Hosting dinner for the holidays can be totally intimidating. Use these tips to prep and make ahead Thanksgiving dinner dishes, so you can enjoy the day as much as your guests.
I hosted my first Thanksgiving two years ago. I had never even cooked a turkey before. And I had a 6 week old newborn. When I agreed to it, somehow I convinced myself that hosting would be easier than packing up three kids and traveling for the holiday. But the more I thought about it, the more overwhelmed I became… but after I did it, I realized there was no reason to be intimidated. I approached it like I do any project – with lists, plans and preparation to help the day go as smoothly as possible. Get all my Make Ahead Thanksgiving Dinner tips and print our my FREE Holiday Cooking Calculator at the end of this post to have your day run like a well-oiled machine!
10 Make Ahead Thankgsiving Dinner Dishes and Tasks
Honestly, the most intimidating part of Thanksgiving is the turkey… and I’m going to let you in on a little secret. It’s actually the EASIEST part! It is also the only part that I don’t recommend making ahead of Thanksgiving dinner. Reheating meat dries it out. But almost every single other thing you serve for Thanksgiving can be made or prepped ahead of time, allowing you to do little more than reheat, baste the bird and drink wine with your guests and spend time with your family.
Make Ahead Thanksgiving Dinner Gravy
Next to the turkey, gravy might be the most important part of the meal. It’s also one of those things that can make you completely stressed out in the last 30 minutes before you get all the food on the table. Eliminate that stress by making your Thanksgiving Dinner Gravy ahead of time.
Gravy is just equal parts butter and flour plus chicken stock, and salt and pepper to taste. You can prepare that up to 3 days before Thanskgiving, keep it in the refrigerator, and then just warm it on the stove top before your meal. Want turkey gravy? Just add turkey drippings from the bird as it reheats on the stove!
Make Ahead Thanksgiving Dinner Mashed Potatoes
I honestly think the mashed potatoes are the most work intensive part of the holiday meal. Peeling, boiling, mashing… and inevitably you end up with cold potatoes because there is no way you can wait to make them for the last 5 minutes, so then they sit and get cold.
Make your mashed potatoes up to 3 days ahead of time as you traditionally would, but add additional moisture with 1-2 cups of either cream, sour cream or cream cheese. Transfer your bashed potatoes to a buttered 13×9 inch baking pan. On Thanksgiving Day, preheat oven to 350°F. Remove potatoes from refrigerator and bring to room temperature (1-2 hours). Bake 25 minutes, or until golden. It’s perfect to pop them in the oven when you take out your turkey to rest.
Make Ahead Thanksgiving Dinner Stuffing
Stuffing is my husband’s favorite part of the meal… and he was totally bowled over the first Thanksgiving I made it homemade from scratch (instead of from a box of Stouffer’s!). Like the potatoes and gravy, you can make it entirely up to 3 days before. Prepare any stuffing recipe you like, combining all ingredients in a greased baking dish. Cover and refrigerate.
On Thanksgiving Day, use your prepared stuffing to stuff your bird, or heat it for 30 minutes at 350°F. Baste with turkey drippings halway through cook time for moisture. The stuffing will fit perfectly next to your mashed potatoes while your turkey rests.
Make Ahead Thanksgiving Dinner Cranberries
The next part of our Make Ahead Thanksgiving Dinner? My favorite part of the holiday meal – my mom’s Cranberry Relish! It’s soooo much better than traditional cranberry sauce, and pairs great with ham or turkey. And best of all, it takes about 10 minutes to make and can be made up to 3 days in advance.
Since it is served cold, all you have to do is take it out of the fridge on Thanksgiving Day and add a spoon! (Just don’t forget to take it out and serve it – did that last Christmas!) Get the my mom’s Quick and Easy Cranberry Relish recipe here.
Make Ahead Thanksgiving Dinner Sweet Potatoes
This is my Great Grandmother’s Sweet Potato recipe, and it doesn’t get any easier than this. My only modification to her recipe? It cooks perfectly in a crock pot – low and slow, all day. You can prep this dish in it’s entirety the day before Thanksgiving. Refrigerate it overnight, then put it in your crockpot on Thanksgiving morning and cook on low for 4-8 hours.
2 pounds sweet potatoes (1/4 pound per person), peeled and sliced
2 large green Granny Smith apples (1 apple per pound of potatoes), peeled and sliced
1-2 sticks of butter
1 cup brown sugar
Make Ahead Directions
1. Peel and slice all your sweet potatoes and apples.
2. Layer them in a greased crock pot: sweet potatoes, apples, dots of butter, sprinkle of brown sugar, repeat
3. Cover and refrigerate.
Thanksgiving Day Directions
Remove from the refrigerator and cook in your crockpot on low for 4-8 hours. It will be ready when your you’re ready to eat!
5 More Make Ahead Thanksgiving Dinner Tasks
The turkey and any more delicate vegetables (green beans, squashes) or salads are the only dishes I don’t recommend cooking ahead of time. But the day before you can certainly prepare them and even set your table. Here are 5 more tasks you can tackle the day before Thanksgiving to take the stress out of hosting the holiday.
Prep Your Turkey
I highly highly recommend buying a fresh turkey. If you do buy frozen, it needs to thaw in your refrigerator for 3 full days (put it in there on Monday to cook on Thursday). Prepping the turkey is absolutely the hardest part – it’s a lot like bathing a newborn… wet, slippery, and floppy and water gets everywhere.
You will want to remove all giblets and the turkey neck from the turkey cavities. Rinse the outside of the turkey and the bird cavaties, both front and rear, with water and pat dry with clean paper towels. Liberally salt and pepper the turkey, both inside and out. You can now return the turkey covered in your roasting pan into the refrigerator.
Thanksgiving Day, preheat your oven, and drape your turkey in bacon strips (keeps the mositure in, then remove after 1-2 hours, to make perfectly browned turkey!). Put in veggies or stuffing, tie up the legs with twine, put your turkey in the oven and go watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. See perfect cooking times in the FREE printable Cooking Calculator below.
Prep Your Vegetables
While I wouldn’t recommend cooking or heating anything, you can absolutely wash, trim, chop and perform any other necessary prep work on vegetables you plan to cook or combine in salads on Thanksgiving Day. With vegetables, prepping is often requires the most time and attention, so doing this task ahead of time, makes cooking on Thanksgiving Day that much easier.
Plan Your Cooking Schedule
Before you start cooking on Thanksgiving morning, have a plan of attack. Start with what time you want to sit down and eat, and work your way backwards. Schedule oven space based on cooking times and temperatures. I promise if you plan it all out, you will end up with food that all comes together, hot and ready to eat at the same time! Get your FREE printable Holiday Cooking Calculator, to help you plan your holiday meal stress-free!
Bake Before Thanksgiving Day
Do not attempt to bake pies and desserts while also cooking Thanksgiving Dinner. DO NOT DO IT. Trust me – oven space will be at a premium. Bake your pies (or purchase them from a local bakery) before Thanksgiving Day. You can also prepare them in advance and freeze before baking, then bake straight from the freezer. Here’s a great Apple Pie recipe from Cocina Marie that does exactly that. Or just serve them at room temperature, or warm them in the already warm oven.
Set Your Tablescape
I put out my Thanksgiving dining room table centerpieces when we put up our Fall decorations. We only use our dining room for big holidays, so it makes the room feel festive for the season. The week of Thanksgiving, I set the table for dinner – plates, napkins, silverware, even the wine glasses, serving utensils and gravy boat. I also locate all my serving platters.
The most stressful part of the holiday is being ready to eat and realizing you don’t have enough clean forks or you can’t find the gravy boat for the table. Setting the table a few days in advance gives you time to track everything down, and eliminates that potential for last minute stress (and a cold plate!).
How many are you hosting for your Thanksgiving Dinner? Have any awesome hosting tips? Share them with me in the comments below – and don’t forget to grab your FREE printable Holiday Cooking Calculator below!