It’s Go Time: Your Thanksgiving Game Plan Starts This Weekend

You got this.

November  1, 2018
Photo by Julia Gartland

Remember when we said we’re here for you? Well, we are. Big time! Because we’ve got a pan (all of the literal pans, tools, and platters you need for your best Thanksgiving dinner yet) and a plan (extra-smart tips and techniques to get you there), and you can too.

With Thanksgiving less than three weeks away, it’s not such a crazy idea to check off a few totally tackle-able things right now. Or not right now—but this weekend. It’s not about cooking the entire feast 20 days out (that would be silly...right?), it’s about taking the time while you have it to get into the headspace of it all—aka the holiday spirit—so you can host dinner like an ace.

Below are three very admirable ways to get started on your Thanksgiving planning this weekend. (Look at you! So on top of things.)

Keep Calm & Make To-Do Lists

We’ve already tackled the guest list (the heart of every Thanksgiving). Now for the food. Never underestimate the power of a good to-do list. It helps to set the plan now—on paper—while your brain is at its sharpest and calmest (versus the Sunday before Thanksgiving).

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Top Comment:
“When guests are bringing food, it's critical to find out if the dish will need oven time or any other special requrements at my house, so I can add that to the "cooking" schedule (the "prep list" you mention above). Usually, the biggest issue I have is keeping things cold. If you have the ability, keep a cooler loaded with ice on hand to handle fridge overflow. I ask my bro driving in his SUV to bring that from the burbs to my apartment as his contribution! ”
— Pegeen

Food52 Test Kitchen Director Josh Cohen is a list-maker through and through. “Do all the hard thinking way ahead of time,” he tells me. “Break everything down into simple steps, so that as the holiday gets closer, you can shut off the anxious part of your brain and know that the big decisions have already been made.” It’s a lesson in self-care, really, which is something we could all use during this bustling holiday season.

First, write out the menu (with an eye for make-ahead dishes). “Look carefully at each recipe,” Josh says. “Is there an equal balance of dishes that can be made ahead of time versus dishes that need to be made at the last minute? If your menu consists entirely of recipes that need to be made at the last moment, then you’re setting yourself up for failure.” Don’t forget to assign some dishes out, too; you don’t have to cook the whole feast yourself.

Next, make a shopping list so you don’t have to worry about it later. “This is one of the keys to feeling calm and happy as the day approaches,” Josh tells me. “If you have a detailed list of every ingredient that you need to buy, where you will buy it from, and when you will buy it, then your holiday prep becomes a much calmer experience.”

Finally, make a prep list. “This is different from your shopping list,” Josh says. “Your prep list breaks down every moment of cooking that needs to happen for all the food to appear on the table. Which bit of cooking can happen three days ahead of time, what can happen two days ahead of time, what needs to happen two hours before guests arrive, that kind of thing. Here’s where you can also note which dishes should be served hot versus room temperature—I like to serve roasted vegetables at room temperature but mashed potatoes hot.”

Josh likes lists. Photo by , Josh Cohen

Do Some Light Grocery Shopping on Your Weekly Run

You’re probably going to the store anyway to buy your regular groceries, so why not pick up a few bulk items and pantry staples while you’re at it? Things like: butter, onions, potatoes, nuts, and canned goods. This way, when it gets closer to Thanksgiving, all you’ll have to worry about is the fresh stuff, like fruits, vegetables, and dairy.

“I even like to buy my cranberries in advance and freeze them,” Recipe Developer Emma Laperruque tells me. “The packages always say stuff like: Buy one for now, freeze one for later! It’s just a nice way to eliminate the stress of a cranberry shortage the week before Thanksgiving, you know? So if I see them any time in November, I’ll grab some.”

Make sure your spice drawer is in tip-top shape. How full is that jar of cinnamon? How old is that jar of cinnamon? Old spices are much more muted in flavor than fresh, so you may want to restock now. Don't forget to check the basics, too: Do you have enough salt and pepper? Enough olive oil to last you through the marathon cooking fest? If not, add 'em to the list!

Get a Hop on General Housekeeping & Decor

This weekend is a great opportunity to take care of the basic things at home. Maybe some deep cleaning so your place is sparkling-clean come Thanksgiving Day? Vacuum, dust, wax those floors; now’s the time.

Consider your Thanksgiving table: Did you ever wash the tablecloth from last year? The cloth napkins—they clean? Don’t forget to count them so you have enough for all your guests. Speaking of counting, make sure you have enough chairs. If not, see if Mr. Thompson next door can lend you a few, scope out a good place for rentals, or order some foldable chairs on Amazon while there’s still time for shipping; they’ll come in handy for that surprise guest we talked about.

For cute centerpieces, buy little gourds and pumpkins on sale (Halloween is over!). Go check your candles. A smart tip from Recipe Developer Ella Quittner: “Freeze your old candle holders to get the wax out so you can put in new votives.” She also likes to scour thrift shops for fun stuff like old candlesticks, gravy boats, and platters. And now that you have your guest list, you can make some snazzy place cards while watching Netflix to get that out of the way, too.

Last but not least, get your cookware in order—and in tip-top shape—so all you have to worry about come Thanksgiving Day is, well, the cooking! Season your cast-iron skillets, dust off your roasting pan, and sharpen your knives. If you’re obsessed with plastic and glass food containers like I am (something I got from my mother), track down any that you’ve lent out to neighbors, or stock up on some fresh sets. And since you’ve just planned the menu (it's planned, right?), check your cabinets to make sure you have the platters, pans, and casseroles to get it all to the table in style.

Missing anything? We've got you covered. Oh, and be sure to check back next week for our favorite make-ahead Thanksgiving dishes.

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.

  • Nancy
  • Pegeen
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  • Kimberly Famighetti
    Kimberly Famighetti
  • Eric Kim
    Eric Kim
Eric Kim was the Table for One columnist at Food52. He is currently working on his first cookbook, KOREAN AMERICAN, to be published by Clarkson Potter in 2022. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can find his bylines at The New York Times, where he works now as a writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @ericjoonho.


Nancy November 4, 2018
Are you familiar with the cook's share? If not, it's the grown-ups' version of getting to lick the cake batter bowl.
Let me suggest that cooks prepping for Thanksgiving start making their cook's share now (from early November) so it's not all worry and lists.
One idea is a cranberry sage chutney, usable with the usual suspects (but also with peanut butter or scrambled eggs)...if your family/guests are adventurous, make them a batch too. I'm posting this in the recipes section in next day or two.
Another idea is to test run during your regular cooking these three weeks - new recipes or variations on old - so you can keep or nix them for your menu. Bread rolls, stuffing, vegetable side, pies....
Nancy November 5, 2018
here's the recipe
Eric K. November 6, 2018
Ha! Nancy, I love this: "it's the grown-ups' version of getting to lick the cake batter bowl." *Finally*, a bowl to lick in my old age.

Thanks so much for sharing your tips—and the chutney, of course. It sounds so wonderful.
Pegeen November 3, 2018
I've learned through sorrowful experience to never cook an "important" dish for the first time on the day of the meal.
- ALWAYS do a trial run, because of variables such as oven temperature and to find out if you simply like the recipe or not. You can try out recipes in August during your vacation - no need to wait until autumn.
- ALWAYS read the Comments section for the recipe. Many gems there.
Eric K. November 6, 2018
A trial run is a must. And great point re: the comments section. Nice tips, Pegeen.
Pegeen November 3, 2018
Another shopping task easily done ahead, when you see items on sale, is to stock up on foil, plastic wrap and food storage bags. For sending leftovers home with guests, I also stock up on inexpensive tupperware containers and foil pans. Also, keep on hand a couple Sharpie pens and masking tape (I like blue painter's tape) for labeling anything and everything.

When guests are bringing food, it's critical to find out if the dish will need oven time or any other special requrements at my house, so I can add that to the "cooking" schedule (the "prep list" you mention above). Usually, the biggest issue I have is keeping things cold. If you have the ability, keep a cooler loaded with ice on hand to handle fridge overflow. I ask my bro driving in his SUV to bring that from the burbs to my apartment as his contribution!
Eric K. November 6, 2018
I can't survive in my Thanksgiving kitchen without heavy-duty aluminum foil.
Suzie November 2, 2018
I love the wood measuring spoons! Where can I buy?
Eric K. November 6, 2018
Hm, found something similar. How do you like these?
Kimberly F. November 2, 2018
Three years ago I subscribed to "Plan to Eat" specifically for planning Thanksgiving. It allows you to easily clip recipes from around the web and tag, organize and plan them. It creates shopping lists automatically from selected dates on your planned food calendar. I was always changing serving amounts and dishes and having to redo my hand written shopping lists - this eliminates that. It's such an amazing tool and I while I don't use it a ton for everyday meal planning (I should though) it is totally indispensable for Thanksgiving planning and for saving my favorite recipes from multiple sources. And, no - I don't have any affiliation with the site, just find it so useful I wanted to share.
Jenny A. November 3, 2018
Thanks for this tip! I’m going to try this myself.
Eric K. November 6, 2018
Neat! Never heard of this.