My Thanksgiving Game Plan: Time to Get Organized!

By Sally Cameron on November 20, 2014

Living Well, Thanksgiving

If the thought of hosting Thanksgiving stresses you out (or scares you to death), use these tips built from my years of experience and catering parties to help you build your Thanksgiving game plan. It’s all about planning and organization. It’s also a mindset thing. Take a deep breath, relax, and enjoy it. It’s easier when you plan ahead.

Thanksgiving Game Plan |

Thanksgiving Game Plan

Last weekend I shared a list of tips for how I plan for Thanksgiving at a Daniel Plan Healthy Holiday Cooking Workshop. As people were busy scribbling notes, I realized the list would help everyone and put it into this post. Any questions, please comment, and be sure to share what you do for a stress-free holiday. Let’s get a discussion going.

Plan Your Menu

  • From appetizers to dessert and beverages. Write it down. Sounds simple, but writing it down clarifies things. Print it and stick a copy on the fridge.
  • All of my planning, recipes and notes go onto a clipboard so they are in one place for reference.
  • Think about oven space when you menu plan. One oven or two? Warming drawer?
  • Don’t overload yourself with complex recipes. Balance simple and easy vs. more time-consuming.
  • Plan dishes that can be prepped or made ahead of time.
  • Keep appetizers simple. There is a big meal coming.
  • Keep any special dietary needs in mind such as gluten-free or dairy-free, but don’t let that throw you. If you have questions just ask in comments. My specialty is special diet needs.

Let’s Talk Turkey

  • Order ahead. Choose fresh and organic. It is worth the price for this extra special meal.
  • If you want leftovers (and who doesn’t?), plan for 1 1/2 pounds per person raw weight. For few if any leftovers, figure about 1 pound per person.
  • If you are buying a frozen turkey, it will take approximately 1 day per 4-5 pounds to defrost in the refrigerator.
  • Having a big crowd? It’s better to roast two smaller birds than one monster if you have oven room.
  • Brine baby brine! For a delicious, golden, glorious turkey, try the dry brine method . The results are terrific.
  • When not to brine – Do not brine if the turkey has been pre-brined or a salt solution was added. Read the label carefully.

Let’s Talk Tools

  • No roasting pan? Everything is on sale right now at the years best prices. Check around and invest in one. They come at many price points. It will last forever and can be used for more than turkey. I use mine for roasted tomato marinara in the summer. Get stainless steel, not non-stick.
  • Don’t want to invest or store a roasting pan? Borrow one from a friend who is not cooking for Thanksgiving. One of mine is out on loan now.
  • What about disposable aluminum roasting pans? If aluminum is your only option, buy a heavy one with sturdy, thicker edges and an embossed bottom. If they are the thinner kind, double up on them for safety. Wobbly pans are difficult, even dangerous, to handle when filled with a heavy bird. When roasting, place the disposable pan on a rimmed baking sheet for support and easier transferring from the oven.
  • Use a roasting rack to lift your turkey off the bottom of the pan during roasting. It creates airflow and the bird does not sit in the fat and juices.
  • No rack? Create a thick wreath with heavy foil and set the bird on that to elevate it, or try one of the silicone wreaths available at cooking stores.
  • Be sure your knives are sharp beforehand. Find a knife sharpening service at a local knife store, restaurant supply, or mobile knife service.
  • To test your turkey use a digital thermometer.
  • Check out in advance whether you have all of the pots and pans needed for all of your cooking.

It’s OK to Delegate and Ask For Help

  • You don’t have to do it all yourself. Many people like to make a contribution to the celebration, so let them.
  • If someone wants to bring a cooked dish, ask (kindly) how they prepare it. If you silently cringe at the description but it’s an old family tradition they love and want to share, it’s a tough call. Allowing them to bring it will make them happy and feel good. If they are open to something different, ask if they would like your recipe.
  • If someone wants to bring something but doesn’t cook, have them bring beverages or something else easy you might need. If there is a quality bakery around, have them bring a pie for dessert.

Build a Master Grocery List

  • I build mine in an excel spreadsheet. It sounds crazy, but you can use it year after year with a few tweaks as needed. I have a column for the recipe, the ingredients, the quantity needed, then the store to buy it at, and one column to check off. If you want an example I will email you mine. Leave a comment.
  • Not an excel user? No problem. List everything by recipe, then categorize it into market sections like produce, dairy, canned goods, etc.
  • Purchase non-perishables ahead of time and stock in the pantry.
  • Check supplies of dish and dishwasher soap, paper towels, heavy foil, plastic wrap, baggies, trash bags, bathroom supplies, etc.

Think Ahead, Work Ahead 

  • I pick up my turkey on Sunday and start dry-brining on Sunday or Monday, latest.
  • Great gravy takes homemade turkey broth. Make it ahead and freeze it. Or make it Tuesday. It will last in the refrigerator 4-5 days, so you will have enough for turkey gravy and turkey soup afterwards.
  • Chop vegetables ahead, package and label with a sharpie and masking or painters tape.
  • Start your dressing Tuesday or Wednesday.  I make gluten-free cornbread for my cornbread dressing. You can also dry your own bread cubes ahead for a traditional dressing.
  • Make a pumpkin tart Wednesday (or skip the crust and try the pumpkin mousse recipe)
  • Blanch green beans or prep Brussels sprouts
  • Creamed pearl onions can be done Tuesday or Wednesay and heated on Thursday. Never made them? Try them for a hit side dish (and my recipe is dairy-free).

Establish Your Timeline

  • Think about everything you have to do. Start with the end in mind, especially for Thanksgiving Day. Start with your desired serving time and work backwards on everything that has to be done and the time it is done. Check off as you go.
  • Example – I aim to serve dinner between 5:00 – 5:30, so I pull the bird from the refrigerator at 12:00 noon, rub it with herb butter around 1:00 and plan to roast it starting around 2:00 (for a 10-12 pound bird), let it rest covered with foil to reabsorb the juices, then carve. Adjust your timing as needed.

Prepare your kitchen

  • Clean out your refrigerator so you have room for all of the groceries and the turkey
  • Clean your ovens. Most have a self-cleaning cycle. Wipe out any residue afterwards.
  • Short on counter space? If you have a laundry room off the kitchen, use the top of your washer and dryer. Put towels on top, or even a piece of plywood.

Check Your Tableware

  • Check table linens, runners and napkins (cloth are much nicer than paper). If they need laundering, save yourself the time and take them to the cleaners for laundering and professional pressing.
  • Check glassware, flatware and plates. Do you have enough? If not, borrow, mix and match, or hit a discount place for nice basics.
  • Plan for table decorations such as flowers, candles, votives, napkins rings, etc.
  • Check platters, bowls and serving pieces (like big forks and spoons) for every dish. Get them out and put a sticky note in each one with what it will hold. Again, borrow, mix and match or hit the discount stores to fill in. If you have them, get out those family heirlooms with great memories and polish them up.

Set Your Table

  • Wednesday is fine. Tuesday is better.

Take Care of Yourself

  • Plan to shower earlier in the day. You want to  look good and be refreshed when family and friends arrive, not worn out.
  • Eat light and stay hydrated so your energy is high and you can enjoy the day.

Food Before Thanksgiving

  • You still need to eat before the big day, so plan for it. Keep it easy, and self-service.
  • Think about eggs for breakfast, supplies for smoothies, make a batch of soup or chili that can be warmed up and family or out-of-town guests can help themselves. It’s easy to get totally focused on Thanksgiving Day and forget we all still have to eat before then.

Plan for Leftovers

Relax, have fun and enjoy. If everything does not go perfectly, it’s ok. Let it go. The most important part of Thanksgiving is being thankful for being together, celebrating God’s blessings, and the joy of family and friends. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Idea! Start a kitchen journal. Go to a bookstore and buy yourself a nice hard bound journal with blank, lined pages. Write your menu and all who came. Ask everyone to sign it and write something they are thankful for. Takes notes on your dishes. It will help you next year, and provide great memories to be thankful for in the years to come.

Updated 11-6-2020

No Comments
  1. Leslie Rehlaender - November 20th, 2014

    Thank you so much Sally! This couldn’t be a more well thought out list, that will be oh so helpful in the week(s) to come. Blessing to you and yours this holiday season!

  2. Sally - November 21st, 2014

    Thanks Leslie! I really hope it helps everyone. I could have written more! If anyone wants my spreadsheet I can email it. Of course it is what I am planning for this year. Stuffed mushrooms as the appetizer, roast turkey with gravy, sour cream mashed potatoes, cornbread and dried cranberry dressing, and new low sugar cranberry sauce recipe I will have out in the next few days, Brussels sprouts, pumpkin tart.

  3. Amy Rising - November 22nd, 2014

    Spectacular as usual Sally! Thanks so much for all the planning and gluten free recipe tips! Happy Thanksgiving!

  4. BestestNana - November 26th, 2014

    Thank you for your dedication to planning and creating wonderful recipes. I was delighted to find your Game Plan for Thanksgiving. We are having friends from church over who have no family in the area. (Our children and 8 grands are spending this Thanksgiving with in-laws.) Since my husband and I began the Daniel Plan on April 1st, trying out new recipes on friends was a bit overwhelming to contemplate. You have taken the time to help me plan a delightful Thanksgiving experience.

    Preparations are in the works with much completed yesterday including lists for today and tomorrow completed. We are having Turkey and gravy, GF Cornbread Dressing Cranberry Relish, Roasted Butternut Squash, Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Thyme, French Green Beans with Shallots and Pecans, Creamy Spiced Pumpkin Desert and Mulled Apple Cider. Of course, planning for those who might not like a certain vegetable:).

    Finally a meal I can eat without cheating on my dedication to stick to The Plan. Thank you for your time and dedication.

  5. Sally - November 26th, 2014

    Thanks for your comment. I am SOO happy this is helping you! Any other questions please let me know. Your menu sounds terrific. You will have very happy and appreciative guests. Happy Thanksgiving!

  6. BestestNana - December 4th, 2014

    As my husband said, “The meal was fabulous, our guests (ages in 70’s and 80’s) enjoyed all the new recipes including going back for seconds and thirds. The day was a success. Fun was had by all.”
    SO Sally, a great big THANK YOU for sharing your insights, recipes, and self to help make our Thanksgiving, even without our immediate family, a huge success.

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