Holiday Entertaining

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

November 22, 2016

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. 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):

6:00 PM: Start with the Basics

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

Photo by James Ransom
Photo by 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.

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

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 Photo 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

  • 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

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

Photo by Sarah Shatz
Photo by 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.

52 Days of Thanksgiving
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52 Days of Thanksgiving

Top-notch recipes, expert tips, and all the tools to pull off the year’s most memorable feast.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Claire Ivins
    Claire Ivins
  • Nancy Shipman
    Nancy Shipman
  • Melissa
  • Margaret Knowles
    Margaret Knowles
  • suziqcu
I eat everything.


Claire I. November 22, 2015
That's a great tip about the mascarpone and cream
Nancy S. November 21, 2015
Hey Girl, you must know I am keeping this post to reference on Wednesday! I am SO impressed with all this NEW information! I've been cooking this meal and freaking out every year about the timing! So many great ideas that I didn't even know were possible!! You are my hero! Your Momma taught you well! ;-) Love you both!
Melissa November 21, 2015
I've never made whipped cream ahead of time, or at all, do you whip it more before serving?
Margaret K. November 21, 2015
Melissa, my make-ahead whipped cream is 8 oz. marscopone cheese (which just tastes like solid cream, not cheese) to 16 oz. heavy cream. First whip the marscopone with 1-2 tsp. vanilla and desired amount of sugar till creamy. I use 1/3 cup. Then add 1/4 to 1/3 of the heavy cream and incorporate till creamy. Add the rest of the heavy cream and whip on high until peaks form--depends on how fluffy you like it, but don't over beat. This will last for days! Seriously, and it is delicious. I have also done this using plain cream cheese, but it will produce a little tang---good if you want to add lemon extract for a lemon whipped cream. Hope this helps.
Melissa November 22, 2015
I was doing some baking for a church Thanksgiving celebration for, well today at this point, so I'm just now checking back. My whole family loves marscopone! I will definitely use your recipe and conquer my whipped cream fears! Thanks! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving! =•) ♡ Melissa
suziqcu November 22, 2015
Click on link for recipe