Knowing how to get organized for Thanksgiving takes the stress out of this holiday meal. Even if you’re not having friends or extended family join you, it’s still a special meal.
Rather than wearing yourself out in preparation for it, think of it as an event that’s best managed by getting most of the work done in advance.
How to Get Organized for Thanksgiving
Prepare for Thanksgiving in Steps
Thanksgiving is like any big party: something that’s best planned and prepared for one step at a time. When throwing a party, you don’t leave the shopping, cooking, decorating, and cleaning house until the day before. So why do that with Thanksgiving?
The Plan I Follow
In the twenty-plus years that I’ve been hosting family Thanksgivings, I’ve learned that putting off preparation turns me into a stressed out mess. Stress exacerbates my auto-immune disorder, which used to mean that I wasn’t just tired but also felt sick on Thanksgiving.
Then I decided to get organized for Thanksgiving in a way that only took a little time each day. It was beautiful: everything was ready when it needed to be, and I was relaxed enough to enjoy spending time with our guests.
I’ve been doing it this way ever since.
Adjust the Plan to Your Needs
There’s no reason why you have to do this in exactly ten days. Get organized for Thanksgiving over two or more weeks if you have a busy schedule. Or cut it down to one if you’ve got the time and energy for that.
The idea here is to break down all of the tasks involved in making Thanksgiving happen, so feel free get organized for Thanksgiving at your own pace, using my plan as a starting point.
10 DAYS BEFORE
Plan your menu: If you don’t have any tried-and-true recipes, now is 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: Give your kitchen a deep cleaning now, and you won’t have to worry what visitors will see. It’s not going to stay spotless until Thanksgiving, but that’s not the point. The point is that you’ll only need to touch up counters, appliance fronts, and floors right before the big day.
9 DAYS BEFORE
Delegate dishes: Contributing to the meal is a tradition that dates back to the very first Thanksgiving, so don’t turn down guests who offer. But unless you have lots of workspace in your kitchen, ask them to bring oven-ready contributions. Be sure to get details from them, too, or you run the risk of different people bringing the same thing.
Make two grocery lists: Get organized for Thanksgiving grocery shopping by creating an aisle-by-aisle grocery list of non-perishable items and another for perishables. Shop for the non-perishables before they’re in short supply. If you’re buying a frozen turkey, you should pick it up while the size selection is good. Keep it in the freezer.
Get bedrooms ready: Give guest rooms a good bedroom cleaning. You might want to launder guest linens, so they’re fresh, too. Replace whatever looks ratty.
8 DAYS BEFORE
Plan your cookware and gadgets: With your menu in hand, decide 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. Make sure you have the gadgets you’ll need, too.
Deep clean the guest bathroom: Guests go through bathroom cupboards and medicine cabinets whether we want them to or not. So do a thorough bathroom cleaning now. You’ll need to tidy them again before the big day, but it won’t take more than a few minutes.
7 DAYS BEFORE
Plan your table linens: Get out your holiday tablecloth and cloth napkins and inspect them for stains. Treat any stains you find.
Plan your centerpiece: Order your floral centerpiece or decide where to buy flowers to make your own. Not into flowers? Good Housekeeping has some excellent DIY centerpiece ideas!
Clean house: Give the rest of your house a thorough cleaning to deal with cobwebs, dusty baseboards, etc. (Get my free printable cleaning checklists here.)
6 DAYS BEFORE
Buy long-lasting perishables now: Heavy cream, potatoes, eggs, onions, and butter start running scarce end the closer we get to the holiday, so buy them now.
Decorate: Change your front door wreath, and decorate the rest of the house.
Make and freeze what you can: Get organized for Thanksgiving cooking by making and freezing what you can. Things like pie crusts, undecorated cookies, cranberry sauce/relish, cornbread for stuffing, and rolls freeze well and taste fresh when defrosted the day before serving. Marinated mushrooms and olives can be prepared ahead and stored in the refrigerator, too.
5 DAYS BEFORE
Make your cooking schedule: 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. Don’t forget the turkey’s resting time. Schedule side dishes to cook as the turkey rests. If you have a 3-tier oven rack, you don’t have to worry about running out of space.
Add time to spare: Budget time before cooking to enjoy a cup of coffee and touch up the house with the daily cleaning routine.
Stock your bar: Get organized for Thanksgiving beverage service by making sure you have enough glasses for all of your guests. Buy wines, liquors, mixers, and garnishes today. Skipping the booze? Buy soft drinks and punch ingredients instead.
4 DAYS BEFORE
Begin defrosting your turkey: Put the turkey in a container to catch drips, so other foods don’t get cross-contaminated. 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 an extra day for this.
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 seating them apart. 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: Wash your holiday dishes even if they’ve been carefully wrapped and stored all year. Get rid of any stale glass smells and buff glassware with a lint-free towel, so it sparkles. Get organized for Thanksgiving Day further by leaving yourself a sticky note on each dish as a reminder of what you’ll be serving in it.
3 DAYS BEFORE
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: Clean your front door, sweep the step and the walk, and make sure your door handles gleam. First impressions are important!
Tidy 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
Defrost frozen dishes: If you’ve made any food ahead of time, transfer it to the fridge to defrost.
Confirm with guests: If you’ve delegated dishes to others to cook, take a few minutes to ensure their plans haven’t changed. Even though you know to get organized for Thanksgiving ahead of time doesn’t mean your guests will. Confirming their plans allows you to rearrange your menu and seating if needed.
Get your recipes ready: Put every recipe you’ll be using in one convenient place, so you won’t have to hunt for them tomorrow.
Get the bar/beverage area ready: Set up a beverage center away from where you’ll be cooking so guests can help themselves. Arrange bottles and glasses, then cover them with a clean towel to keep everything dust-free. Chop garnishes like lemons and limes and store them in the refrigerator.
1 DAY BEFORE
Brine your turkey: If you’re going to brine your turkey, now’s the time to do it.
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: Get organized for Thanksgiving cooking by chopping things like onions, carrots, and celery and refrigerate them in separate containers. (Speed it up with an inexpensive vegetable chopper.) 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 chill 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.
Tidy up: Since you’ve done thorough cleanings recently, you can get away with a quick dusting of horizontal surfaces and vacuuming or sweeping the high-traffic areas. Give the bathrooms a once-over, too, and make sure you have ample toilet paper and soap available.
Iron table linens and set the table: You can get organized for Thanksgiving dinner by laying your table now. It only takes a few minutes to iron the tablecloth and napkins, but it makes such a difference.
Finish the guest rooms: Set out fresh guest towels and put the clean sheets on guest beds.
Follow your cooking schedule: Use the extra time you budgeted before you start cooking to do a quick Daily Whole House Tidy.
Get your family involved: Enlist family members’ help with tasks outside of the kitchen. Have someone in charge of greeting guests and helping with coats. Task an adult with keeping the bar/beverage service stocked. Put kids in charge of checking the bathrooms always have toilet paper and dry towels.
Wash as you work: Keep a sink of hot, soapy water available for cleaning things as you use them, or load the dishwasher as you work. Run and empty it as needed.
Enjoy your meal: This is the whole point of spending the time to get organized for Thanksgiving in advance. Having paced yourself, you can join your guests for a beverage or two, enjoy your meal, 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.
Note: This post originally appeared in November 2013. It has been updated and republished to help readers prepare for the holiday.