The First-Timer’s Guide to Planning Thanksgiving Dinner

Updated: Apr. 12, 2024

Planning Thanksgiving dinner can be daunting. But with our Thanksgiving guide and a few checklists, you'll be set up for holiday success.

Break out the cranberry sauce and French fried onions—Thanksgiving is right around the corner! If this is your first time preparing all the traditional Thanksgiving recipes, from the turkey to the pumpkin pie, follow this guide to planning Thanksgiving dinner. We break down what to do and when to do it, so this year’s celebration can be a stress-free success.

1 Month Before Thanksgiving

A smoked turkey on a platter arranged beautifully on a Thanksgiving table.Taste of Home

It’s not too early to start thinking about the year’s biggest dinner a full month in advance.

Here’s what you should be doing four weeks before Thanksgiving.

  • Create the guest list: Before you can do anything (like shopping for beautiful Thanksgiving dinnerware), it’s important to get those invites out and know who is joining your Thanksgiving table.
  • Buy the Thanksgiving products you’ll need: You don’t want to be caught without a gravy boat the day before Thanksgiving. Take stock of your Thanksgiving tablecloths, dinnerware, serving trays and more so you know if you need to shop for any new pieces or replacements.
  • Brainstorm menu ideas: Are you going for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner menu or do you want to mix it up this year? Start planning what you want to serve, from the turkey to the sides to the wine. For first-time hosts, stick with simpler dishes to relieve some of the stress of the day. Want to make the best gravy? Learn how to make gravy from pan drippings.

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3 Weeks Before Thanksgiving

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With your guest list in hand, you’re ready to begin your Thanksgiving plans in earnest.

2 Weeks Before Thanksgiving

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With just two weeks before the big day, it’s time to really hammer out the details of planning Thanksgiving dinner. Pull out your harvest decor, pull up those pinned recipes and get to work.

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A Few Days Before Thanksgiving

Chipotle Orange Cranberry Sauce; Citrus Herb Turkey; Thanksgiving Green BeansTaste of Home

Things can get hectic the week of Thanksgiving! Family is coming into town, you’ve got work to finish up before taking time off and there’s still shopping to do. Good thing you’ve already been in prep mode. Here’s what you need to cross off this week.

  • Finish your Thanksgiving shopping listNeed fresh sweet potatoes for your favorite sweet potato recipe or greens for a salad? Now is the time to get them. If you can,  finish all your shopping a few days before the holiday.
  • Tidy up the house: This might be the most tedious part of hosting Thanksgiving, but our holiday cleaning checklist makes it easier.
  • Prep pie crusts: If your Thanksgiving spread includes pies, take a little extra time to make homemade pie crust. You can do this several days in advance—just wrap the pastry up tightly in plastic wrap and keep it in the fridge until you’re ready to roll it out.
  • Defrost the turkeyIf you purchased a frozen turkey, you’ll need to defrost it up to three days in advance of the meal. (Although, if you forget to pull out the turkey early enough, here’s how to roast a frozen turkey.)
  • Confirm with your guests: You asked your loved ones to bring dishes to pass and wine to share weeks ago. Take a few minutes to text or call them to make sure these tasks are still on their radar.

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The Day Before Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving piesTaste of Home

You’re in the home stretch of planning Thanksgiving dinner. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the time to make any last lists and tackle as much as you can. You can even follow our secrets to a successful Thanksgiving and turn the last-minute prep into a party! Enlist friends to come over, make pies and enjoy some pre-holiday cheer. (Pizza delivery optional but encouraged!)

  • Make a checklist: Thanksgiving Day is busy! Ensure you don’t miss a thing by making an up-to-date list the day before. Include all the dishes you’re making and items guests are bringing, and note important times—like when the turkey should go in the oven.
  • Chill beverages: Serving champagne at your dinner? Better get those bottles, plus juices and soft drinks, in the fridge so they are cool by the time company comes. No room? Skip the garage and invest in this mini fridge that’s a must-have according to our editors.
  • Season the turkey: For a flavorsome turkey, you can season it the day before. For an extra-tender bird, try brining the turkey overnight.
  • Set the table: Yep, set the table for Thanksgiving the day before the big gig. Arrange all the dinnerware, silverware and stemware, then make sure there’s enough space for all the serving dishes you’ll be putting out tomorrow. Rearrange as needed.
  • Bake the desserts: Pumpkin pie, pecan pie and apple pie will all taste delicious on Thanksgiving Day, even when prepped the day before. You can try these make-ahead Thanksgiving dessert recipes, too.

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The Big Day!

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When Thanksgiving finally arrives, don’t stress! Everything is planned out.

Thanksgiving Morning

  • Eat breakfast: While it’s tempting to get right in the kitchen as soon as you wake up, be sure to take a few minutes for yourself. You’ll need a good Thanksgiving breakfast (and a pot of coffee!) to fuel up for a cooking marathon.
  • Review your checklist: Take time during breakfast to go over your game plan. It might help to set timers and alarms to keep you on track.
  • Prep slow-cooker dishes: Our favorite Thanksgiving recipes for the slow cooker are ideal for big holidays since they can be prepared on a more relaxed timeline and don’t take up precious oven space. Save that rack for the turkey!

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A Few Hours Before Dinner

  • Begin cooking the turkey: Use our guide on how to cook a turkey to determine how long the bird needs in the oven. Average turkeys (about 15 pounds) will take about 3-1/2 hours. If you’re frying, grilling or smoking your bird instead of roasting, heat up your frying oil or fire up the grill or smoker.
  • Start time-consuming dishes: Once the turkey is in the oven, it’s time for sides. Consider whipping up your mashed potatoes and stuffing a bit early. You can always keep them warm (and the oven less packed) in a slow cooker.

An Hour Before Dinner

  • Prep quick-fix sides: Get your guests to help you with the finishing touches in the kitchen. That means fixing salads, prepping veggies (like candied carrots and roasted Brussels sprouts) and heating up dishes you made in advance. Don’t forget to set out any Thanksgiving appetizers you have so your guests have something to snack on as they await Thanksgiving dinner.
  • Do a table check: Your table is already set, but what’s missing? Make sure there are salt and pepper shakers, butter dishes, gravy boats and anything else your guests might need to amp up their meal.

Right Before Dinner

  • Carve the turkey: Don’t carve the turkey the second it comes out of the oven! You’ll want the meat to rest for at least 20 minutes before digging in. It’s best to wait until dinner is served to carve. One more tip: Don’t carve at the table—it’s so messy.
  • Pour the wine: Before you toast to the holiday and the company, make sure every guest has a glass of wine, sparkling cider or the beverage of their choosing.
  • Make sure everything is on the table or buffet: Reference your checklist. Are the buttery rolls in the breadbasket? Do you have a serving spoon for the mashed red potatoes? Make sure it’s all there before digging in.

After Dinner

While it can be tempting to drift off for a post-dinner nap, the best time to tackle those dishes and stash the leftovers is right after dinner and your choice(s) of Thanksgiving dessert. Trust us: That nap will feel so much better after all the hard work is done.

  • Do the dishes: When dinner is done, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and tackle that mountain of dishes. Load your dishwasher, grab the dish soap for cutting through grease and accept help from anyone who offers to dry.
  • Pack up leftovers: Post-dinner, ask each guest what they’d like to take home. Even better, enlist a helper to go around and take orders for leftovers, leaving you free to pack them up in reusable containers. Just don’t forget to label them!
  • Enjoy an after-dinner tradition: After dessert is served and leftovers are in the fridge, the rest of the day can feel a little anticlimactic. Save a tradition for the end of the day, whether it’s a toast, a game or talking about what you’re thankful for.

Most importantly, enjoy yourself! Don’t forget to sit back, relax and enjoy the food you prepared and the time spent with family and friends.

The Day After Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving leftoversTaste of Home

Between Black Friday shopping and catching up with family, squeeze in your post-holiday teardown and leftovers game plan. It’s all a part of planning Thanksgiving dinner, even though the holiday is technically done.

  • Wash linens: Gather your tablecloths and napkins and toss them in the wash Friday morning. If there are any particularly stubborn stains, use one of our Test Kitchen’s picks for the best stain remover to get them out.
  • Get everything back in order: Thanksgiving can be a whirlwind. Take a little time to get the house back to normal. Have houseguests and family help put the folding chairs and platters away.
  • Start putting those leftovers to work: There’s nothing wrong with enjoying leftover turkey sandwiches the day after Thanksgiving. But if you have more leftovers than you know what to do with, try to incorporate them into a seven-day meal plan for Thanksgiving leftovers, keeping in mind how long Thanksgiving leftovers last. Otherwise, we’ve got plenty of leftover turkey recipes and leftover mashed potatoes recipes, too.

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At the end of the day, your family and friends will remember the time spent together most of all, so don’t sweat it if something goes awry. But if there is a mishap, you may want to check out how to prepare a full Thanksgiving dinner in 30 minutes. Happy cooking!