Make Ahead Thanksgiving Prep Timeline

The guide you need to prepare a stress-free Thanksgiving feast.

hero image

A little advance work and planning makes hosting Thanksgiving dinner much easier. We've created this thanksgiving cooking schedule that also includes buying, storing, make-ahead dishes, and prep information to help you avoid any last-minute disasters.

You may wonder, “How early can you make Thanksgiving sides?” or “What Thanksgiving sides can be made ahead?” The answer is simple: many sides can be made days, or even weeks, ahead of the holiday.

We've included the answers to all that and more in this guide.

Up to 3 Weeks Before Thanksgiving: Order The Turkey And Plan The Thanksgiving Menu

It's Time to Choose the Turkey: Heirloom? Fresh? Frozen? What Size?

  • Choose the right turkey. To serve 10 -12, choose a 12-15 pound bird; To serve 15-18, choose a 14-16 pound bird; To serve 20-22, choose an 18-22 pound bird.
  • For an heirloom or special farm turkey, order now. This is also the time to place any advance orders at your local market.
  • Plan your Thanksgiving menu. Think about your available oven and stove space on the day of and adjust your menu accordingly. Have a good mix of dishes that are served hot, cold, or at room temperature.
  • Make certain you have all the equipment you need. Locate all necessary pots, pans, dishes, and serving platters. Make sure they are clean and set aside. 
  • It’s also a good time to check your spices. If anything is older than one year, be conscious that the flavor may not be as potent and scale up the amount you use.

Up to 2 Weeks Before Thanksgiving: Stock Up. Make and Freeze Pies, Rolls, and Gravy

Baking and gravy making can require demanding, last-minute attention. Freezing them ahead of time is not only time-saving, but prevents last minute kerfuffles.

  • Confirm your freezer is at 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Make enough pie dough for all the pies you’ll need. Pat each crust into a 4-inch disk, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and then foil, and freeze. Let the dough defrost overnight in the refrigerator before assembling and baking the pies.
  • Create two shopping lists: One is for non-perishable items you can buy this week, and the other is for perishable ones that you should buy a few days prior to Thanksgiving.
  • If you’re not planning on using giblets to make stock, you can prepare and freeze gravy well ahead of time. When you're ready to use it, place the gravy and a bit of water (as needed) in a saucepan over low heat and bring it slowly to a simmer.
  • Make and freeze dinner rolls. The day of, simply rebake them in the oven for 10 minutes.
  • This is also a good time to stock up on your canned goods such as chicken broth or canned pumpkin.
  • Additionally check your staple ingredients and supplies such as butter, flour, salt, sugar, plastic wrap, aluminum foil, and storage containers. 

Weekend Before Thanksgiving: Defrost! Shop And Finalize Your Plans

Many people don't realize that a 20-pound bird can take four days—not a mere 24 hours—to thaw out in the refrigerator.

  • Make certain you are giving the turkey ample time to defrost. Plan on one day for every 4 pounds of turkey, and finish defrosting the day before roasting.
  • Make space in your fridge and freezer. Clean out unwanted items.
  • Complete the bulk of your shopping. Buy vegetables that store well: onions, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, root vegetables, winter squash. (Wait until a few days before to buy more delicate vegetables such as green beans, asparagus, or Brussels sprouts.)
  • Wash and store your greens.
  • Make cranberry sauce that can be covered and refrigerated for up to 7 days.
  • Start making extra ice.
  • Purchase beverages and stock them in an accessible place (not the back of the fridge where food will get piled in front and become hard to reach).
  • Make and freeze any soups you might have on the menu. Now is also a good time to make fresh cranberry sauce.

Two Days Until Thanksgiving: Start Preparing Make Ahead Dishes, Gravy, and Stuffing

Leaving gravy to the last minute can be a recipe for disaster. Start it ahead of time⎯along with the vegetables⎯to prevent last-minute problems.

  • If you didn’t make and freeze gravy already, remove the turkey giblets and neck and make gravy now. Refrigerate and just before serving, reheat in medium saucepan over medium heat until hot.
  • Make any creamy dips.
  • If you didn’t freeze your pie dough, make it now.
  • Blanch and shock any of the following vegetables for a quick final cooking: asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cauliflower, green beans, snap peas, and/or snow peas.
  • Most relishes and salad dressings can be prepared now.
  • Cook any casseroles using sweet potatoes or squash and refrigerate.
  • Finish shopping for your fresh vegetables. If you’ve ordered a fresh turkey, pick it up now.

The Day Before Thanksgiving: Final Countdown

The day before, you can finish almost all the cooking.

  • If you have room in your refrigerator, brine the turkey this afternoon, dry it off, and leave it uncovered in the refrigerator overnight (at least 8 hours). Roasting an air-dried turkey makes for exceptionally crisp skin.
  • Oven-baked stuffing can be assembled ahead of time, put in a casserole dish, and refrigerated until it's ready to be baked.
  • Make and refrigerate pumpkin pie or other custard pies.
  • Peel and store potatoes, covered in cold water, in the refrigerator.
  • Or, employ a make ahead mashed potato recipe. Store in a microwave safe bowl covered in plastic wrap.

Thanksgiving Day: Last-Minute Preparations

The final steps to a perfect meal.

  • Chill any wine or other beverages. 
  • Bake the pies the morning of, if they require hours to cool, or while dinner is being served if they do not. You can warm pre-baked pies during dinner. 
  • To calculate roasting time for the (unstuffed) bird, count on 1¾ hours if the bird weighs 12-15 pounds, 2 hours for a bird weighing 15-18 pounds, and 3 hours for a bigger bird. Then add on an additional 30-minute resting period; 35 to 40 minutes for a bird over 18 pounds.
  • Check for doneness with an instant-read thermometer: The thickest part of the breast should register 165 degrees and the thickest part of the thigh 170-175 degrees.
  • Once the turkey is out, you can keep other dishes warm in the oven at 200 degrees.
  • Carve the turkey.
  • Enjoy a perfect meal.

Recommended Reading