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The Food Lab's Complete Guide to a Stress-Free Thanksgiving

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UPDATE: Please see here for our updated Thanksgiving planning guide!

The key to a successful Thanksgiving is planning. Know what needs to get done, when it needs to be done, and how much manpower and time it's going to take you. There's no better way to derail a calm evening by scrambling at the last minute to make sure your turkey is cooked through, or the gravy isn't burning.

By far the best way to make sure your kitchen doesn't turn into a disaster site on the big day is to prepare everything as far in advance as you can. Some foods not only do well prepared in advance, but actually improve with a few days in the fridge.

There are many theories as to when to prep each individual item, but here's my own schedule of events starting three weeks before Thanksgiving.

Three Weeks Out: Advanced Planning

For a complete guide on how to select a bird and the best ways to deal with it, check out my Turkey 101 guide.

Of course, we'll be adding a ton of new recipes to the site this month so keep an eye out for them. A complete list of our recommended Thanksgiving recipes from the past can be found in here.

Here's my Thanksgiving menu from 2010:

Two Weeks Out

Still got a bit of time on our hands, so relax!

The Week Before

If you've been preparing for it following this guide—barring meddling relatives (who can never be accounted for)—there should be no reason whatsoever that the week of Thanksgiving will be anything but smooth sailing. Here's what you gotta do.

Saturday or Sunday

Monday

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Tuesday

Take the day off! Watch a movie, play with the dog, rake the lawn, or just drink the day away, but don't let things get too out of hand: you'll need all your wits about you for wednesday and thursday.

Wednesday

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Thursday

When planning a Thanksgiving menu, it's always a balancing act between making sure all of the classics are represented and all of the family members are happy. Whatever route you choose—whole turkey, turkey in parts, sweet potato casserole or roasted sweet potatoes, braised brussels sprouts or seared—keep in mind the limitations of your kitchen.

If there's one problem that people seem to have most, it's this: there's just not enough room in my kitchen. To solve this problem, I like to think of my kitchen as a system of individual energy-output devices, each one capable of heating foods in a different way. There's the oven, which is necessary for the turkey and useful for any casserole-type dishes. The burners are best for heating liquids and long-cooked vegetable dishes. The microwave shouldn't be forgotten either—it's ideal for heating things like mashed root vegetables that tend to burn on the stovetop or dry out in the oven.

Once you start thinking of different dishes in terms of how they are heated, you quickly realize that the key to successfully pulling off a big meal is to diversify. If you plan on five casseroles and a turkey, you're gonna run out of oven space. Don't do it! Instead, do some dishes that can be heated in the oven, others on the stovetop, others in the microwave, and some to be served cold or at room temperature. Choose hors d'oeuvres and appetizers that can be served at room temperature, or heated in the toaster oven.

The Final Hours

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Now I've got only four burners, a microwave, and an oven to complete all these dishes. Here's how it works.

4 hours before dinner: My turkey goes into the oven and I make the mashed potatoes and set them aside (it's OK if they get a little cool). I take an hour to relax with a martini and chat to my sister about why cranberries belong in the sauce, not in the stuffing.

2 hours before dinner: My turkey is about an hour short of hitting 150°F. I remove my pre-made green bean casserole and dressing from the fridge and allow it to start coming to room temperature.

1 hour before dinner: My turkey is out of the oven. I place it to the side, tented with aluminum foil to rest, then deglaze the drippings from the pan and add it to my gravy that I've placed in a small saucepot on the corner of the stove (no need to heat it yet). Meanwhile, sliced sweet potatoes hit the lower rack of the oven to roast, while my two covered casseroles fill out the top rack. Beets come out of the fridge and into a large bowl. Cranberry sauce goes into its serving bowl on the table.

30 minutes before dinner: I sear my Brussels sprouts in a couple batches on the stovetop, spreading them out on a rimmed baking sheet after they are done. The covers come off of the casseroles to begin browning the tops.

15 minutes before dinner: The sweet potatoes are just about done so I remove them and bang the oven up to 500°F to re-crisp my turkey. Casseroles come out of the oven and get tented with foil (they stay plenty hot for the fifteen minutes until dinner), turkey goes in, mashed potatoes get zapped a few times in the microwave to reheat, and gravy goes over a low fire.

5 minutes before dinner: My Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes go back into the oven for one last five-minute jolt of heat while I begin carving the turkey.

Dinner time! The turkey is done carved, sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts are piping hot in their serving bowls, the casseroles get uncovered, fried onions go on top of the green beans, mashed potatoes emerge from the microwave, gravy is transferred to a boat, cranberry sauce is already waiting for the action to start, the beets and greens are tossed with their respective vinaigrettes, wine is poured, and the arguing joyful merriment ensues.

UPDATE: Please see here for our updated Thanksgiving planning guide!

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