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 ease the burden for the novice entertainer. 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! You’ve agreed to put together one of the most difficult dinner parties to pull off. If you've hosted Thanksgiving before, you’re probably here because your first foray into the feast of feasts was a disaster. Either way, you’re in the right spot for making your meal manageable. We also snuck in some make-ahead Thanksgiving recipes in case you get stuck in your menu planning.
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 parcel out portions of the meal to prep ahead of time. If you do it right, you can start 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 a big project all on its own. Because of the attention and detail required to cook a turkey, we’ve put together a separate guide to consult. Here, we’ll focus other mains that can easily be prepped in advance for a fret-free feast.
Pork is a popular protein 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’s a recipe 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.
If you’re making a vegetarian or vegan Thanksgiving, you might be thinking about serving a tofurkey or nut loaf. Both have a lot of ingredients and are fairly labor-intensive — but they can also be prepped the day before cooking, which is a load off for any entertainer.
- 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 mold the night before the meal.
Here are some merry meat-free dishes to consider:
Starches and vegetables make up the distinguished side dishes for Thanksgiving — but both have unpredictable prep requirements.
Mashed potatoes are tricky. It’s best to prep and cook them 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 they’re peeled they must be kept in water to prevent oxidation. Oxidation causes potatoes to turn pink — which is not harmful, but also not appealing. If you do peel them and put them in water so they don’t turn pink, they have to be kept in the refrigerator, which may not be the best use of refrigerator real estate.
3) You can cook them in advance and leave re-heating and mashing for Thanksgiving Day, but that’s not going to save time or energy.
If you are determined to prep your mashed potatoes in advance, you can cook and mash them up to two days beforehand and reheat them just before dinner, but at that point, it’s kind of like eating leftovers.
Mashed potatoes that make sense:
But if you really want to free up time on the holiday, here's a make-ahead recipe:
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 it’s baked 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 of dinner. 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 recipe to get you acquainted:
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.
Need stuffing ideas? Here's a traditional recipe:
Cranberries swell with sweet-tart flavor which also means you can make cranberry sauce a week in advance. The acid from the cranberries and orange juice acts as a preservative, so if you have the ingredients, there’s no reason you can’t get the sauce out of the way now!
If you’re still looking for a cranberry recipe, here’s one 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 it in advance ... to a degree.
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 proof — 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 this recipe:
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 one to try:
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, 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:
To sum it up, here’s what your make-ahead plan could (loosely) look like:
|Make cranberry sauce||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 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 and put in a 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||Bake dinner rolls|
|Bake off pies||Mix stuffing ingredients with broth, then bake|
|Assemble and cook proteins|
Enjoy your family, friends, and food!
Thanksgiving is a massive undertaking, but it doesn’t have to be a massive headache as long as you have everything planned out and prepped ahead of time.