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Thanksgiving Day Timing - Tips?


I'm cooking my first real thanksgiving dinner in my own house and I'm getting a little nervous about timing everything. I'm only having 7 people, but would like to try to make as much as possible the day of and not ahead of time, but I'm thinking that might be too dificult in terms of oven space.

What is everyone planning on serving and do you have any tips on how to best time everything? I have one regular size oven and plan to roast a turkey and bake stuffing seperately. Not sure yet what other sides I'm doing besides mashed potatos and some veggies, maybe squash and green beens.

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  1. Every year, what I do is type a list of every dish I'm making and count back from my target serving time and to figure out when every dish needs to be started. For example, a spinach casserole can be made ahead on Wednesday, but on my list I'm noting to put it in the oven half an hour before dinner. I know my rolls take three hours, so I put on my list to start them around 2 pm. Organizing every thing like this really helps me see my work clearly and its also a great time to list all the ingredients and things I have to buy. Once you list everything and how long it will take to prep and cook, it should become clear to you how to manage your oven space. Have fun and enjoy it!

    1 Reply
    1. re: glorypea

      Another nice thing about making a list, is you can save it and reuse it with modifications year after year.

    2. I too make a list and am cooking for a small group like yours. We figured out our menu last week and made a separate shopping list for the items we will need, which we will pick up this weekend (FYI the grocery stores will be CRAZY this weekend).

      We start with the bird and what time we want to serve the meal to figure out when we will start the bird, and everything eles is figured out around that. We do as many things in advance or separately as we can - obviously mashed potatoes are on top of the stove, we do dressing in a crock pot and our cranberries can be done in advance and reheated. Desserts should and can usually be done in advance as well unless they need to be served at a particular temp.

      Whatever you are doing in the oven besides the bird, check IN ADVANCE if the requisite pan can fit in there with the bird by putting the bird pan in and then other pans as needed. Remember that the bird can sit quite awhile and it will stay hot, so things that might take a short time can be done after he comes out. Things that are baked with a topping can be partially done and then just finished in the oven, etc.

      Get your lists together, start with the bird and time for meal, and work everything else around it. It's good to be TOO anal; with each dish listed and the time to start it, then if you have a helper they can say, it's 2pm, time to start the potatoes. Etc.

      1. Besides the timing list you should also get all prep work done before hand - chopping, washing, pre-measure spices/liquids, etc

        1. One thing you can get out of the way now is setting the table. Lists are very nice - but they never really seem to actually fit on the table until you've done it a million times.
          This guarantees that you have everything you need - plates, flatware, napkins, glasses, etc. Also you can decide on the size of a centerpiece and candles if you plan to use them. No last minute rushing around for placemats or a tablecloth. Then figure out what bowls and platters you will use for EVERY dish you plan on serving. Down to the salt and pepper shakers, cranberry sauce, gravy boat, wine bottles, water pitcher, etc. The table gets crowded with things really quickly on T'giving and you may decide to serve buffet style.
          I actually put all the stuff on the table with a serving spoon or fork in the bowl or on the platter to make sure I have one that works and put a Post-It Note on the bowl or platter saying what I'm going to use it for so I don't mix them up on Turkey Day. Keeps my helpers from putting stuff in the wrong bowls too. Whoever invented Post-Its deserves a Nobel Prize.
          Do NOT forget trivets for dishes that will be hot and remember that some things can't be passed easily if they are right out of the oven.
          Since this is your first T'giving, you may find out you don't have quite enough nice bowls or serving spoons, so you'll have time to borrow some or run out and purchase a few.

          3 Replies
          1. re: MakingSense

            The best tip I have for Thanksgiving dinner is to make your gravy ahead of time. This can be done 2-3 days in advance. I start out with a couple turkey wings which are roasted or sauteed until browned, then slowly simmered to produce the liquid base for the gravy.

            You can find more details on this here:

            1. re: Sam D.

              My gravy is already done and in the freezer along with some extra stock. I cooked a small 12-pound turkey last weekend and had friends over for fresh turkey sandwiches. Used the carcass to make the stock, the drippings and fond in the roasting pan for the gravy and I was good to go! On Turkey Day, we'll skim the dripping, use the new goodies in the pan to enrich this gravy, add some stock, and we'll have the gravy on the table within minutes with no fuss and bother.
              We've been doing it for years and it saves so much hassle on T'giving! I've had several other friends over for lunch and casual suppers of Turkey Tetrazzini.

            2. re: MakingSense

              This is a good idea and I wouldn't have thought to suggest it to someone. I *do* it, I just never thought about suggesting it! Good thinking, making sense. On a similar note, be sure you have enough pots and pans to prepare everything you have planned. It is a huge pain to keep waiting on something so you can have the pan, washing the pan out and then using it for something else.

            3. Excellent post by MakingSense above.....I also go the Post-It Note route with serving dishes and utensils prepared in advance. I've been the designated Thanksgiving cook in our family for years and I'd love to share some tips....

              1. Prepare your shopping list according to supermarket aisle order....with a separate column for the produce aisle....and a separate section for the liquor store if necessary. Don't forget garnish, i.e. curly parsley, cherry tomatoes, lemon, etc.

              2. Prepare a cooking guide according to course, i.e. appetizers before sitting down at the table, drinks (I prepare a cranberry punch and a sparking white sangria), main menu, dessert menu. Highlight the items that actually need preparing as opposed to things you just have to open and serve (nuts, cranberry jelly, etc.). If any of your guests are bringing a prepared contribution, put that on the list too and make sure to have a serving utensil for it.

              3. Prepare a written grid/table according to day as to when you will shop, what you will prepare, what you will clean (don't forget to scrub the bathroom your guests will use). For example, on Wednesday (I always take that day off) I paln to cut veggies, make an onion dip, make stuffing, make brownies (Thanksgiving special...they expect them!), make a cake for my nephew's birthday, set the table with serving pieces and candles, buy bread and flowers, go to the carwash, pick up daughter at airport (or send someone else).

              4. Make sure you have lots of ice, and try to have the dishwasher empty when dinner is over if possible. Wash the coffee pot beforehand and make sure it's loaded and ready to go as soon as you start after dinner clean-up.

              5. Leftovers: Prepare a few "prepared meals" on plastic-wrapped plates with a little bit of all of the dinner menu items. That way, you can just whip the plastic wrap off the following day and have a nice lunch without going overboard on the portion size.

              6. Recipes: Go simple and delicious if you feel overwhelmed. I'm a great home chef but I choose to make simple roast and glazed turkey (carved BEFORE it hits the table), cranberry and orange relish, Southern style candied yams and a bunch of other things some of which are a little tricky. If there's something you'd really like to make, do a recipe search on foodnetwork.com. You can print them out and shop and cook accordingly, but don't forget to taste while you cook to make sure it's really good enough for you and your guests.

              7. Mood music? Prepare and load some CDs in advance...or just put some some smooth jazz (or whatever you enjoy) on the radio.

              You can never plan too much....but remember to enjoy your family, your food, your day off...and to give thanks!

              1 Reply
              1. re: Suzyummy

                Lots of wonderful tips from everyone - one thing that I find very helpful is to photocopy all my recipes and tape them up on the kitchen cupboards with masking tape - no flipping through cookbooks etc.

              2. Here's a link that has good tips and a time table for Thanksgiving day and menu ideas that I've found helpful.


                I just gathered all my recipes this morning and made my shopping list. I put all the food stuff in categories to make it easier when I'm grocery shopping.

                I'm a list maker and always keep notes from the prior year on how things went so I can review them the following year. I find it really helpful. It reminds me that I cooked too much of one thing, or to make a dish differently the next year, what people liked/didn't like, etc.

                Remember anything you make the day before should be taken out of the fridge and brought to room temperature before it's put in the oven.

                I always have several family members bring sides like sweet potatoes or green bean casserole or desserts. They don't mind pitching in and bringing a dish and it takes some stress off of me.

                Let the turkey rest at least 20 minutes tented with aluminum foil before you carve it. This gives you plenty of time to make gravy from the drippings. I have made madeira gravy and everybody absolutely loved it, I'd highly suggest it.

                1. I make almost everything ahead of time. This year I'll have 10 people and the menu is turkey with gravy, classic mushroom dressing, sausage and polenta dressing, mashed potatoes, puree of acorn squash, creamed pearl onions and baby peas, buttered green beans w/ spiced almonds and cranberry relish. Dessert is pumkin praline pie and chocolate ganache tart

                  Way ahead I make the pie crusts, roll it out into the pans and freeze.

                  2 days ahead:
                  >prep and brine the turkey (brined for a full 24 hours then left open to the air in the fridge overnight and roasted at a high temp, turning a few times until done, then left to sit on the counter while heating the sides the sides)
                  >make the cranberries
                  >make praline for pumkin pie (can be done up to a week ahead)
                  >make spiced nuts (can be done up to a week ahead)

                  The Day before
                  >make both dressings
                  >both pies (except whipped cream)
                  >boil and roast the onions
                  >squash (cooked whole on the microwave until soft, pureed in cuisinart w/ butter, brown sugar and cinnamon)
                  >prep and steam green beans

                  Then the day of, I take the dressings and veggies out of the fridge to come to room temp early in the morning and all that's left to do is the mashed potatoes and cream the onions, adding the frozen baby peas, both done on the stove top. I just saute the beans in butter on the stove top and toss with nutsWhen the turkey comes out, the dressings and the sqaush go into the oven, I make the gravy and the potaoes get mashed. The sides are hot in 15-20 minutes and dinner is served. I can't wait!

                  1. The advice you're getting is all good. The single most important contributor to sanity: make the gravy ahead of time; save the pan scrapings and drippings of the day itself for making gravy the next day for the leftovers. There is *zero* reason to be fussing with gravy making while the turkey rests before carving. Instead, you should be taking a relaxing shower during that interval (which I find takes at least 30 minutes, since I joint and carve in the kitchen, not the table).

                    If you are someone who cleans as she goes in the kitchen and if your guests are not disabled in any way, you can also try serving (or self-serving) hot foods in the kitchen rather than cramming the table with everything. Even if it echoes a cafeteria line, it saves time and contributes to hot food and sanity for everyone (rather than having all the food get cold as people wait for everything to be passed around). I got over my etiquette fussiness on that point years ago when everyone agreed this was a far more hospitable system for those of us who lack staff, as it were.

                    1. Certainly everyone finds their own way when it comes to preparing Thanksgiving dinner. I guess I must be lazy but I'm not going to cook a turkey or roast wings in order to make gravy for Thanksgiving day ahead of time. What's the deal about gravy? It's really super easy to make. I place my turkey roaster across two burners, turn up the heat and use all the wonderful stuck on bits and the pan drippings and homemade turkey stock make it fabulous. Maybe I do it that way because that's the way it was always done in my family. To each his own! Try that Madeira gravy recipe in the link I posted earlier - it's a guaranteed winner.

                      1. You want to know how to keep a turkey warm for 2 hours without keeping it in the oven? Put the cooked turkey on the carving board, cover with aluminum foil, and then wrap everything in a blanket. That's right, a blanket that can be washed latter. Wrap that bird up like it was your first born and it will stay good and warm for at least two hours which will give you time to make gravy, roast the vegetables and get everything else ready.

                        Now before anybody goes Department of Health on me, I learned this from seeing it done by several Italian families in Formia, Italy when they went on pinics. Based on what I could determine, for decades they'd been using this method to keep roasts and birds warm and nobody has gone morto. Argue with them, not me.

                        1. I'm sure this is already clear, but my absolute best tip for making the timing go smoothly on actual Thanksgiving Day is to get the bird done early and let it stand for an hour. In that hour you can bake everything else that you need (for me, it's green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese and stuffing), whip up the mashed potatoes and gravy while everything bakes, and my Dad carves the turkey while I start setting everything out. We're having 16 this year, way more than my house should hold, so we're going to do buffet style in the dining room and then all sit on cushions or chairs in the living room, with coffee tables or borrowed folding tables to eat off of. And we're eating off of Chinet platters this year! I'm not going to be doing dishes for two hours after I spent all day in the kitchen.

                          Oh, my other go-to secret: host dinner on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. That way my family can all spend Thanksgiving Day with their in-laws, I can stay home all day and cook and clean, and minimize the fuss for the actual day of the meal. And this way lots more people can come!

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: delaneymae

                            We do ours on Friday as well! We go to my in-laws for theirs on Thursday, which is all the sort of boxed/processed stuff so I don't eat much, then have a smaller version with our more CH type dishes on Friday.