Knowing how to get organized for Thanksgiving takes the stress out of this holiday meal that so many believe is the most important one of the year.
As a mom and the primary cook in our home, making our Thanksgiving Dinner left me worn out and frazzled. I’d be too tired to enjoy the food or our guests and just wanted to get it over with so I could finally relax. I’m not proud of how snappish that would make me on a day that’s all about gratitude and enjoying the bounty of life.
Then one year it dawned on me that, for all of its special message, Thanksgiving is like any big party: something that’s best planned and prepared for one step at a time. If I were throwing a party, I wouldn’t leave it until the day or two before to plan the menu and decorations or clean the house.
So why did I do that for Thanksgiving, especially when the result was that I hated every minute of the meal? That epiphany happened about seven years ago and, let me tell you, it made all the difference in how I view this holiday!
Rather than posting a different entry each day in a series, I figured I’d share my pre-Thanksgiving game plan with you. It’s my hope that you’ll find comfort in doing a little preparation day after day, and that adjusting it to your schedule will take the stress out of this beautiful holiday for you, too.
How To Get Organized For Thanksgiving
10 Days Before Thanksgiving
Plan your menu: If you don’t have any tried-and-true recipes, now’s the time to test Thanksgiving recipes from Pinterest, or go with something more reliable like the NY Times Essential Thanksgiving interactive recipe guide.
Deep-clean your kitchen: For some reason, guests always gather in the kitchen. Giving your kitchen a genuinely deep cleaning now means you won’t have to worry what visitors will see. True, it’s not going to stay spotless until Thanksgiving, but that’s not the point. The point is to get this room to the point where you just need to touch up counters, appliance fronts, and floors right before the big day.
9 Days Before Thanksgiving
Delegate dishes: I used to be awful about telling guests they didn’t need to bring anything when they joined us for Thanksgiving. Mostly that was because we had certain guests who’d show up with a bag of ingredients then take over my kitchen. Then I learned to ask people to bring oven-ready contributions. That worked great until one year when we had three green bean casseroles. Now if guests offer to bring something, I ask for details and keep track, so we don’t have duplicates.
Make two grocery lists: Write out an aisle-by-aisle grocery list of perishable items (potatoes, Brussels sprouts, etc.) and another for non-perishables (spices, canned goods, etc.). Shop for the non-perishables now before they’re in short supply. If you’re buying a frozen turkey also get it now while the size selection is still good. Keep it in the freezer until it’s time to defrost and/or brine it four days before the big meal.
Get your guest rooms and/or linens ready: Give the place a good bedroom cleaning, but don’t make the bed yet. Just set the linens on the bed for now. Go through your guest towels, too, and make sure they’re in good shape. Replace them if they’re starting to look ratty.
8 Days Before Thanksgiving
Plan your cookware and gadgets: With your menu in hand, plan what you’ll use to cook each item on the menu. Do you have enough saucepans? Casserole dishes? Need a platter for the turkey? Now’s the time to get them. Likewise, it’s a good idea to make sure you have the gadgets you’ll need. One year I’d forgotten that someone had borrowed but never returned my favorite potato ricer, so I had no way to make mashed potatoes. That isn’t something you want to realize 20 minutes before dinner!
Deep clean the guest bathroom(s): Guests go through bathroom cupboards and medicine cabinets whether we want them to or not. So do a thorough bathroom cleaning now. You’ll wind up spiffing them up again before the big day, but it won’t take more than a minute or two. Plus you won’t have to worry about anyone finding something embarrassing, like the dog’s anti-worming cream you stashed with your meds when you couldn’t think of a better place.
7 Days Before Thanksgiving
Plan your table linens: Get out your holiday tablecloth and cloth napkins and inspect them for stains. Treat any stains you find and, if you can’t get them out, replace your linens.
Plan your centerpiece: Order your floral centerpiece or decide where you’ll buy flowers to make your own. Not into flowers? Good Housekeeping has some excellent DIY centerpiece ideas!
Clean the rest of your house well: Give the rest of your house a thorough weekly cleaning to deal with cobwebs, dusty baseboards, etc. (You can find weekly printable cleaning checklists for every room here.)
6 Days Before Thanksgiving
Buy long-lasting perishables now: Things like heavy cream, potatoes, eggs, onions and butter tend to be hard to find the closer we get to the holiday. Buy them now, and you’ll know you’re covered. Even celery will stay fresh in the crisper if you wrap it tightly in foil as soon as you get it home.
Decorate: If you’ll be decorating beyond the table, why not do it now so your family can get in the holiday mood early?
Make and freeze what you can: Cornbread for stuffing can be made ahead of time and frozen. In fact, doing so will help dry it out which makes for a better dressing on the big day! Go ahead and make then freeze: pie crusts, undecorated cookies, cranberry sauce/relish, and dinner rolls. Marinated mushrooms and olives can be done ahead and stored in the refrigerator, too!
5 Days Before Thanksgiving
Make your game plan: Grab a notepad and pen, and calculate the timing of the big day. Count back from the time you’ll be serving dinner to figure out when your turkey should go into the oven. Keep in mind the turkey must rest after it’s cooked. Your side dishes go into the oven while the turkey rests. If you have a 3-tier oven rack, you don’t have to worry about running out of space.
Add two hours: Set aside two hours before cooking, so you have time to enjoy a cup of coffee and touch up the house with the daily cleaning routine. When you’re done, you’ll have an hour-by-hour plan to guide you from the moment you get out of bed until you’re ready to sit down and eat.
Stock your bar: Make sure you have enough glasses for all of your guests. Now double that because people inevitably misplace glasses and will need a new one. If you’re serving adult beverages buy the appropriate liquors, mixers, and garnishes today. Skipping the booze? Buy soft drinks and punch ingredients instead. (In fact, you should have both on hand. Too much tippling has been known to spoil a Turkey day.)
4 Days Before Thanksgiving
Begin defrosting your turkey: Yes, I know the package says to move it to the fridge three days before Thanksgiving. The package forgets that if your fridge is crammed with other holiday food it’s going to be colder and defrosting will take longer. Also, if you’re going to brine the turkey you need the extra day for this. Be sure it’s in a container that will catch drips, so other foods don’t get cross-contaminated.
Plan your seating: Who’ll be sitting at the kiddie table this year? Are Aunt Enda and Uncle Frank still not speaking? Avoid awkwardness by planning to seat them separately. Draw or print place cards so guests will know where to sit or you might find Edna expecting to sit in your seat to get away from Frank. Not cool.
Get out the holiday dishes: I like to hand wash my holiday dishes even though they’ve been carefully wrapped and stored all year. They just look more sparkly, I think. Give yours a once-over, including any glasses you’ll be using — and get rid of any stale glass smells while you’re at it. Leave yourself a sticky note on each dish to remind yourself what you’ll be serving in it.
3 Days Before Thanksgiving
Shop for perishable items: Make room in your refrigerator and give the shelves a quick wipe down, so it’s ready. Then grab the list of perishable groceries you wrote on Day 9 and go shopping.
Spruce up your entry: Give your front door a good scrub, sweep the step and the walk, and make sure your door handles gleam. First impressions are important!
Clean your coat closet: Guests will need a place to hang coats, hats, and purses. Make space, or they’ll use your bed for it.
2 Days Before Thanksgiving
Defrost frozen dishes: If you’ve made cornbread or other dishes ahead of time, transfer them to the fridge to defrost.
Clean your coat closet: Guests will need a place to hang their coats, purses, and hats. Spiff your space up so they have room. Add a sachet if you’d like, too.
Confirm with guests: If you’ve delegated dishes to others to cook, take a few minutes to confirm their plans haven’t changed. Doing it this early lets you rearrange your menu if needed.
1 Day Before Thanksgiving:
Brine your turkey: If you’re going to brine your turkey, now’s the time to do it. Be sure to keep it refrigerated in the brine!
Dry out stuffing ingredients: Cornbread, regular bread, whatever you’re using — most stuffing recipes call for dried-out bread. Set yours on paper towels on a clean counter.
Prep ingredients: Go ahead and chop things like onions, carrots, and celery today. Speed it up with a vegetable chopper, and you’ll breeze through it. You can peel potatoes a day ahead of time and refrigerate them in a bowl of water. Make dips if you are serving them, boil eggs for Deviled Eggs (or do them in the oven!). You can even make up your relish plate and stash it, covered in plastic wrap.
Bake pies: Don’t put the pies off until tomorrow. Make them now, let them cool on the counter, then cover tightly with plastic wrap or a cake dome.
Get your recipes ready: Gather every recipe you’ll be using and set them on your counter, so you won’t have to hunt for them tomorrow.
Clean: Since you’ve done thorough cleanings recently, you can get away with a quick dusting of horizontal surfaces followed by a good vacuum/sweep. Give the bathrooms a once-over, too, and make sure you have ample toilet paper and soap available.
Get the bar/beverage area ready: Set up a beverage center away from where you’ll be cooking so guests can help themselves. If you’re serving adult beverages, set out the bottles and glasses now. Chop garnishes like lemons and limes and store them in the refrigerator.
Iron table linens and set the table: It only takes a few minutes to iron the tablecloth and napkins, but it makes a huge difference in how your table looks! Guests will love seeing the beautiful table as they arrive tomorrow, and you’ll have one less thing to worry about.
Follow your game plan: Use those extra two pre-cooking hours you budgeted to have a nice cup of coffee or tea, then do a quick Daily Whole House Tidy. Set out fresh guest towels and put the clean sheets on guest beds.
Get your family involved: Rather than doing it all yourself, enlist family members’ help with tasks outside of the kitchen. Have someone in charge of greeting guests and helping with coats. Put someone in charge of making sure the bar/beverage service is continually stocked. Have a helper check bathrooms frequently, so there’s always toilet paper on hand and the towels are always dry and neatly hung.
Wash as you work: Keep a sink of hot, soapy water available for cleaning things as you use them, or just load the dishwasher as you work. Most big holidays, I wind up running, emptying and refilling the dishwasher repeatedly while I cook, but it makes clean-up SO much easier!
Enjoy your meal: This is the goal you’ve been working toward for ten days. Having paced yourself, you’ve reached the point where you can sit down to enjoy your meal, laugh with your guests, and feel the gratitude this day is all about!
When your meal is over, don’t forget to split the wishbone! Luckily, you won’t have to wish to do better next year now that you’ve learned how to get organized for Thanksgiving.
(This post originally appeared in November 2013. It has been updated and republished to help our readers prepare for the holidays.)
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