9 Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Strategies, Recipes & Dinner Menu Ideas


9 Make-Ahead Strategies for Your Smoothest-Sailing Thanksgiving Yet

The ultimate game plan for a stress-free dinner.

November  8, 2018
Photo by Mark Weinberg

Thanksgiving is still a leisurely 13 days away. But my veins are already pumping gravy and cranberry sauce—how about yours?

If you're like me, you can't wait to get home, slip into sweats, and turn up the music for some good old-fashioned turkey-day prep. Some light cooking, a little cleaning, and a solid make-ahead strategy is my own way of de-stressing at the week's end.

This weekend's Pan & a Plan is divvied up into two parts: Things you can do in advance and things you can cook in advance. Because there's plenty you can achieve now so it's smooth sailing later. Here are a few key make-ahead ideas to tackle this weekend for a 10 out of 10, totally awesome, stress-free Thanksgiving Day. Hop to it!

First, some non-cooking things you can do in advance

Clean out the fridge (and don't forget the freezer!).

How much space do you have in there? Now's the time to start making room. Pack any leftovers to bring to work for lunch on Monday; defrost that lentil soup; take out that chicken carcass you diligently saved (we'll be using it later). Finish up all those odds and ends this weekend so there's ample space for storing and stocking up.

Stock up on wine and liquor (and make a spirited centerpiece).

Now's the time to buy all the drinks—wine, beer, spirits, anything you might need for a signature cocktail, plus sodas and mixers. You'll thank yourself for it later: There's nothing worse than having to carry those extra bottles to your car when you're already juggling bags and bags of groceries closer to Thanksgiving.

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Top Comment:
“Honestly, make the turkey in advance. It sounds crazy, but my mom did it every year when I was growing up, and now I do it as well. Wednesday night, roast the turkey, cool, carve, and then put in a 9x13. Cover the whole thing with gravy, foil, and a lid - then relax while making the sides on Thursday. An hour before dinner - pop the pyrex into the oven and boom, delicious moist turkey. Leaving it in the gravy overnight leaves it flavorful and as moist as anything - perfect sandwich fodder for the following day as well! ”
— Jordan

While you're at it, here's a quick Pinterest-y trick from Recipe Developer Ella Quittner once you get your stash home: “Freeze water in a horizontally halved empty milk carton with flower petals or lime wedges and cranberries in it, and place a bottle in the middle to create a cute ice block liquor bottle,” she tells me. “I think my dad picked it up from our neighbor Bill. We're all simultaneously ashamed of this family trick, and very excited by it.”

Tap nature for your decor.

"Right now, as I'm enjoying the weather change, I like to collect things from nature to celebrate the season," Art Director Alexis Anthony tells me. "I look for things like: acorns with the caps on, beautiful fallen leaves, dried branches, and dried flowers. My hydrangeas have just turned from summer white to a dusty fall pink; I plan to clip some this weekend. They can last a really long time dried when you place the stems in water and just let the water evaporate out of the vase."

Ella, on the other hand, likes to go to her florist for branches. “They look really nice on the table, and they’re, well, dead, so they’ll keep until Thanksgiving, unlike flowers.”

Some Things You Can (& Should) Cook in Advance

Stock! Make it now for speedy gravy later.

According to Test Kitchen Director Josh Cohen, a stock prepped well in advance of the big day will keep well in the freezer for a few weeks. Ideal, of course, for gravy, which you can also make ahead of time. Just keep it in the fridge (it'll last for a few days), then rewarm gently on the stove before dinner.

Cranberries freeze well; so does homemade cranberry sauce.

Remember those cranberries Recipe Developer Emma Laperruque bought earlier this month? She'll be making her cranberry sauce this weekend and freezing it. "We always make cranberry sauce in advance," she tells me, "because why wouldn’t you?" Unlike canned cranberry sauce (which can get watery if frozen then thawed), fresh, homemade cranberry sauce will maintain its textural integrity after a good freeze and thaw.

Cookie Dough (Because You gotta have cookies on Thanksgiving).

“We always, aways have chocolate chip cookies for dessert at Thanksgiving—among many pies,” Ella tells me. “Cookie dough is definitely the kind of thing you should make ahead: scooped out onto a sheet pan and frozen. Then, toss into a zip-top bag and stash in the freezer until Thanksgiving Day. Having the dough prepped in advance means all you have to do is pop ’em into the oven. They bake great straight from frozen, and also make for a delicious snack between now and then lest I find myself dessertless (don't tell my family).”

Pie crust, too, while we're at it.

I asked Food52 resident baker and pie expert Erin McDowell for her stance on freezing pie dough before Thanksgiving. Will it still be...good?

"So making your dough ahead is always good because it's one thing off your list, and it has to chill anyway," she explains. "If you wrap the dough tightly in a few layers of plastic wrap and freeze it, it's good for up to three months (just thaw it overnight in the fridge before ready to use)."

But don't thaw it any longer than a day! According to Erin, "Butter specifically (my favorite for pie dough) can oxidize after more than two days under refrigeration, and can turn the dough grey."

You're on a roll! Make the rolls!

Warm bready things freeze well, so why not make those too? Longtime contributor Posie (Harwood) Brien likes to have frozen dinner rolls "on hand so you're never far from warm, homemade bread." Spend the time you have now to unhurriedly prep and shape the dough then freeze until firm. Once you've transfer the frozen, shaped rolls into a plastic bag (to save on freezer space), you're all set.

On Thanksgiving Day, all you'll have to do is transfer your rolls back into the same muffin tin or round baking pan that you shaped them in (grease it first), cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel to let rise until puffy, about 1 1/2 hours, and, just before baking, sprinkle with flaky sea salt. Pop 'em into a 350°F oven for 15 minutes (or until golden brown).

Stuffing (yep, we said stuffing).

Cube up any stale, leftover bread from the week and make stuffing. This freezer-friendly stuffing from Food52 contributor Alexandra Stafford can be made in advance (like, this weekend).

"I like to freeze stuffing uncooked," she says. "To do so, after you transfer the stuffing to the 9x13-inch pan, cover it with foil, then transfer to the freezer for up to 3 months. To bake: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake stuffing covered directly from the freezer for 1 hour. Increase the temperature to 400°F and bake uncovered for 15 to 20 minutes." Alternatively, you could thaw the stuffing overnight in your (cleared out!) fridge, then bake according to the recipe below.

What do you like to cook in advance to get ahead for Thanksgiving dinner? Let us know in the comments below.

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Eric Kim is the Table for One columnist at Food52. Formerly the managing editor at Food Network and a PhD candidate in literature at Columbia University, he is currently working on his first cookbook, to be published by Clarkson Potter in Spring 2022. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can find his bylines at Saveur, Bon Appétit, and The New York Times and follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho. Born and raised in Georgia, Eric lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson.


Mrs B. November 12, 2018
I found the ideas in this "recipe" (a game plan) to be quite helpful https://food52.com/recipes/64818-recipe-for-peace-of-mind-thanksgiving-week - especially the idea that one should break down as many recipes as you can into components, and plan in advance the preparation of specific tasks, rather than entire dishes. The suggestion to plan, simplify, prepare, freeze, etc. every single meal during the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving also is quite helpful. It's the only way, really, to make sure you have the time and energy to do substantial amounts of advance prep for the big holiday.
Author Comment
Eric K. November 14, 2018
This is incredible.
CameronM5 November 10, 2018
I make everything possible in advance. Prep all veggies make desserts in advance. I like to just pop the turkey in and enjoy watching I it turn golden brown and delicious.
Author Comment
Eric K. November 14, 2018
Nice. What desserts do you make in advance—and how far in advance?

In my family, the star sweet is an icebox banana pudding. But it's at its best 1-2 days out, no more.
Jordan November 9, 2018
Honestly, make the turkey in advance. It sounds crazy, but my mom did it every year when I was growing up, and now I do it as well. Wednesday night, roast the turkey, cool, carve, and then put in a 9x13. Cover the whole thing with gravy, foil, and a lid - then relax while making the sides on Thursday. An hour before dinner - pop the pyrex into the oven and boom, delicious moist turkey. Leaving it in the gravy overnight leaves it flavorful and as moist as anything - perfect sandwich fodder for the following day as well!
Author Comment
Eric K. November 10, 2018
I love this idea so much.
Don November 9, 2018
Ottolengthi seems to have gone walk-about. Fake headlines?
Author Comment
Eric K. November 9, 2018
Hello Don, so sorry; that was a glitch on our end. Here are the Ottolenghi recipes: https://food52.com/blog/23219-ottolenghi-simple-recipes-easy-dinner-ideas
Kristin November 9, 2018
nowhere to be found....
Author Comment
Eric K. November 9, 2018
Hi Kristin, if you're looking for the Ottolenghi recipes: https://food52.com/blog/23219-ottolenghi-simple-recipes-easy-dinner-ideas
Cookease November 9, 2018
So where are those 16 recipes by Ottolenghi?
Author Comment
Eric K. November 9, 2018
Here you go! https://food52.com/blog/23219-ottolenghi-simple-recipes-easy-dinner-ideas