.
From freezer to table »
After some serious editing and input from the diners, you’ve finally narrowed down the big menu and you’re ready to spring into action. Yes, it’s still too early to start roasting the turkey, but one week out is the perfect opportunity to stock up on the non-perishables you can safely shop for ahead of time — and forget about until Thanksgiving morning. The less last-minute scrambles to the supermarket the day of, the better.
• Cross-check: Now that you’ve been dreaming up recipes all week, it’s time to take inventory of your pantry and write up a master shopping list. Plan out what you can buy ahead (potatoes, onions, garlic, salt), what you can’t (fresh fruits and vegetables) and exactly when you’re planning on making each dish (and who’s going to make them).
Replenish your staples and buy wine »
Shop for non-perishable goods now. You can buy flour, sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, canned pumpkin, rice and cranberries, all before the crowds descend. Wait until the day before Thanksgiving to buy fresh vegetables, seafood and bread.
Let the Thanksgiving Countdown Begin — 2 Week Checklist
Browse more of Food Network’s Thanksgiving recipes and tips.