A Step-By-Step Guide to Cooking Thanksgiving For 30 People

November  5, 2015

Thanksgiving with the Langes often feels like an experiment—but it's not the location, or even the menu that changes much. It's how many people we can fit around the table.

My father is the youngest of six children, which makes for a lot of aunts and uncles and a lot of cousins. Add, as we have recently, my cousins' spouses and children and occasionally in-laws, and suddenly there are nearly 30 Langes to feed, ranging in age from 1 to 93. I love Thanksgivings with a crowd, the Tetris-like shuffle of tables and chairs and the scramble to find enough forks and spoons and glasses to get us all through the evening.

Make sure you have enough chairs—and ask people to BYOS (bring your own seat) if you don't. Photo by James Ransom

It's a feat that might make you believe in magic—but there are ways to make a large-format Thanksgiving completely achievable: Doing it potluck-style, with each family bringing a couple of things, is one way. Starting early (dinner is served around 4:30) helps, too. But the best way to get an advantage on dinner for a crowd is to cook ahead, so that come Thanksgiving Day, all you have to do is slide the turkey into the oven, put a big pot of cider and spices on the stove, and watch it all come together.

Ready? Here's what's on the freezable, scalable, do-ahead menu, and how to get it ready in time for Thanksgiving dinner with the whole gang:

Start the turkey on Tuesday—and plan to double this recipe.

Get two 13-or-so-pound turkeys. Make sure both are completely thawed by Tuesday. On Tuesday, spatchcock both of them and prepare the herb butter. (Spatchcocking a turkey cuts the cooking time in half. On Wednesday morning, rub one turkey with half the butter; cook the buttered turkey (and butter the second turkey) Wednesday afternoon. Carve the first turkey Wednesday night, and plan to heat it up on Thursday afternoon. Roast the second turkey around noon on Thursday and let it rest about an hour before carving it ceremoniously at the table (if that's your style).

Start the stuffing on Thursday morning, and plan to make 1 1/2 times this recipe.

If you start cooking the stuffing around noon, it will be ready by about 2:30 P.M.—and you can reheat it in a 350° F oven about 30 minutes before sitting down.

Start the potatoes on Wednesday, and plan to quadruple this recipe.

On Wednesday, follow the recipe up until the last step; cover the potatoes tightly and stash in the refrigerator. On Thursday, take the potatoes out of the fridge around 3 P.M. so that they can come to room temperature, then bake for 20 minutes in a 375° F oven until slightly browned and crispy on top.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

Make the gravy up to 2 weeks before Thanksgiving. Plan to quadruple this recipe.

Substitute butter for turkey drippings when making the gravy, and freeze in zip-top freezer bags. Remove from the freezer to thaw on Wednesday, and reheat on the stove on Thursday, about 30 minutes before eating. You can doctor with turkey drippings then, if you like.

Make this soup up to 2 weeks before Thanksgiving, and plan to make 6 times this recipe.

That's a lot of soup! But any extra will make great leftovers on Friday. Freeze in zip-top freezer bags, remove from the freezer on Wednesday to thaw, and heat on the stovetop one hour before sitting down on Thursday.

Make the cranberry sauce on Wednesday, and plan to quadruple this recipe.

On Wednesday, follow the recipe exactly—but reserve the toasted walnuts. Set the walnuts aside in a jar, and add just before eating on Thursday.

Begin the salad on Tuesday, and triple the recipe.

On Tuesday, chop all of the greens and make the dressing. Store them in the refrigerator in separate containers, and assemble just before eating on Thursday.

Make the biscuits up to 2 weeks before Thanksgiving dinner, and triple the recipe.

Bake the biscuits, take them out of the pan, and cool completely. Spread the biscuits out on a baking sheet and freeze them; when frozen, place them in a zip-top freezer bag. On Thursday, about 15 to 20 minutes before sitting down, place the frozen biscuits on a baking sheet and bake at 350° F until hot.

Make the cake up to 2 weeks before Thanksgiving, and double the recipe.

Let the baked cakes cool completely, then wrap each in tinfoil and freeze in freezer bags. Remove the cakes from the freezer Wednesday night and place them, still wrapped, on wire racks to thaw completely.

Make the whipped cream on Thursday morning, and double the recipe.

Covered with plastic wrap, it'll stay perky in the refrigerator until it's time for dessert—just underwhip it slightly before chilling, and whip it back into shape while the dinner dishes are being cleared. Add a spoonful to after-dinner coffee, too.

Make the apple crisp on Thursday, and triple the recipe.

On Thursday morning, prepare the fruit and place it in the baking dishes. Measure out the dry ingredients for the topping, and set them aside in a bowl. Right before you sit down to eat on Thursday afternoon, assemble the topping, scatter it over the crisps, and bake them while you eat dinner, so you can serve them warm. (Just be sure to set a timer so you don't forget about them while you're eating.)

Make the cider on Thursday, and double the recipe.

About 1 hour before your guests arrive on Thursday, begin the cider—it'll make your whole house smell cozy while you finish up the last things on your to-do list. (Your guests won't know if you "sample" a bit of it before they get there.)

Make the shrub up to 2 weeks before Thanksgiving, and double the recipe.

Just store the shrub in the refrigerator until it's time for cocktails on Thursday, and don't forget to stock up on sparkling water to serve with it.

Setting the table the night before is a good idea, too. Better yet: Delegate this task to someone else. Photo by James Ransom

To recap, an easy schedule for reference:

2 weeks before Thanksgiving, make the Cranberry-Apple Shrub, olive oil cakes, biscuits, gravy, and soup. Make your grocery list for Thanksgiving week, and make sure you have all the serving dishes, baking dishes, and pots you'll need. Borrow some from friends if you need to!

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On Tuesday, spatchcock your turkeys and butter one of them. Prepare the salad ingredients.

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Top Comment:
“I also move condiments out of my fridge into the cooler to make space in the fridge. Bottles and jars fit well along the sides of the ice. Ice blocks last for a few days in a well insulated cooler. If you don't have a large cooler you can makeshift something with a large cardboard box insulated with towels and ice blocks in a heavy duty garbage bag. ”
— Anna F.

On Wednesday, cook and carve one turkey and prepare the second turkey. Prepare the mashed potatoes and the cranberry sauce. Remove the cakes, gravy, and soup from the freezer.

On Thursday morning, make the whipped cream and stuffing. Prepare the apple crisp ingredients.

On Thursday afternoon, roast the second turkey. Put the soup in a pot on very low heat. Put the gravy in another pot on very low heat. Keep a careful eye on both—they should be totally thawed, but only barely warm.

Half an hour before eating, bake the biscuits and mashed potatoes. Warm the stuffing. Heat up the soup and the gravy. Warm the already-carved turkey meat. Assemble the salad and cranberry sauce. Slide the crisp into the oven. Serve it all buffet-style, and exhale deeply.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • yarnmule
  • Conrad Banks
    Conrad Banks
  • Anna Flynn
    Anna Flynn
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Writing and cooking in Brooklyn.


yarnmule November 4, 2016
I recently found out you can freeze cranberry sauce as well - made mine last weekend!
Conrad B. November 16, 2015
Here's a great step-by-stepper on making the gravy
Anna F. November 7, 2015
I create a backup fridge by putting blocks of ice on the bottom of our largest cooler then putting cooking sheets on top of the ice to keep stuff from falling in the water as the ice melts. I also move condiments out of my fridge into the cooler to make space in the fridge. Bottles and jars fit well along the sides of the ice. Ice blocks last for a few days in a well insulated cooler. If you don't have a large cooler you can makeshift something with a large cardboard box insulated with towels and ice blocks in a heavy duty garbage bag.
KYLIE G. November 7, 2015
Thank you for this! I have needed this for years now. I will find extra freezer space!
JCCraves November 6, 2015
Did anyone do the math on how many of these recipes instruct one to "double", "triple" or even "quadruple" these recipes and then store in the fridge or freezer? Just how many fridges or freezers do you think we have? Comical!
Sandy November 7, 2015
My thoughts exactly!
Author Comment
Caroline L. November 11, 2015
i really hear this.the thought of trying to fit everything above into my freezer is definitely comical (sometimes it feels like the ice trays are taking up too much room). this menu is the whole enchilada, so to speak, but you definitely needn't make everything on it! (if i were cooking a full thanksgiving for 30, i would ask my guests to bring some of the dishes. it's a big lift to do by oneself.) but i like anna flynn's idea above about macgyvering a backup fridge, too! how have you tackled the make-ahead meals vs. freezer space conundrum?