The First-Timer’s Guide to Planning Thanksgiving Dinner
Planning Thanksgiving dinner can be daunting. But with our Thanksgiving guide and a few checklists, you'll be set up for holiday success.
Break out the cranberry sauce and French fried onions—Thanksgiving is right around the corner! If this is your first time preparing all the traditional Thanksgiving recipes, from the turkey to the pumpkin pie, follow this guide to planning Thanksgiving dinner. We break down what to do and when to do it, so this year’s celebration can be a stress-free success.
1 Month Before Thanksgiving
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It’s not too early to start thinking about the year’s biggest dinner a full month in advance.
Here’s what you should be doing four weeks before Thanksgiving.
- Create the guest list: Before you can do anything (like shopping for beautiful Thanksgiving dinnerware), it’s important to get those invites out and know who is joining your Thanksgiving table.
- Buy the Thanksgiving products you’ll need: You don’t want to be caught without a gravy boat the day before Thanksgiving. Take stock of your Thanksgiving tablecloths, dinnerware, serving trays and more so you know if you need to shop for any new pieces or replacements.
- Brainstorm menu ideas: Are you going for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner menu or do you want to mix it up this year? Start planning what you want to serve, from the turkey to the sides to the wine. For first-time hosts, stick with simpler dishes to relieve some of the stress of the day. Want to make the best gravy? Learn how to make gravy from pan drippings.
3 Weeks Before Thanksgiving
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With your guest list in hand, you’re ready to begin your Thanksgiving plans in earnest.
- Give your guests assignments: Don’t do all the work yourself! When guests ask if they can bring something, say yes. Some folks will have Thanksgiving sides and desserts in mind, but also be sure to have a list of your own so you don’t set the table and suddenly discover you’re without cranberry sauce (if you prefer it out of a can, here’s the best canned cranberry sauce.)
- Have no-cook options available: If guests aren’t savvy in the kitchen, ask them to bring wine, a signature Thanksgiving cocktail, store-bought sides or even a game to keep everyone entertained before the big meal. Letting someone else take care of these oft-forgotten extras can be a huge relief on Thanksgiving Day.
- Shop for basics: Avoid long lines and low stock by shopping for what you can as soon as you can. You’ll be happy to have a few cans of pumpkin, holiday spices and essentials like aluminum foil in your cupboard and ready to go. Always double-check your list, too—these are the things people forget on Thanksgiving.
- Think about the turkey: If you’re new to planning Thanksgiving dinner, you might not know there are lots of turkeys you can buy for Thanksgiving. While you don’t need to pick one up this far in advance, it is a good time to read up on tips for buying a turkey and how much turkey to make per person. You can also consider if you want to try a new method of cooking the turkey. We’ve got guides for how to deep-fry a turkey, how to grill a turkey and how to smoke a turkey.
2 Weeks Before Thanksgiving
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With just two weeks before the big day, it’s time to really hammer out the details of planning Thanksgiving dinner. Pull out your harvest decor, pull up those pinned recipes and get to work.
- Put up Thanksgiving decorations: Two weeks prior to the holiday is the perfect time to retire your spooky Halloween hangings and put up cozy fall decor. A few harvest accents will make your home feel festive for company.
- Practice new recipes: If you’re feeling nervous about preparing the meal, do a test run. It can be helpful to try out new Thanksgiving sides or experiment with air-fryer Thanksgiving recipes.
- Prep make-ahead dishes: Not every dish has to be made the morning of. Lots of recipes, including make-ahead gravy, make-ahead mashed potatoes and make-ahead cornbread dressing, can all be, well, made ahead. Freeze these dishes and defrost them just in time for Thanksgiving dinner.
A Few Days Before Thanksgiving
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Things can get hectic the week of Thanksgiving! Family is coming into town, you’ve got work to finish up before taking time off and there’s still shopping to do. Good thing you’ve already been in prep mode. Here’s what you need to cross off this week.
- Finish your Thanksgiving shopping list: Need fresh sweet potatoes for your favorite sweet potato recipe or greens for a salad? Now is the time to get them. If you can, finish all your shopping a few days before the holiday.
- Tidy up the house: This might be the most tedious part of hosting Thanksgiving, but our holiday cleaning checklist makes it easier.
- Prep pie crusts: If your Thanksgiving spread includes pies, take a little extra time to make homemade pie crust. You can do this several days in advance—just wrap the pastry up tightly in plastic wrap and keep it in the fridge until you’re ready to roll it out.
- Defrost the turkey: If you purchased a frozen turkey, you’ll need to defrost it up to three days in advance of the meal. (Although, if you forget to pull out the turkey early enough, here’s how to roast a frozen turkey.)
- Confirm with your guests: You asked your loved ones to bring dishes to pass and wine to share weeks ago. Take a few minutes to text or call them to make sure these tasks are still on their radar.
The Day Before Thanksgiving
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You’re in the home stretch of planning Thanksgiving dinner. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the time to make any last lists and tackle as much as you can. You can even follow our secrets to a successful Thanksgiving and turn the last-minute prep into a party! Enlist friends to come over, make pies and enjoy some pre-holiday cheer. (Pizza delivery optional but encouraged!)
- Make a checklist: Thanksgiving Day is busy! Ensure you don’t miss a thing by making an up-to-date list the day before. Include all the dishes you’re making and items guests are bringing, and note important times—like when the turkey should go in the oven.
- Chill beverages: Serving champagne at your dinner? Better get those bottles, plus juices and soft drinks, in the fridge so they are cool by the time company comes. No room? Skip the garage and invest in this mini fridge that’s a must-have according to our editors.
- Season the turkey: For a flavorsome turkey, you can season it the day before. For an extra-tender bird, try brining the turkey overnight.
- Set the table: Yep, set the table for Thanksgiving the day before the big gig. Arrange all the dinnerware, silverware and stemware, then make sure there’s enough space for all the serving dishes you’ll be putting out tomorrow. Rearrange as needed.
- Bake the desserts: Pumpkin pie, pecan pie and apple pie will all taste delicious on Thanksgiving Day, even when prepped the day before. You can try these make-ahead Thanksgiving dessert recipes, too.