HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >


Thanksgiving Dinner - what Can Be Made In Advance?

I'm already thinking about the big day and getting night sweats. What can be prepared in advance without sacrificing taste/ texture etc. I'm sure I can make cranberry sauce and gravy a couple of days ahead, pies the morning of. What about mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole. How long can a turkey hold its heat without drying out? I'm always concerned the turkey won't be done on time or done so far in advance it will be cold.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/666336

    Some good ideas in these threads, particularly the first one. There's some controversy over making mashed potatoes ahead, with some 'hounds firmly against and others in favor, but most agree that cranberry sauce, pie, sweet potatoes, and green bean casserole are easy make-aheads. I always mix up gb casserole in advance but don't bake it until the turkey's fixin' to come out. Rolls and sweet potato casserole go in when the turkey comes out for resting.

    My best pieces of advice:

    1. Do NOT stuff the turkey. Stuffing adds SO MUCH unnecessary cooking time and dries out the meat. An un-stuffed bird, even a massive one, cooks in under three hours, which keeps Thanksgiving from becoming an epic cooking marathon and makes it instead just a more-time-consuming-than-normal meal.

    2. I cannot emphasize this enough: Write a schedule!! I've done this for years and it basically eliminates my stress, in fact, I don't consider T-day to be stressful at all anymore. Count backwards from dinnertime, include 30 minutes for the meat to rest. Basically write down the time you need to put everything IN the oven (or on the stove, etc.) and take everything OUT of the oven. Make sure that somewhere on the schedule there's a slot for you to change clothes, freshen up, and make yourself a cocktail! :


    3. You can keep sides warm in the crock pot, oven, or stove-top. Better to keep them warm than the bird.

    4. Don't forget your microwave! Softer sides like corn pudding and sweet potato casserole can cook just as well in the microwave as the oven.

    5. Do every single little bit of your mise en place the day or two before. Chop celery and onion (and whatever else) for the dressing. Tear or slice bread. Set stuff down from the cupboards -- canned pumpkin, boxes of broth, spices. Set out your serving dishes and LABEL them with what's going to go in/on them. Set the table the night before.

    Good luck. Hope this T-day's an enjoyable one for you! :)

    3 Replies
    1. re: LauraGrace

      Writing the schedule is essential. Couldn't agree more. I will add to that, create an oven-schedule as well. If you are planning to put 6 things into the oven, will they all fit? And how much do you need to adjust the cooking time to account for all that extra stuff in there.

      1. re: LauraGrace

        Yes, yes, yes on a written schedule. When hosting any large-ish dinner, I create an Excel spreadsheet including every possible detail...menu, when I'm making things, when things made in advance have to come out of the refrigerator (or freezer) and go into oven (and what oven -- we have a double oven plus a large toaster oven & microwave for reheating), plus what temp they cook at and for how long, serving dishes to be used, plus anything else I can think of.

        Seriously, everything! It becomes my bible!

        I even make coffee shortly before guests arrive and put it in a airpot. It stays nice and hot and it's one less thing to do when trying to get dessert out.

        1. re: valerie

          I'm still a novice at holiday dinners, but let me chime in on the schedule thing. It had never occurred to me to write out a schedule of when to do things, but the first time we did a Christmas dinner my girlfriend wrote out a schedule, and for the most part it went smooth as silk. It really does help more than you think it will.

          People who had other Christmas dinner plans showing up for apps and cocktails a couple of hours before dinner is a part of our holiday tradition now, and we actually got to enjoy their company, knowing that everything would be done on time.

          Mise en place is critical. I did nearly all the chopping and slicing on Christmas Eve, so that the big day was pretty much a job of assembly and cooking.

      2. We make our pies and cranberry sauce the night before; everything else the same day, with the exception that we often prepare the bread crumbs for the stuffing the night before too. Early in the day, after the turkey is in the oven, we do the mise en place for all the vegetables -- putting the potatoes in water so they will not discolor. Once the turkey is in the oven, it pretty much takes care of itself, so you've got plenty of time to prep vegetables. The gravy is the last thing that gets made, since we use the pan & drippings from the turkey. DH makes the gravy while I mash the potatoes and also mash rutabagas, which are de riguer on our T-G table. (No green bean caserole in our house; just some sort of basic steamed, green vegetable -- either green beans, broccoli, or asparagus). The turkey should rest for a minimum of 1/2 hour before slicing and will hold for 45 min or so just fine.

        1. I don't believe in schedules as much as I believe in lists; when I've decided what the dinner will consist of I make a list of and decide what can be done in the week leading up to the dinner, then proceed to do those things up to the day of. If you're using a frozen bird, I begin to thaw it out three days prior (depending on brining, rubs etc.)

          I have neither the space in my fridge nor the patience to thaw my turkey in the way everyone else recommends so I thaw mine out in cold running water which takes less than a third of the time than using the fridge. I do that on Tue. Also on Tue & Wed I chop the veggies for my stuffing (I stuff my bird) and side dishes; make gravy and desserts on Wed. No green bean casserole at my house; I do sauteed green beans with mushrooms & fried onions and it's done right before the dinner as well as the potatoes. I don't pre-do mashed potatoes as they only take 15 minutes. I make homemade rolls the night before & let them rise; bake off the day of. Turkey gets done in the morning the day of.

          It's not that complicated if you use the list.

          1. Sauce, pies, green bean casserole can all be made in advance. Stuffing can be made in advance, but not stuffed. I usually replace mashed potatoes with a yukon and sweet potato gratin, which is 10 times more delicious and can be made in advance and reheated. Your turkey actually needs to sit for 20 minutes or so (you can cover it with foil) to distribute the juices. In this time, you can heat the rest of the food.

            1. Pies & desserts are a must bake day before item for the big day. That way once the dinner dishes are done, you can relax & enjoy.
              Others may disagree, but I am a big believer in making mashed potatoes in advance. I do this a lot for convenience: buy a 5# bag of yukon golds, make them all into mash with my regular recipe (milk, butter, salt, pepper), only increasing the liquid a bit because it evaporates with reheating. Then I freeze in individual servings in freezer bags. We pull out 1 or 2 for dinners the rest of the month and just nuke them to warm. For Thanksgiving, you could easily just refridgerate them and then pop them in the oven to warm after the turkey comes out, or nuke if you need the oven for other sides.

              1 Reply
              1. re: jboeke

                I have good luck reheating mashed potatoes in the microwave...just in a bowl with
                plastic wrap over it. (venting a little, of course, on the corner) Keeps them very moist.

              2. A good hint I learned about pies is to bake them the night before. When the turkey comes out of the oven for dinner, put in the pies you want to reheat and turn off the oven. The residual heat will warm the pies. I steam potatoes in a rice cooker w/ garlic. When it's time to serve, I mash it, along with turkey drippings. I do sweet potato casserole the day before and cook day of.

                1. Over the years I've refined the menu with the addition of lots of do-ahead dishes so that I can enjoy cocktails and appetizers with everyone instead of being in the kitchen.

                  Below is a previous topic with links to some of the recipes I use. I make the seasoned butter to put under the turkey skin the weekend before, and prep the turkey the night before. I make the cranberry sauce the weekend before or sometimes even earlier since it freezes well. I make turkey stock using wings and make do-ahead gravy and add pan juices the day of. This also freezes well. I mix the stuffing the night before, and also make the potatoes the day before. I make them a little thicker so that I can add any more dairy or butter the day of if I need to. Depending on vegetable side dishes, I'll often roast carrots the day ahead (just warm them in the oven the day of and toss them with a glaze) or if I"m making creamed peas and onions, I'll thaw the vegetables and make the cream sauce the night before, and just combine them the day of on the stovetop. Cheesecake I always make ahead.

                  Thanksgiving - your BEST side dishes

                  In the morning I just have to bake the pie and stuff and roast the turkey. After appetizers, I warm or finish the side dishes while the turkey sits, and bake the biscuits/crescent rolls and sweet potato casserole (though I may try this ahead this year).

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: Rubee

                    Just a question for you...last year I made turkey stock and froze it at Christmas. Do you think it's okay to use it for this Thanksgiving or should I toss it out and make fresh?

                    1. re: walker

                      I know some people like to use things within 6 months. but I've used stock that I've had for longer, especially if it's packed well. If in doubt, just defrost and see if tastes like there's too many ice crystals/freezer burn, but I personally would use it if it tastes fine.

                  2. I'd think more in terms of pre-prepping the components of the meal rather than the all the whole dishes. Although there are some dishes that just are too easy to make ahead of time to not. Like the mashed potatoes, dressing and the green bean casserole

                    Homemade pie crusts can easily be made weeks ahead and frozen in disks. Then the day before t-day thaw shape and fill. Someone even told me about a technique were you grate the frozen dough and press into the pie pan. Never tried it but the method seems like it would work fine. I've made the pumpkin puree days ahead and might even go ahead and mix up the whole pumpkin pie filling two days ahead and then bake the pie a day ahead.

                    I've definitely been prepping the stock for months using lefover chicken parts, veg trimmings etc. So there should already be several quarts frozen. I just have to be sure and start them thawing a few days ahead. The same goes for bread cubes for the stuffing. We eat 100% whole wheat and often won't get through a loaf before it starts to get stale, but not moldy. So, as soon as I realize we won't make it through a loaf, it gets diced, tosted, bagged, tagged, and frozen in a big bag. I just keep adding on So there should be plenty of bread for dressing. Or bread pudding or croutons. The stuffing get's mixed up the day before and put in the pan (not bird) and we don't use eggs, just broth and butter. Just bring to room temp while the bird cooks, put in about a half hour before the bird is done and by the time the bird rests, it should be hot through and suitably crusty around the edges and top.

                    A good 3-4 days ahead, I'll get the knives and mandolin out and start slicing and chopping celery, onions, carrots, and other sturdy veggies which typically make up a huge part of any mise en place. Bag 'em seperately and store in the coldest part of the fridge. I mean I've chopped all the onion and all the celery that every recipe calls for. It's usually huge gallon bags. I've actually worn a swim goggles when the onions were particularly tear-worthy. Hey it looks silly but works.

                    As others have said, cranberry sauce at least 2 days ahead, if not longer. You have basically made a refrigerator jelly and if made with sugar will keep a good 2 weeks.

                    Gravy base get's made and refrigerated 2 days ahead, or so. Then it's warmed and the new pan drippings added right befor serving.

                    But none of this works if you don't have a very good list, schedule etc. So you actually know that you need a total of 12 onions and a whole bunch of celery and a dozen total sliced carrots. You've got to get a good grip on the parts that will get assembled into the meal and when. I like to spread out the real prep a week ahead so I do parts of the meal each night. One or two things so the work and the clean-up are managable. Then 2 days before the big day I start to do the actual cooking at night after work and the day of the big meal, I'm just assembling and putting things in the oven and taking them out and bringing stuff to room temp.

                    I also make a rule to cook/bake in the serving dish whenever possible. and if not possible, line cooking dishes with foil. I HATE big meal clean-up and will do whatever is necessary to reduce the amount of work for the clean-up.

                    1. The gravy, cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes can all be prepared a day or two in advance. If you're not feeding more than 8-10 people, you can also use a small turkey and butterfly and salt it the day before. This way on the day, all you have to do is throw it in a hot oven for 70 minutes. No brining, no muss, no fuss, and it will be the juiciest, crispiest bird you've ever eaten. After it's cooked it will hold its heat for 30 minutes, no problem, and you can heat any sides that need the oven during this time.

                      I did a simple, make-ahead Thanksgiving menu recently as a test run, you can find the recipes on my blog:

                      1. I make the cranberry sauce, pies and baked squash the day before, and prepare the stuffing ( a simple bread based one).

                        Right after the turkey goes in, I do the potatoes, which can rest in the rice cooker while waiting for the meal - keeps them hot, and frees up a burner for later.

                        Then I prep everything else I need for later, and set the giblets in some water to pad out drippings for the gravy. The actual gravy I do while the turkey rests, as I use the giblet stock and pan drippings, thickened with butter and flour.

                        1. Let me add to the good advice "write a schedule" that you should write a detailed list of every single thing you plan to serve, no matter how small, because in the heat of the moment it's possible to forget to serve something you went to the trouble of making---next day you find it in the refrigerator still in virgin condition.