By: Karen Buch
Thanksgiving is the one day when all of my relatives come to my house to eat together as a family. So, naturally, I jumped at the chance to write about how I prep for Turkey Day—my favorite holiday! I hope this guide helps to make your Thanksgiving meal prep just a little bit easier.
3 WEEKS in advance
Invite guests and ask everyone to RSVP two weeks before Thanksgiving.
Ask guests whether they have any special dietary needs that may impact the menu such as food allergies, celiac disease or vegan/vegetarian preferences.
Plan your centerpiece and begin gathering enough necessary tables, linens, placemats, chairs and dinnerware.
2 WEEKS in advance
Decide on your final menu and collect all recipes. To make it easier on myself from year to year, I store a folder filled with all of my Thanksgiving recipes right inside my turkey-roasting pan along with my gravy separator (to de-fat my gravy), meat/poultry thermometer, kitchen twine and turkey baster.
It is a tradition for each attending family to bring a special appetizer, side dish or dessert of their choice. In fact, they would be offended if I didn’t let them bring something to share! For example, my mom always brings homemade cranberry sauce, a dessert and deviled eggs. My mother-in-law brings a shrimp appetizer and my sister-in-law brings a veggie tray arranged in the shape of a turkey. I make all of the hot vegetables, side dishes, rolls and, of course, the turkey.
Purchase adequate wine and other beverages needed such as sparkling cider, iced tea or flavored waters. A 750-mL bottle of wine yields about six servings.
Decide whether to order a fresh turkey (order now to be picked up the day before Thanksgiving) or buy a frozen turkey, determine the size that will ensure enough for the meal and leftovers (see below) and make storage space accordingly in the refrigerator or freezer.
WHAT SIZE TURKEY DO I NEED?
-If buying a whole turkey, plan on one pound per person.
-If purchasing a bone-in turkey breast, plan on 3/4 pound per person.
-For a boneless turkey breast, plan on 1/2 pound per person.
WHEN & HOW DO I THAW THE TURKEY?
If you choose to buy a frozen turkey, calculate how long it will take the turkey to thaw. I always add an extra day because I like to brine my turkey for 24 hours. I mark the date to begin thawing on my calendar.
For every 4-1/2 pounds of frozen turkey, allow 24-hours to thaw in the refrigerator. For
example, if the turkey weighs 16 pounds, the refrigerated thaw time will be 3-1/2 days.
Thaw the turkey in its original wrapper on a tray, breast side down—so the juices will flow into
the breast. The thawed turkey may remain in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days.
Turkey Weight Thaw Time
4 to 12 pounds- 1 to 3 days
12 to 16 pounds- 3 to 4 days
16 to 20 pounds- 4 to 5 days
20 to 24 pounds- 5 to 6 days
If you did NOT allow enough refrigerator thaw time, there is a quick, cold-water thaw method approved by USDA that takes roughly 30 minutes per pound.
If you plan to deep-fry, smoke or grill the turkey, check your outdoor equipment to make sure it is in working order. Plan an alternative cooking method in case of inclement weather. Purchase the peanut oil, wood chips or charcoal in advance, before supplies become scarce. Try these tips on how to deep-fry a turkey.
1 week in advance
Confirm and gather necessary ingredients that you already have on-hand such as dried herbs and spices. Then, prepare two shopping lists: one for fresh foods and one for shelf-stable items. Shop for shelf-stable ingredients before the holiday rush such as flour, sugar, dried herbs and spices, canned pumpkin, evaporated milk, packaged stuffing and fresh or frozen cranberries. Shop for hardy vegetables such as celery, onions, winter squash, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips and turnips.
3 DAYS in advance
Clean the dining room, kitchen, living room and bathroom.
Clean and clear the fridge.
Wash the turkey platter and serving dishes, using post-it notes to designate food to be served in each.
2 DAYS in advance
Prepare cranberry sauce, soups, appetizers, dips and other items that improve in flavor during storage in the refrigerator.
Assemble pies and sweet potato or green bean casseroles that can be stored in the refrigerator and baked on Thanksgiving Day.
If making homemade stuffing, cut bread into cubes and place in a single layer on a baking pan to dry.
HOW DO I BRINE A TURKEY?
If you plan to brine the turkey, now is the time. Remove the giblets, neck and any leg restraints, trim excess fat and rinse the bird thoroughly inside and out. Choose between dry brining or wet brining.
Wet brine recipes vary. Wet brines often call for a combination of Kosher salt, sugar, varied spices and water. Plan to brine the completely thawed turkey for at least 12 hours and up to 2 days in the refrigerator.
To dry brine, again, use a large crystal Kosher salt. For example, combine 1/3 cup Kosher salt with 2 Tbsp coarsely cracked black peppercorns for a 14 pound-turkey. Rub the mixture evenly inside the cavity and the outside of the bird. Tuck the wings under the turkey on a rimmed baking sheet. Wrap air-tight with plastic wrap and refrigerate 24 hours.
Rinse the brined turkey, inside and out with running water. Pat dry with paper towels and refrigerate until one hour before you plan to begin roasting.
1 DAY in advance
Set the table. Arrange the chairs. Set up a buffet (if needed) that includes salt and pepper, other condiments, all serving dishes and utensils, ice bucket and a space for chilled beverages. Finalize the centerpiece.
Shop for fresh vegetables such as green beans, leafy greens and crudités. Wash and refrigerate in zipper bags packed with paper towels.
Review cooking temperatures, plan shared oven space, and write an overall timeline for the meal prep.
I usually begin my Thanksgiving meal prep at between 5am and 6am on Thanksgiving morning depending on the size of the turkey, with a plan to serve the meal between 12:30pm and 1:00pm.
Remove turkey from the refrigerator to stand at room temperature for 1 hour. Pre-heat the oven to 325 F. Make bread cube stuffing recipe. Loosely fill the turkey cavity with stuffing and place remaining dressing in a prepared baking dish. As soon as the turkey is stuffed, place it in the oven and set the timer.
Turkey Approximate Cooking Time*
(325 °F oven temperature)
Weight Unstuffed Stuffed
8 to 12 pounds- 2 ¾ to 3 hours 3 to 3 ½ hours
12 to 14 pounds- 3 to 3 ¾ hours 3 ½ to 4 hours
14 to 18 pounds- 3 ¾ to 4 ¼ hours 4 to 4 ¼ hours
18 to 20 pounds- 4 ¼ to 4 ½ hours 4 ¼ to 4 ¾ hours
20 to 24 pounds- 4 ½ to 5 hours 4 ¾ to 5 ¼ hours
*For safety and doneness, measure the internal temperature of the turkey with a meat/poultry thermometer. The temperature of both the turkey and the stuffing should reach a minimum internal temperature of 165°F. Measure the innermost part of the thigh, innermost part of the wing and the thickest part of the breast. Plan to let the turkey rest at room temperature for 20 minutes before carving to allow juices to settle.
Peel and chop vegetables and set aside until ready to cook.
Boil and mash potatoes; they can be reheated just before serving. Consider holding in
a slow cooker. They will stay warm and creamy up to two hours.
About 60 to 90 minutes before the turkey is done, begin baking green bean, sweet potato (or other) casseroles and baking dish of stuffing/dressing.
About 30 minutes before the turkey is done, begin cooking fresh vegetables and prepare rolls for baking.
Remove crudités and cold desserts from the refrigerator for serving.
Fill the water glasses; prepare coffee for brewing.
De-fat the turkey broth to make gravy (I serve gravy in a quart-size thermal carafe to keep it hot and for ease of pouring).
Optional: warm the serving plates in the microwave.
Carve turkey and place all the side dishes on the table or buffet to serve.
Don’t forget to give thanks before digging in to the Thanksgiving feast. My family holds hands, prays and takes turns naming something for which we are deeply thankful. Enjoy spending time with family and friends as you celebrate Thanksgiving, including taking a much-needed afternoon walk together!
Karen Buch is a nationally-recognized nutrition expert with broad experience in the world of retail dietitians. She is an innovator who has helped pave the way for other retail dietitians working in this unique area of practice. Karen is the creative force behind award-winning retail programs and multi-media nutrition communication campaigns that deliver impressive consumer response and sales results for partnering brands. Today, her focus is helping consumers better understand the connection between food, nutrition and health.