Our blow-by-blow guide takes the stress out of Thanksgiving. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, except where noted]

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, the gravy isn't burning, or there aren't enough martinis flowing into grandpa's IV bag.

By far the best way to make sure your kitchen doesn't turn into a disaster site on the big day is to have a work schedule and stick to it. Many dishes can be completed halfway before assembling and finishing on the big day. Some dishes can even be made 100% in advance and served as-is or reheated when the time comes.

In this guide, I'll walk you through what dishes can be made when, as well as give you a rundown of my own personal schedule of events so you can get an idea of where you should be.

Before you do anything, you may want to virtually thumb through our Thanksgiving Survival Guide, which has everything you need to know about Thanksgiving, from what turkey to buy to what recipes to make, to recommended wine pairings. It's a crazy good resource (if I do say so myself).

Done browsing? Good, now read on.

At Least a Week in Advance

20121109-turkey-breast-stuffing-13.jpg

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 or turkey porchetta, sweet potato casserole or roasted sweet potatoes, creamed Brussels sprouts or roasted—keep in mind the limitations of your kitchen.

The microwave shouldn't be forgotten either—it's ideal for heating things like mashed root vegetables. 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 microwave is best for heating liquids and long-cooked vegetable dishes 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're 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.

Here are some suggested menus to get you started.

Stock Your Pantry!

Now is the time to take stock of your pantry. Draw up a shopping list for all of your side dishes, figure out what you need and what you already have, and start your shopping. I find holiday grocery shopping to be far less stressful if I get it in small installments instead of trying to battle through the crowds for basic pantry staples at the last minute.

Here's our guide to pantry essentials, and here's an easy printable checklist for you to use.

Think of Presentation

Do you have all the dinnerware and glasses you need? Silverware? Tablecloths? Are you going to have to borrow or rent chairs or are you gonna spend the night watching gravy dribble down Grandma Ginny's blouse as she tries to eat while standing through the whole meal? Centerpieces, candles, decorations?

Pick Your Turkey!

What's the right bird for you? Check out our all-new Complete Guide to Turkeys and figure out which one you'll be going for. Then go ahead and buy it. Frozen birds can be stored in the freezer until a week out (whereupon they should be moved to the fridge or a cooler to defrost), and turkeys that come wrapped in vacuum-sealed plastic will generally have an expiration date at least a few weeks away, so you can get away with buying one now and storing it in the fridge until you start prepping it for the big day.

If you want a specialty bird, make sure you talk to your farmer or butcher on the early side to lock in your order.

Are you planning on brining your bird? You might want to check out The Truth About Brining before you make up your mind, or jump straight into the action with our Quick and Dirty Guide to Brining.

Whether you're going with a Spatchcock Roast Turkey (my favorite), a Classic Easy Roast Turkey, a Deep Fried Turkey, or you're getting fancy with a Sous Vide Turkey or Deep Fried Turkey Porchetta, our Turkey Recipe Guide has you covered!

Turkey? No Thanks, I'm Vegetarian/Vegan

Vegetables Wellington (The Ultimate Vegan Plant-Based Holiday Roast)

No turkey? No problem! This 100% vegan Vegetables Wellington is a real showstopper and can be made up until the baking step in advance. Wrap it in plastic and refrigerate for up to three days before baking.

We also have an entire vegan menu planned out for you, should you want to follow it.

Vegetarians will be happy with any of our turkey alternatives, whether it's Sweet Potato Chili or the best darn Squash Lasagna you've ever tasted.

What About Sides?

20131024-potato-gratin-hasselback-thanksgiving-26.jpg

The key to successful Thanksgiving side dishes is to make sure your menu includes many items that can be made in advance—most casseroles can be constructed in the morning or even the day before Thanksgiving, just requiring a trip to the oven while the turkey rests.

Other sides can be cooked in advance and served briefly reheated, or even at room temperature. I always like to mix up multiple heat sources (that is, some dishes that require an oven, some that can be heated stovetop, some that can be warmed in a slow cooker, etc.) so that there's no last-minute bottleneck. Here's a quick list of a few of my favorites.

Make-Ahead Dishes Served With No Reheating

Make-Ahead Dishes Finished or Reheated in the Oven

Make-Ahead Dishes Finished On the Stove-Top

All of these dishes can also be reheated sous-vide. To reheat dishes sous-vide, seal them into heavy duty plastic zipper-lock or vacuum bags, refrigerate until needed, then drop them into a 150°F water bath controlled with a Sous-Vide Circulator

Additionally, any of our soups would be a good choice for reheating stovetop or sous-vide.

Give Me Dessert!

20111002-apple-pie-food-lab-primary-2.jpeg

Pies are the classic Thanksgiving choice, and happen to be ideally suited for the situation, since they can be made a day ahead, stored and served at room temperature. You can go with a classic from the list below, or check out the dozens of tested-and-true options we have here.

For your crust, a frozen crust will do in a pinch (check out our taste test here), but for best results, go for homemade. The vodka-based recipe I developed for Cook's Illustrated will do you well (get the complete recipe here), though I've personally moved on to what I believe to be a superior crust in The Food Lab: The Science of Pie Dough.

If apple pie is your bag, check out our guides to picking the best apples, as well as turning those apples into perfect apple pie filling; for a bigger crowd, we think a Cranberry Apple Slab Pie is a better bet.

Here are a few more recipes to get you started.

Pick Your Hors D'oeuvres!

20120618-vegetable-platter-5.jpg

The best way to keep those annoying relatives out of your way in the kitchen (you know the ones) is to make sure there's plenty of food to be passed around before you sit down to dinner. Some carefully planned hors d'oeuvres that take little work the day-of will keep sticky fingers busy, ensuring that your perfectly roasted potatoes and Brussels sprouts don't get snagged before they make it to the table.

Here's what I had out on the table last year, and yes, we'll offer more options on our Thanksgiving Planning Page in the coming days and weeks:

The Week Before: Start Your Countdown

If you've been 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. First off, you've still got a bit of time on our hands, so relax!

  • Follow up on invitations. You can start by cracking a cold one, sitting down at the computer, and emailing your family and guests to confirm who and who won't be there. Is anyone planning on bringing food or drink? Take note and plan your table accordingly.
  • Prepare frozen foods in advance. You can do this all the week of, but why not get a jump start? Pie doughs freeze perfectly well, as does the roasted chicken or turkey stock you're going to use for your gravy.
  • Check off your equipment list. Do you have all the tools you need to cook all of your dishes? This list of 11 Essential Thanksgiving Tools is a good place to start.
  • Get your drink on. Make sure you've got your wine, beer, and whatever ingredients you need to make cocktails handy. Go ahead and open up one of those bottles right now and take a nice long pull. You deserve it. Then shove a cork in it and get back to work. Check out our Thanksgiving Drinks Guide for recommendations to get you started on a list of wines, beers, and cocktails you can serve.
  • Last minute planning. Figure out exactly which cooking vessels you'll need for which dish and have them clean and ready. Clear out space in your fridge and get ready, because this coming weekend, the final stretch begins.
  • Start thawing out your turkey. A turkey can take a good few days in the fridge to thaw. You want it to be completely thawed and ready to brine, salt, or air-dry by the Sunday before Thanksgiving, which means that if it's frozen, it needs to be transferred to the bottom rack of the fridge in a tray by Thursday night the week before Thanksgiving.

Saturday or Sunday

  • Shop for remaining ingredients. You can safely buy most of your ingredients now. Onions, carrots, potatoes, celery, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts and green beans, squash, even fresh-looking salad greens will last until Thursday provided you store them properly. Check out our Taste Tests for some specific product recommendations. Pick up cheeses and cured meats for an easy, no-prep hors d'oeuvre to serve while you're in the kitchen.
  • Have your turkey ready. By Sunday, you should either have your fresh turkey in the fridge ready to brine or salt (if that's in the plans—check out our Quick and Dirty Guide to Brining here), or your frozen turkey completely thawed.
  • If you don't have it frozen, make pie dough. Pie dough freezes very well, so make it today and save it in the freezer until Wednesday when you bake your pies.
  • Make soups and dips. Soups and appetizer dips improve with a few days in the fridge, so it's actually better to make them in advance.
  • Make the cranberry sauce. Cranberries have natural preservatives that give them an extraordinarily long shelf life. You can even make the sauce the week before if you'd like, using any of our many variations.

Monday

If you choose to brine your bird, you should be being doing that today. Large birds can be brined in a cooler filled with water and ice packs (change the ice packs every 12 hours to make sure the water stays cooler than 40°F). For a saltier but moister bird, brine for up to 36 hours before removing from the brine, patting dry, and letting the turkey rest overnight uncovered on a rack in the fridge. If you want a less salty but still moist bird, brine for up to 18 hours and let it rest uncovered in the fridge until ready to roast on Thursday.

Alternatively, do what I do and dry-brine your bird by salting it and leaving it in the fridge for a similar juiciness-enhancing effect with less fuss and better flavor. If dry-brining, hold off until Wednesday night.

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

20101121-thanksgiving-planning-pies.jpg

  • Get your turkey ready for roasting. If it's been brined, remove it from the brine, pat it dry with paper towels, and place it on a rack uncovered in the fridge overnight. If you're dry-brining, do the same, sprinkling it with salt and/or baking powder before it hits the fridge (here are complete instructions). If you are flavoring the bird, go ahead and rub it with that herb butter right now. That way all you've got to do is throw it in the oven tomorrow. Check out our Turkey Talk page for more recipe ideas and tips.
  • Make your pies. Bake off your pies and allow them to cool and rest at room temperature (or in the refrigerator, if that's what the recipes call for) until you need them on Thursday.
  • Dry your bread. Cut up your bread and set it out to stale and dry overnight to make dressing or stuffing the next day. (You can also just do this Thursday morning in a low oven).
  • Make salad dressings. If you're planning on having a couple salads, make the dressings today.
  • Assemble your casseroles. Any of the side dishes listed here can be assembled ahead of time, refrigerated overnight, and finished off in the oven. In fact, most casseroles can be made in advance and refrigerated overnight. Pull 'em out of the fridge about two hours before you plan on baking them to let them come up to room temperature. Leave off any crunchy toppings like fried onions or bread crumbs until ready to bake (or even until after it's baked).
  • Do your basic vegetable prep. It's the final stretch, so have all your vegetables washed, cut, and ready. Brussels sprouts can be split or shredded. Carrots can be peeled and cut. Green beans (if they're not already in your casserole) can be trimmed and washed. Salad greens should be washed, spun, and ready to go. Like beet salads? Roast off those beets today and they'll be ready to serve tomorrow. You get the idea. The more organization and planning you do today, the less stressful tomorrow will be.

Thursday: THE FINAL COUNTDOWN

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: I drop my sealed bag of mashed potatoes and mashed sweet potatoes into my sous-vide water bath set at 150°F. I par-boil my extra-crispy herb-roasted new potatoes to get them ready for roasting

I also pull out my green bean casserole and stuffing casserole from the fridge to get 'em ready to pop in the oven. 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 1/2 hours before dinner: My Spatchcock Turkey hits the oven (if I were cooking a traditional turkey, Id've popped it in four hours before dinner).

2 hours before dinner: I start my creamed pearl onions, then I spread my roasted brussels sprouts onto a rimmed baking sheet, and do the same with my par-boiled roast potatoes.

My bacon-braised green beans hit the Dutch oven to cook.

I add my casseroles to the bottom rack of the oven to cook off while the turkey finishes.

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). I also pull out the casseroles, cover them in foil, and keep them in a warm spot in my kitchen, swatting at my dad's hand as he reaches for a green bean.

I bang the oven up to high heat and throw my potatoes in, letting them begin roasting before adding my Brussels sprouts. Meanwhile, I place my pre-cooked glazed carrots in a skillet to reheat, holding them warm off to the side once they're done.

My carrot and rye berry salad goes into a bowl, ready for the dinner table. The ingredients for my roasted pear and endive salad also go into a salad bowl and the pre-made vinaigrette comes out of the fridge.

15 minutes before dinner: Potatoes and sprouts are out of the oven and into serving bowls. Oven back down to 350°F. The foil covers come off the casseroles and they go for one last trip to the oven to crisp up their tops. The mashed potatoes get zapped in the microwave a few times to reheat. The salad gets tossed with its vinaigrette and transferred to a serving bowl.

Dinner time! The turkey is carved, roast 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 salads are tossed, the pies are back in the kitchen until after the meal, wine is poured, and the arguing joyful merriment ensues.

Comments

Comments can take up to a minute to appear - please be patient!

Previewing your comment: