If the thought of hosting Thanksgiving stresses you out (or scares you to death), use these tips built from my years of experience and catering parties to help you pull build your Thanksgiving game plan. It’s all about planning and organization. It’s also a mindset thing. Take a deep breath, relax, and enjoy it. It’s easier when you plan ahead.

Thanksgiving Game Plan

Last weekend I shared a list of tips for how I plan for Thanksgiving at a Daniel Plan Healthy Holiday Cooking Workshop. As people were busy scribbling notes, I realized I better get my tips into a post to help everyone. So here you go. Any questions, please post them in comments, and be sure to share what you do for a stress-free holiday. Let’s get a discussion going.

  1. Plan Your Menu
    • – From appetizers to dessert and beverages. Write it down.
    • – All of my planning, recipes and notes go onto a clipboard so they are in one place for reference.
    • – Think about oven space when you menu plan. One oven or two?
    • – Don’t overload yourself. Balance simple and easy vs. more time-consuming.
    • – Plan dishes that can be prepped or made ahead of time.
    • – Keep appetizers simple. There is a big meal coming.
  2. Let’s Talk Turkey
    • – Order ahead. I choose fresh and organic and believe the taste is worth it.
    • – If you want leftovers (and who doesn’t?), plan for 1 1/2 pounds per person raw weight.
    • – If you are buying a frozen turkey, it will take approximately 1 day per 4-5 pounds to defrost in the refrigerator.
    • – Having a big crowd? It’s better to roast two smaller birds than one monster.
    • – No roasting pan? Everything is on sale right now at the years best prices. Check around and invest in one. It will last forever, and can be used for more than turkey. You can also try to borrow one from a friend who is not cooking for Thanksgiving. One of mine is out on loan now.
    • – Use a roasting rack to lift your turkey off the bottom of the pan during roasting. It creates airflow and the bird does not sit in the fat and juices. No rack? Create a thick wreath with heavy foil and set the bird on that to elevate it.
    • – Here is a new tool I am going to try this year, a flexible BPA-free roasting laurel. Scrubbing even a non-stick rack after a turkey is not easy. This is dishwasher safe.
    • – Brine Baby Brine! For a delicious, golden, glorious turkey, try the dry brine method. The results are terrific. The original recipe is from the LA Times and Russ Parsons.
    • – When not to brine – Do not brine if your turkey has been pre-brined or a salt solution has been added. Read the label carefully.
  3. Learn to Delegate
    • – Its’ ok to ask for help. You don’t have to do it all yourself. Many people like to make a contribution to the celebration, so let them.
    • – Give them the recipe you would like them to bring. This way you will know exactly what they are bringing and that it will work with your menu.
    • – If someone wants to bring something but can’t cook, have them bring beverages or something else easy you might need.
    • – Build a Master Grocery List
    • – I build mine in an excel spreadsheet. It sounds crazy, but you can use it year after year with a few tweaks as needed. I have a column for the recipe and ingredients, the quantity needed, then the store to buy it at, and one column to check off.
    • – Not an excel user? No problem. List everything by recipe, then categorize it into market sections like produce, dairy, canned goods, etc.
    • – Check supplies of dish and dishwasher soap, paper towels, heavy foil, plastic wrap, baggies, trash bags, bathroom supplies, etc.
  4. Think Ahead, Work Ahead 
    • – I pick up my turkey on Sunday and start dry-brining no later than Monday.
    • – Great gravy takes homemade turkey broth. Make it ahead and freeze it. Or make it Tuesday. It will last in the refrigerator 4-5 days, so you will have enough for turkey gravy and turkey soup afterwards.
    • – Chop vegetables ahead, package and label with a sharpie and masking or painters tape
    • – Start your dressing Tuesday.  I make gluten-free cornbread on Wednesday for my cornbread dressing. You can also dry your own bread cubes ahead for a traditional dressing.
    • – Make a pumpkin tart Wednesday (or skip the crust and try the pumpkin mousse recipe)
    • – Blanch green beans or prep Brussels sprouts
    • – Creamed pearl onions can be done Tuesday or Wednesday and heated on Thursday. Never made them? Try them for a hit side dish. And my recipe is dairy-free.
  5. Establish Your Timeline
    • – Think about everything you have to do. Start with the end in mind, especially for Thanksgiving Day. Start with your desired serving time and work backwards on everything that has to be done and the time it is done. Check off as you go.
    • – Example – I aim to serve dinner between 5:00 – 5:30, so I pull the bird from the refrigerator at 12:00 noon, rub it with herb butter around 1:00 and plan to roast it starting around 2:00 (for a small 10-12 pound bird). Adjust your timing as needed.
  6. Prepare your kitchen
    • – Clean out your refrigerator so you have room for all of the groceries and a bird
    • – Clean your ovens. Most have a self-cleaning cycle. Wipe out any residue afterwards.
  7. Check Your Tableware
    • – Check table linens, runners and napkins (cloth are so nice). If they need laundering, save yourself the time and take them to the cleaners for laundering and professional pressing.
    • – Check glassware, flatware and plates. Do you have enough? If not, borrow, mix and match, or hit a discount place for nice basics.
    • – Plan for table decorations such as flowers, candles, votives, napkins rings, etc.
    • – Check platters, bowls and serving pieces (like big forks and spoons) for every dish. Get them out and put a sticky note in each one with what it will hold. Again, borrow, mix and match or hit the discount stores to fill in. If you have them, get out those family heirlooms with great memories and polish them up.
  8. Set Your Table
    • – Wednesday is fine. Tuesday is better.
  9. Take Care of Yourself
    • – Plan to shower earlier in the day. You want to look good and be refreshed when family and friends arrive, not worn out.
    • – Eat light and stay hydrated so your energy is high and you can enjoy the day.
  10. Food Before Thanksgiving
    • – You still need to eat before the big day, so plan for it. Keep it easy, and self-service if possible.
    • – Think about eggs for breakfast, supplies for smoothies, make a batch of soup or chili that can be warmed up and family or out-of-town guests can help themselves. It’s easy to get totally focused on Thanksgiving Day and forget we all still have to eat before then.
  11. Plan for Leftovers

Relax, have fun and enjoy. If everything does not go perfectly, it’s ok. Let it go. The most important part of Thanksgiving is being thankful for being together, celebrating God’s blessings, and the joy of family and friends. Happy Thanksgiving everyone! God’s blessing to you and your family.

Idea! Start a kitchen journal. Go to a bookstore and buy yourself a nice hard bound journal with blank, lined pages. Write your menu and all who came. Ask everyone to sign it and write something they are thankful for. Takes notes on your dishes. It will help you next year, and provide great memories to be thankful for in the years to come.

For more healthy and delicious recipes and informative articles, check out Sally’s blog A Food Centric Life

Sally Cameron is a professional chef, author, recipe developer, educator, certified health coach, and one of the contributors to The Daniel Plan Cookbook. Sally’s mission is to educate, empower and encourage people to create great tasting meals at home using healthy ingredients and easy techniques. Sally is the publisher of the popular food blog, A Food Centric Life. She holds a culinary degree from The Art Institute and health coaching certification from The Institute for Integrative Nutrition.