A successful Thanksgiving feast begins with a well-planned menu. In fact, most meals go awry because of poor planning. So, for now, don’t think about the recipes you want to serve. Instead, first ask yourself these 4 big questions.

1. How much food should you prepare?

Start by taking a headcount. Are there going to be any kids? If so, each child under 12 will eat half a serving. So, if your list includes 6 adults, 2 teenagers, and 4 young children, you will be fine planning a menu that serves 10. Do you want plenty of leftovers? If so, you might want to plan a menu for this gathering that serves 12 or 14. Is there any chance extra guests will be added to the list at the last minute? If so, you might want to plan a menu that accommodates extra guests, or yields plenty of leftovers if no one drops in on the big day.

Keep in Mind

Many families serve snacks and appetizers at holiday events and then dive right into the main meal. If you want a more formal meal with a plated first course, keep portion sizes of the first course small since there is a lot of food to come.


2. What type of food do you want to serve?

Are there dishes you or your family consider absolutely essential to Thanksgiving? If any guests are vegetarian, you should decide if you need an alternate main course, or whether the side dishes will be sufficient. (If you go the latter route, make sure you have at least 3 or 4 sides that are vegetarian—no bacon, no chicken broth.) If you have guests with food allergies, talk to them in advance. You might not be able to build a meal around someone who is gluten-intolerant, but maybe he or she plans on bringing a dish and can rely on one or two dishes already in your menu to make a meal. In fact, be sure to ask if any of your guests are willing to prepare and bring a dish for the meal. This can take the pressure off you.


3. When do you plan to cook?

Do you want to get work done in advance? How much time on the big day do you want to devote to cooking? Be realistic. If you plan to shop for Thanksgiving on Wednesday night and cook on Thursday, don’t attempt an ambitious menu. In fact, you might consider buying pies or asking a guest to bake them if you’re really going to start a big meal with no advance prep. If you do have time to work in advance, what kind of recipes are you looking for? Do you want recipes you can make weeks in advance and freeze, or are you planning on taking the Wednesday off before Thanksgiving and want recipes that can be fully or partially completed the day before the holiday?

Time-Savers

Soup can be made in advance, which makes it especially attractive as a starter. We like to end a holiday meal with a pie (or two), and they don’t require last-minute work. In fact, the dough can be made days or weeks in advance and most pies will be fine if baked a day in advance. If you’re looking for help, pies can be purchased or baked by someone else.


4. What’s the timeline like on the actual holiday?

If you have just one oven like most cooks, you can’t prepare four dishes that require last-minute oven time, especially if some of those recipes require different oven temperatures. Are you going to be by yourself in the kitchen or will you have competent help that will enjoy getting an assignment from you? Is anyone bringing something you plan to serve at the meal? Will that dish need to be reheated in the oven or can it be reheated in the microwave or, better still, served at room temperature? Is there a family event, parade, or football game that’s going to take you out of the house for part of the day? If so, how will that affect your cooking schedule? You don't really want to leave the turkey in the oven unattended.