How to Save Hours Preparing Thanksgiving Dinner—Plus Tips on How to Plan Ahead

Make Turkey Day (almost) stress-free.


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Here’s a well-known secret: To host Thanksgiving dinner, you don’t have to do everything on the actual holiday. That’s right, you can enjoy a relaxing day, make a fabulous meal, and cut some of that pre-hosting stress that’s all too common. All it takes is a little planning, a little prep, and a lot of extra time to catch the parade on TV or ace your neighborhood turkey trot. 

“You can have a really good holiday meal and not stress yourself out a lot if you plan ahead a lot of time,” ensures Shawn Matijevich, lead chef at the Institute of Culinary Education. “When most people ask me how to cook like a chef, they’re looking for a trick or a hack. But what chefs really do is take time to plan things out.” 

And that plan can have you running your kitchen like a pro, no restaurant experience required. Here’s a Thanksgiving timeline that can save you several hours in the kitchen. 

One Week Before Thanksgiving: Plan Your Menu and Secure Your Turkey

By the Thursday before Thanksgiving you should have planned your menu, cleared out your fridge, and have a turkey on the bottom shelf. Knowing which Thanksgiving sides and other dishes you want to serve will help save you time at the store—cue the grocery list—and with preparing and serving your menu. 

Need help plotting the feast? “Think about making things that you can reheat and it won't affect the quality,” Matijevich says. As a general rule, if it takes a long time to cook, it will fare well in the fridge and reheat nicely. Braises, casseroles, and root vegetables (but not mashed or puréed) are all dishes Matijevich recommends making ahead of time

You’ll also want to make sure you have your turkey, or whatever large cut of meat you’re serving. Not only does this cut down on stress (no worrying about grabbing the last big bird at the store), but it can take up to a week to defrost a frozen turkey in the fridge, and you may want Wednesday to brine, marinate, or stuff the turkey with herbs. Matijevich suggests purchasing a pound of turkey per person, noting that much of that weight is bone or other trimmings that won’t make it to the plate. 

If you’re grabbing your turkey from the supermarket, feel free to knock off pantry items from your shopping list, but save the fresh produce for Sunday night or Monday. If you get groceries delivered, reserve a time block before they fill up. 

Four Days Before Thanksgiving: Grocery Shopping and Mise en Place

Mise en place, or having everything in place, is a chef’s method to have all the prep work set ahead of time (oftentimes done by a separate cook in a restaurant kitchen) so they can get ahead to the actual cooking without peeling, chopping, or grating. You’re your own prep chef – or invite some helping hands for a mise en place party.

"Take all your recipes and see what you can consolidate for a prep list, so you know what you have to cut up,” Matijevich says. Once you have that prep list, hit the store and start prepping at home. Likely, many of your recipes will call for diced onions, garlic, celery, and carrots, so you can do this all at once, or buy them pre-chopped to save time and energy.

By breaking everything down at once, you’ll have fewer knives to wash, fewer cutting boards to wipe down, and the ingredients will be ready to go. Plus, you can prep some extra if you’re cooking any other meals this week. 

In a sealed food storage container, ingredients like bell peppers, onions, and garlic are fine for a couple of days cut up in the fridge, Matijevich notes. Cut or peeled root vegetables or drier vegetables—such as carrots, sweet potatoes, and turnips—can be stored in water to stay fresh and to prevent drying out. “You can also slightly cook them to prevent them from turning brown,” Matijevich says. “Just pour boiling water over them to kill an enzyme that turns them gray.”

Three Days Before Thanksgiving: Side Dish Prep

As a professional chef, Matijevich has very little personal time, so he’s an advocate of cooking one to two hours a day on the weekdays leading up to Thanksgiving. You can cook pretty much every side dish, but keep the finishing touches, like broiled marshmallows on top of yams or crispy onions on green bean casserole, for the day of—when you reheat the dishes and add that final touch. 

Maintain your sanity by not veering from the plan. “If you deviate from the plan, that’s when problems happen,'' Matijevich says. Sure, that Instagram recipe looks great, but you don’t need it. Your menu is amazing! You’re prepped and ready! Seeing a neighbor equally panicked at the grocery store will do nothing for you. If you’re known to mix up the menu in a moment of stress, Matijevich suggests overpreparing. Add one extra side, a loaf of bread, or an extra appetizer to your menu when you initially prep, so you can feel comfortable knowing there’s more than enough food for everyone.

Thanksgiving Day: Turkey Time

It’s Turkey Day! Literally. Remove your turkey from the fridge, let it rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes, and then put it in the preheated oven to roast. You’ll want to work backwards from what time you want your guests to eat dinner—the turkey will need to rest for up to 45 minutes before carving, so ideally should come out of the oven as guests arrive, and they can smell that meaty scent as they mingle and get ready for the main event. Set a timer on your phone for any basting, rotating, or other needs in your turkey recipe, should you lose track of time. Once your turkey is in, make the last-minute dishes, like a fresh Thanksgiving salad or mashed potatoes

When there’s 60 minutes left on the turkey timer, take your casseroles out of the fridge, and add any last elements. Wrap them in foil, if needed. Once the turkey comes out of the oven, you can reheat your casseroles in the hot oven (adjust the temperature, if needed) and throw anything under the broiler that needs it just before serving. 

And don’t forget to ask for help! “When you’re inviting guests over, they often enjoy bringing something or helping,” Matijevich says. Feel free to rely on your favorite cousin for their signature cheeseball, or whatever they’re known for, and leave a few tasks for guests to get involved. Perhaps that means dressing and tossing the salad, adding a crisp topping to a casserole, or stirring a soup reheating on the stove or in a slow cooker. Kitchen too small? Matijevich advises getting too many cooks out by having alternate tasks for them—perhaps arranging crackers and cheese on a board by the coffee table, opening wine bottles, or combining elements for a batched cocktail. That way, everyone’s involved, everyone’s helpful and happy, and about to be fed an excellent meal. 

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