Make-Ahead Thanksgiving: How To Plan And Prep For Thanksgiving to Save You Time (And Your Sanity)
Making Thanksgiving dinner is no small feat, but we're here to help. We put together a quick guide for how to plan and prep for a memorable Thanksgiving feast.
If this is your first time hosting a Thanksgiving, CONGRATULATIONS! Has someone warned you yet that you need to start thawing your frozen turkey in the fridge three days ahead? True story. Then, follow our make-ahead tips below: You've got this. If you've hosted Thanksgiving before, you’re probably here looking for ways to make it easier. Either way, you’re in the right spot for making your Turkey-day meal manageable. We also snuck in some make-ahead Thanksgiving recipes to help with your Thanksgiving menu planning.
Brass Tacks: Menu Planning and Grocery Shopping
Let’s get down to brass tacks. The key to hosting any dinner party (but particularly Thanksgiving) is planning your menu early enough that you can make parts of your meal ahead of time. That means having all of your shopping done the weekend before Thanksgiving so you can get started on the prep ahead of time. If you do it right, you can start prepping as early as Sunday so that you only have a little bit of cooking to do on Thanksgiving Day — and you can focus on turkey and entertaining. In the interest of simplicity, we’ve broken this guide down by course.
If you’re doing a turkey, that’s probably the part you're most focused on. Because cooking the turkey is the tricky bit, we’ve put together a separate guide to consult and another one for making turkey gravy. Here, we’ll focus on side dishes and non-turkey mains that can easily be prepped in advance for a fret-free feast.
Pork is a popular main dish for Thanksgiving because it’s easy to prepare and cook. It’s easy enough to do the day of Thanksgiving, but there are a couple things you can do ahead of time:
- Crown Roast: A crown roast can be cut and tied the night before.
- Stuffed Pork Tenderloin: If you plan on stuffing a pork tenderloin, you can butterfly it up to two days in advance and then stuff and truss it the night before. Similarly, without butterflying it, you can wrap it in bacon or porchetta the night before and tie it up to keep everything intact until roasting time. It only takes about 40 minutes to cook, leaving plenty of oven time for the other items on your menu. If pork is your pleasure, here are a couple recipes to inspire you.
Chicken and cornish hens occasionally make it to the Thanksgiving table instead of turkey. Both are much more manageable in size but still require prep.
- Roast Chicken: A roast chicken can be cleaned and dressed with butter the night before Thanksgiving.
- Cornish Hens: Cornish hens can be marinated in re-sealable plastic bags one night in advance.
To tempt you, here’s one of our favorite cornish hen recipes and our very own Yummly slow-roasted chicken recipe.
Vegetarian/Vegan Main Dishes
If you’re making a vegetarian or vegan Thanksgiving, you might be thinking about making your own tofurkey or creating a nut loaf. Both can be prepped the day before cooking, which is a load off for any entertainer.
- Homemade Tofurkey: The tofu should be pressed and drained the night before. Additionally, the stuffing and glaze can be prepped up to two days in advance.
- Nut Loaf: A nut loaf has a lot of different herbs and aromatics that need to be minced, chopped, and sauteed — all that prep can be done up to two days in advance. Tofu and nuts can be mixed with the herbs and aromatics, then placed in the pan the night before the meal.
Here are some merry meat-free dishes to consider:
Starches and vegetables make up the distinguished Thanksgiving side dishes — but both have unpredictable prep requirements.
Mashed potatoes are tricky to prep ahead. It’s best to do the actual cooking on the day of Thanksgiving for a few reasons:
1) They’re one of the most important components to accompany the turkey. While they won’t make or break the meal, if you mess them up, someone (if not everyone) will be disappointed.
2) After potatoes are peeled, they must be kept in water to prevent oxidation. Oxidation causes potatoes to turn gray-pink — which is not harmful, but also not appealing. If you do peel them and put them in water, they have to be kept in the refrigerator, which may not be the best use of refrigerator real estate. If you do have the room for a big bowl of water and potatoes, though, you can peel and chop them into chunks the night before, and keep them underwater in the fridge until it's time to cook them.
Your make-ahead move here is to peel and chop the potatoes and hold them in cold water, if you have room in the fridge. However, another option is to put your slow cooker to use (as in one of the recipes below).
Mashed potatoes to make the meal:
Sweet Potato Casserole
Sweet potato casserole can be prepped up to three days in advance with no issues. The potatoes can be roasted, mashed, mixed with sugar and eggs on Tuesday night and refrigerated. If you’re doing a nut streusel topping, you can top the casserole right after it’s all mixed. If you’re doing a marshmallow topping, it's better to wait until just before baking to top it.
Don’t have a sweet potato recipe? We’ve got you covered in sweetness:
Green Bean Casserole
Green bean casserole (as well as most casseroles) can be mixed a day in advance — but if you want to make every element from scratch, you can start it four days ahead. The green beans can be trimmed, cleaned, and blanched on Sunday along with the French-fried onions and the mushroom-cream mixture. Mix it all the night before Thanksgiving and then bake an hour before dinner.
New to green bean casserole? Here’s a few recipes to get you acquainted:
If you want to serve roasted vegetables like Brussels sprouts or turnips, you can wash and trim them up to four days in advance. If they're prepped, you can wait until 30 minutes before Thanksgiving dinner is served to toss the veggies on a baking sheet and roast them.
For stuffing made entirely from scratch, you can start it several days in advance. Because you need dry, cubed bread, you can cut up the bread on Sunday, spread it on a sheet pan, and cover it with a dry dishcloth to dry out for a day or two. The herbs and onions can be sauteed and mixed into the bread as early as Monday and stored until you’re ready to bake — at that point, you’ll mix in butter and broth to soften it up before putting it in the bird or the oven. (If you need help getting it right, we have a guide for that here.)
Need stuffing ideas? Here are a few recipes:
Good news: You can make cranberry sauce a week in advance. The acid from the cranberries acts as a preservative, so if you have the ingredients, there’s no reason you can’t get the sauce out of the way early!
Here are a few cranberry sauce recipes to represent these radiant berries:
Do we need bread on the table? Probably not. Do we want bread? Absolutely. Whether it’s a quick bread or a dinner roll, bread’s a Thanksgiving dinner stalwart that you can’t dismiss, but you can prep some of it in advance.
A lot of people are afraid of yeast, but it’s pretty predictable. Yeasted rolls can be mixed, kneaded, and shaped one or two days in advance as long as they’re covered and refrigerated for the final rising time — you can even freeze the dough if you have space. Just pop them in the oven an hour before dinner starts and you’ll have warm, butter-ready rolls when you sit down to eat!
For the best roll around, try these recipes:
Because cornbread is a quick bread, you can mix the dry ingredients together anytime before Thanksgiving and set them aside in an airtight container. A day in advance, you can mix together the wet ingredients. On the day of Thanksgiving, cornbread is an easy first thing to mix, bake, and set aside for the big meal.
Need a killer cornbread recipe? Here’s two options:
Traditional Thanksgiving dessert usually means pie. Sure, there are a few ways to mix up the magic of Thanksgiving’s sweet sidekick, but to keep it simple, we’ll just stick with pie. If you’re doing pie crust from scratch, the dough for that can be made up to two days in advance and refrigerated. Fillings should only be mixed right before baking, but you can (and should) bake your pies a day in advance. Pies take a long time to bake, and an even longer time to cool for optimal flavor and ease of slicing.
Need ideas for pies? We put together a whole list of delightfully bold pies to try this year that are beyond the usual apple, pecan, and pumpkin pie.
To sum it up, here’s what your make-ahead plan could (loosely) look like:
|Grocery shopping||Clean, trim, and blanch green beans||Saute onions & herbs to mix with cubed bread for stuffing|
|Mix dry ingredients for cornbread||Fry onions for green bean casserole||Make pie dough|
|Make cranberry sauce||Make mushrooms for green bean casserole||Make dinner roll dough|
|Roast & mash sweet potatoes||Stuff and truss pork tenderloin||Mix wet and dry ingredients for cornbread, then bake|
|Mix ingredients for sweet potato casserole & bake||Cut and tie your crown roast||Peel and cut potatoes, place in pot with water|
|Butterfly pork tenderloin||Marinate cornish hens||Bake sweet potato casserole|
|Prep tofurkey stuffing||Drain and press tofu for a tofurkey||Bake green bean casserole|
|Prep nut loaf ingredients||Clean and dress chicken with butter||Boil potatoes & mash|
|Mix wet ingredients for cornbread||Shape and bake dinner rolls/Bake cornbread|
|Bake pies||Mix stuffing ingredients with broth, then bake|
|Assemble and cook proteins|
Enjoy your family, friends, and food!
Thanksgiving is a big undertaking, but it's so much easier when you have everything planned out and prepped ahead of time.