Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

The Ultimate Guide to Planning Thanksgiving Dinner

Starbucks red cups are out in full force. Offices are starting to get decked out in all their holiday lights and decorations. Halloween candy has been replaced with Christmas chocolate and candy canes. Yep, holiday season has officially begun!

If it's snuck up on you a little bit, don't worry. In preparation for Thanksgiving, I've created a handy hosting guide to help get you ready for the big day (and prevent you from running around like a turkey with its head cut off!).

Read on for great tips and resources for selecting the perfect bird, planning the most delicious of menus, and prepping in the days beforehand so you can blow your guests away with your culinary genius and epic party planning skills come Turkey Day.

Step 1: Pick Your Turkey

Order your turkey now (or at least a week in advance), by hopping online or calling your local store. You don’t want to be driving from grocery store to grocery store on Thanksgiving eve looking for a turkey when you realize you forgot to order one!

Not sure what type of turkey to order? Real Simple has a great guide that walks you through all the different options.

Step 2: Plan Your Menu

Now, for the fun part! Whether you have holiday favorites your clan eats every year or you want to experiment with new recipes, start to brainstorm what you'll make. For most groups, I would serve 2-3 appetizers, 3-4 sides, 1-2 mains (including the turkey), and 2-3 desserts, so that there’s definitely something for everyone.

As you're planning, be conscious of your kitchen space. If your oven is small, for example, then it's going to be taken up by the turkey, so choose sides you can make on your stove, in your microwave, or ahead of time to be left out at room temperature.

To get you thinking, here are some menu suggestions.




The Main Event


Step 3: Do the Prep Work

I know I’m always rattling on about how you should do as much of the prep work as possible ahead of time, but it’s true. You’ll be so much calmer on the big day if you know you only have to wrestle with your turkey and maybe a side or two.

Here's my list of pre-T-Day prep:

  1. Plan for two separate grocery shopping excursions, one about a week beforehand so you can stock up on non-perishables or items with longer expiration dates, and then another 2-3 days before Thanksgiving for all your fresh items and any last-minute ingredients.
  2. From carving knives to a meat thermometer, make sure you have all the necessities to pull off Thanksgiving dinner.
  3. Check your plate and flatware situation—and call a friend if you need more.
  4. Double-check that your turkey roasting pan fits in the oven!
  5. Get your turkey ready—if you bought a frozen turkey, then take it out to thaw two to three days ahead of time. If you’ve decided to brine your turkey, then do this a day or two ahead of time.
  6. Make desserts one to two days ahead of time if possible. You can make your pies the day before and leave them at room temperature so as to not take up precious fridge space.
  7. See what sides or appetizers can be made a day or two before so you only need to reheat them the day of.
  8. Chop and prep your veggies the day before, make your appetizers, mash your potatoes and root vegetables, and do any other dish prep possible.
  9. Set out all serving platters you so you know you have enough for each of your dishes.
  10. Set the table. Here are some helpful articles to help with your table setting:

Fall Dining Room Table (Kevin and Amanda)
Upgrade Your Thanksgiving Table Settings (Real Simple)
How I Set a Thanksgiving Table (The Kitchn)

Step 4: Rock the Big Day

First things first, get that turkey prepped. It is the star of the show, after all! Preheat your oven, grab your recipe, and triple check the cooking time, and remove the turkey from your fridge at least an hour before roasting so it can come to room temperature.

Once your turkey is done cooking, let it rest while you get the rest of your sides ready to go. One thing I don’t worry about is the turkey being piping hot—I think it’s much better to have hot side dishes and gravy. I promise, your turkey will taste divine served at room temperature.

Once the turkey has come out of the oven, pop in your side dishes and get them nice and hot. Your microwave can become the hero of the hour if you run out of oven space—dishes like mashed potatoes or carrot mash can always be reheated for a couple of minutes in the microwave. And don’t forget your stove—I’ve been known to reheat mashed potatoes sitting in a large bowl over simmering water. Use all the space you have if possible!

If you need an hour-by-hour breakdown for Thanksgiving Day, Serious Eats has an awesome guide.

Once everything is ready, nominate a friend to rally the troops and get everyone seated. If you need to heat up any desserts, now is your time, as the oven is free as a bird (I know, I know). And be sure to pour yourself a big glass of bubbly—you’ve earned it!

Remember to put your turkey back in the fridge after about two hours go by—sometimes the best part of Thanksgiving is the leftovers!

Tell us! What are your favorite Thanksgiving recipes and tips?

Photos courtesy of Niki Lowry, How Sweet It Is, and Jessica Gurskis.