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What to Cook for Thanksgiving if You Only Have Wednesday to Prep

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You're busy. You're on-a-work-call-while-bouncing-a-baby-and-making-dinner Busy, with a capital B. And you still have to make Thanksgiving dinner. Luckily, with the right menu, preparation for the Big Dinner won't take much you longer than an after-work evening at home.

Let's get this turkey started.
Let's get this turkey started. Photo by James Ransom

Wednesday evening, before a whole array of beloved (and not-so-beloved?) relatives trickle into your living room and swarm your kitchen to offer help—and ask for snacks—take advantage of your time alone. It's the calm before the storm—and an opportunity for you to get ahead on tasks so you can spend more time tomorrow drinking eating with family, and less running laps around your kitchen. Here's how to have everything prepared, so all you have to do tomorrow is slide the turkey into the oven and ponder all the things you're thankful for (like make-ahead recipes):

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6:00 PM: Start with the Basics

Mr. L's Mashed Potatoes

Mr. L's Mashed Potatoes by La452

Kale with Pancetta, Cream and Toasted Rosemary Walnuts

Kale with Pancetta, Cream and Toasted Rosemary Walnuts by Erin McDowell

Butternut Squash Purée

Butternut Squash Purée by Amanda Hesser

Cranberry, Tangerine, and Crystallized Ginger Relish

Cranberry, Tangerine, and Crystallized Ginger Relish by Lizthechef

You just got home from work: Take some time to ease into your Thanksgiving cooking with the sides—they're similar enough to your weeknight cooking that they won't be intimidating, but traditional enough to get you into the spirit. The turkey will come later, but for now, mash those potatoes.

8:00 PM: Make Dessert

Photos by James Ransom, Bobbi Lin

Left: Pumpkin Pudding Pie | Right: Ginger Cookies

You have your sides ready! Now, pack them up into oven-proof glass containers or casserole dishes covered in plastic wrap (more on how to freshen up your mashed potatoes later!) and bookend the prep for tomorrow's meal by making dessert. It may feel against logic to make dessert before you even start to think about the turkey, but in this case, it's in your favor to get the desserts out of the way—it's one less thing to think about tomorrow in between checking turkey temperatures and entertaining Auntie Marge.

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Start by making Pumpkin Pudding Pie, which is crustless and much simpler than a regular pumpkin pie—but just as good!—then store it in the refrigerator until tomorrow (the recipe calls for it!). Next, make just the dough for these Ginger Cookies and wait until after dinner tomorrow to stick them in the oven for 10 to 12 minutes while the table's cleared. Warm cookies = best Thanksgiving host ever. Win, win.

Pro Tip:

"I think what people really like is pumpkin pie filling, because the crust on a pumpkin pie is almost always soggy. I’m not saying pumpkin pie can’t be done well, but it rarely is, and Thanksgiving is no time to try to perfect a new skill." — Alice Medrich, Food52 contributor and cookbook author

Your Night-Before Rescue Manual

Ina Garten's Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Advice

Ina Garten's Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Advice by Marian Bull

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13 Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Recipes To Save Your Sanity

13 Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Recipes To Save Your Sanity by Charlotte Greenbaum

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How to Make Whipped Cream Ahead (Yes, You Can)

How to Make Whipped Cream Ahead (Yes, You Can) by Alice Medrich

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15 Easy Make-Ahead Breakfasts for Busy Weekday Mornings

15 Easy Make-Ahead Breakfasts for Busy Weekday Mornings by Caroline Lange

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9:00 PM: Some Light Turkey (or Game Hen) and Stuffing Prep

Photo by James Ransom
The unspoken Thanksgiving savior? The Backup Dish.

Top: Bacon Bird with Turkey Neck Gravy | Lower Left: Game Hens with Roasted Grape Mostarda | Lower Right: What We Call Stuffing: Challah, Mushroom, and Celery

  1. Start by preparing your stuffing. Since you want this to be fresh as possible the next day (and soggy bread is rarely a happy thing), all you have to do tonight is chop your ingredients. Gather them all in a zip-top bag and refrigerate until tomorrow—all you'll have to do then is happy unzip the bag into a casserole dish and slide your pre-chopped concoction into the oven.
  2. Take your (defrosted!) turkey out of the refrigerator, rinse him (her?) out, liberally salt and pepper the inside, and put them (it?) onto a rack in a turkey pan. Tuck the wings behind his head—or, where his head used to be. Place him in the refrigerator, and keep him out in the open, uncovered! This will actually dry out the skin to make it crispier when you bake it tomorrow!
  3. Prepare your turkey ingredients: Cut the apple into quarters, remove the core, then quarter each quarter. Peel the onion and cut it into similar-sized pieces. Place these pieces into a zip-top back near the sage, marjoram, and bacon tomorrow for easy access. That's all for turkey prep!

The non-Turkey, rogue route:

If turkey just isn't your thing, don't worry! Game hens look just as lovely on a Thanksgiving table—and are just as delicious. And the Roasted Grape Mostarda for these hens can be made the night before! Plan on making roughly one hen per every two guests, and instead of carving the turkey, serve the whole game hens on a platter, then cut each along the spine to serve a half to each guest.

Pro Tip:

"If you think about a Thanksgiving dinner, it's really like making a large chicken." — Ina Garten, host of Barefoot Contessa and cookbook author

10:00 PM: Prepare Drinks for Tomorrow (and Sneak One in Tonight)

Left: Last Word; Right: Apple Rye Punch Photos by James Ransom

Left: Last Word | Right: Apple Rye Punch

Cocktails are often an over-looked part of a wine-heavy Thanksgiving table, but don't pass them by! Not only will you impress your family by going the extra step, but the base of each of these cocktails (Left: Last Word; Right: Apple Rye Punch) can be made the night before (just don't shake it till tomorrow), then served tomorrow in a punch bowl or as single servings—just stir it, ladle it into a shaker, and serve away! But for now, help yourself to a drink and rest easy knowing tomorrow will be a breeze.

Your Day-Of Rescue Manual

Here's How to Chill Any Wine in 7 Minutes Flat

Here's How to Chill Any Wine in 7 Minutes Flat by Samantha Weiss Hills

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Merrill's Last-Minute Thanksgiving Tips

Merrill's Last-Minute Thanksgiving Tips by Merrill Stubbs

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How to Deal if You Forgot to Thaw the Turkey

How to Deal if You Forgot to Thaw the Turkey by Elana Carlson

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Houseplants Do Double Duty In This DIY Centerpiece

Houseplants Do Double Duty In This DIY Centerpiece by Samantha Weiss Hills

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  • How to chill wine in 7 minutes: "Wet a bunch of paper towels (or a dish towel), wrap your warm or room temperature bottle of wine in them, and stick it in the freezer for seven minutes."
  • If conversation's dwindling by dessert: "Switch up everyone's seats to spark new conversations, but only before dessert—because that's when people start to wind down."
  • What to do if you forgot to thaw the turkey:"Soak the bird in cold (never hot!) water, changing the water every 30 minutes. It should take about 30 minutes per pound. Then, cook it immediately."
  • What to do if you need a last-minute centerpiece: Find some vines or fern and attach them to your overhead table lighting, "letting a few of the vines brush the tabletop created romance in the centerpiece," or tie them around each setting's napkin for an extra touch of color.

Set the Scene

Photo by Rocky Luten
Fragrant Pod Garland

Fragrant Pod Garland

$70
White and Copper Ceramic Gravy Bowl

White and Copper Ceramic Gravy Bowl

$66
Tapered Fall Candles (Set of 8)

Tapered Fall Candles (Set of 8)

$42
White and Copper Ceramic Plates (Set of 4)

White and Copper Ceramic Plates (Set of 4)

$200

9:00 AM - Turkey Time: Your Day-Of Checklist

  • Set your table, make sure everyone knows how to find their way over, and make everyone drinks or breakfast—depending on the time and mood! We'll leave you to decide the best route here.
  • Place your fillings into the turkey, cover it in bacon, and stick it in the oven to bake for roughly four hours. Don't worry about basting—the bacon is doing the work for you! (Alternatively: Prepare your game hens to bake about 40 to 50 minutes before dinner.)
  • When your turkey comes out, place your stuffing mix in a casserole dish and slip it into the oven. While it bakes, make the gravy (reserving some turkey drippings to pour over the stuffing, if you prefer!).
  • Take your sides out of the refrigerator to return to room temperature, then roughly 1 hour to 30 minutes before sitting and once the turkey's out, rotate them into the oven to warm and cover with foil until everyone is seated.
  • Have your guests help you serve, call everyone to dinner, and eat!

Your Grocery List

Photos by Sarah Shatz, James Ransom

Click here for a downloadable and printer-friendly grocery list—organized by section of the store. (That's one less thing for you to do!)

Pro Tip:

"Print your list and bring a pen for the soothing cross-off experience (and the ease of tearing the list in half, if you're bringing a buddy)." — Kristen Miglore, Food52 Creative Director and author of Genius Recipes

Whistle While You Work

Listen to this Thanksgiving playlist while you cook—filled with upbeat, but mellow songs, with a couple of Thanksgiving songs thrown in (there are a few!), it's the perfect background music to mashing potatoes and chopping onions.

Happy Thanksgiving!

This article originally ran in November of 2015.


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Tags: thanksgiving, holiday entertaining