A Make-Ahead Thanksgiving (and Timeline)

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A Make Ahead ThanksgivingWhen you work in the food world, Thanksgiving is the biggest event of the year. You think about it and plan for it and then, strangely, it’s over before it even happens. I tested all of this year’s Thanksgiving recipes, roasted three full turkeys, and created a brand new Thanksgiving menu over at Cook Smarts back in August and September. After all the turkey and side dishes (and butter), I figured I’d want nothing to do with the meal when November rolled around. But I was wrong! We are driving home today after spending two weeks in North Carolina (a few photos below), and I am more excited for the holiday than I have been in years.

pouring gravy over turkey

For many people, including us, this will be an unusual year for Thanksgiving. We decided not to gather with our extended family for the holidays this year, so I was tempted to do something nontraditional (homemade pizzas? take-out? popcorn and a movie on the couch?). But actually, now that November is here, I want the sense of normalcy. I want a turkey dinner and my kids around a table with candles, and pretty place settings, and all the traditional food.

Even a pandemic won’t stop Thanksgiving from coming, so let’s make it great! And easy.

green bean casserole in a baking dish

Why I Love a Make-Ahead Thanksgiving

For the past few years, I’ve made the Thanksgiving meal almost entirely ahead. On the actual holiday, the only work I like to do is set the table and slide everything in the oven. Both my mom and my grandma always roasted the turkey a day ahead and did much of the work early in the week, so a make-ahead Thanksgiving has always made total sense to me.

And really, the Thanksgiving meal is natural one to prep ahead. Many of the dishes can be made as casseroles that hold up to some waiting in the fridge.

In the spirit of an easy Thanksgiving, over the next few weeks I’m bringing you all of my favorite new holiday dishes (plus a few classics) and my tips for making them ahead. I’m talking how to make everything from gravy, to sides, to roasting the entire turkey at least 24 hours beforehand. And if you are looking for even more make-ahead Thanksgiving recipe than what’s in this post, check out my more extensive roundup: 35 Thanksgiving Recipes that Can Be Made Ahead.

Make it ahead and just enjoy eating it the big day!

Slow Cooker Pumpkin Cheesecake on a wooden tray

My Complete Thanksgiving Menu

My Thanksgiving Timeline

2-4 Weeks Ahead

  • Select Menu – Choose your recipes! I think the planning is the most fun part. If you’re having guests that are willing to bring a dish, ask what they’re bringing or (better yet) assign them something that you’d rather not cook.
  • Make Grocery List – Make a list of everything you’ll need. It’s good to have a running list since you’ll think of other things to add as the holiday approaches.
  • Order Turkey – Can’t forget this.
  • Make Stock – Having homemade turkey stock makes it easy to make gravy ahead of time. Homemade turkey stock is also great for other Thanksgiving favorites like stuffing / dressing and green bean casserole. Use turkey wings or drumsticks to make turkey stock ahead. Freeze it until you ned it.
  • Have Knives Sharpened – It’s very likely that it’s been a whole year or more (or possibly never) since you had your knives sharpened. So why not get in the habit of doing it right before the biggest cooking day of the year? Many home cooks brush this off, but you won’t believe what a difference it makes in speed and enjoyment to use professionally sharpened knives! Just google it – somewhere near you can probably sharpen them for you in a day (often your neighborhood hardware store). It’s inexpensive and will change your kitchen life. Do it.

Thanksgiving Week – Saturday / Sunday

  • Fridge Clean-Out – To make space for all the holiday foods and leftovers, it feels great to start the week with a totally clean fridge slate.
  • Grocery Run – I like to do a big grocery run on Sunday before the holidays. There will always be a few things you need to get later in the week, but most of the big items can be purchased over the weekend.
  • Set out Serving Plates – Choose and wash serving plates for everything you plan to cook. I keep most of these larger dishes in the basement, so I make a sticky note for each dish and then carry the pile of stickies around with me as I track down the dishes.       serving dishes with lables

Thanksgiving Week – Monday or Tuesday

  • Pick up Turkey
  • Set Table – If you have a separate dining table or dining room, go ahead and set the table. (We only have one space where we eat all of our meals, so I can’t set mine until right before the meal.)
  • Make Ahead – This is when I prep / assemble / bake anything that’s make-ahead friendly. Put a sticky note on top with baking or reheating instructions. From my menu this includes:
  • Bacon Wrapped Dates with Brie and Balsamic Honey (can be prepped up to 2 days ahead)
  • 1-Hour Light and Buttery Dinner Rolls (can be made up to 2 days ahead)
  • Make-Ahead Mashed Potatoes (can be made up to 3 days ahead)
  • Homemade Green Bean Casserole (can be made up to 3 days ahead; wait to add topping)
  • Focaccia and Bacon Stuffing (can be made up to 3 days ahead; wait to add liquids)
  • Creamy Butternut Squash and Spinach Casserole (can be assembled up to 2 days ahead)
  • Cranberry Sauce (can be made up to 3 days ahead)
green bean casserole in a baking dish

Thanksgiving Week – Wednesday

turkey in a baking dish

Thanksgiving Day

  • Set out drinks and glasses
  • Set table (if not already done)
  • Reheat and bake food
  • Serve and enjoy!

And that’s it! A roadmap to a fun, simple, hopefully relaxing make-ahead Thanksgiving. Whether you’re gathering with many or few this year, I hope you find ways to make it feel special.

A Pseudo-Vacation to the Beach

On a totally separate, non-Thanksgiving note, I wanted to share a few photos of our recent trip out to the Outer Banks in North Carolina. This is a favorite summer vacation spot for us, but when we realized that our entire family would be working remotely and doing virtual school (for the first-graders), we decided we might as well do it from somewhere with a view.

Since it’s the low season on the Outer Banks we were able to get a big house with nice ocean views for super reasonable, so we packed up our whole operation and moved it to the beach for two weeks! It was a bit strange since we wanted to be in vacation mode and still had to work, but after work was done, we had beaches to run around on. The weather was in the low 70s and we only had a couple of days that weren’t nice enough for going to the beach. We felt so fortunate to be able to do it, and it helped us to feel a bit more ready for the cold Kansas City months ahead.

Outer Banks 2020
Outer Banks 2020
Outer Banks 2020
Outer Banks 2020
Outer Banks 2020
Outer Banks 2020
Outer Banks 2020
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About Jess Smith

Jess is the recipe creator and photographer at InquiringChef.com. She spent nearly a decade as the Chief Recipe Developer for the award-winning meal planning app Cook Smarts. Her colorful, healthyish recipes have been featured in popular online publications including Parade, Hallmark, and HuffPost.

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