With Thanksgiving Day fast approaching, you need a calendar countdown to help you prepare for the holiday dinner in advance. Top chefs divulge the secrets to buying the best turkey, and when—and roundup exclusive recipes that celebrate American traditions. Plus, festive tabletop décor you can do yourself.
The number one way to assure a memorable Thanksgiving dinner is to plan ahead, so here’s the tick-tock timetable:
Three weeks in advance:
-Make sure you have enough chairs, napkins and dishes to accommodate guests. If you’re missing anything, rent it now.
-Order your turkey—especially if you want an organic or free-range fowl.
-Order flowers and confirm your guest list.
Two weeks in advance:
-Finalize your menu and wine pairings, and write out your shopping list for the recipes you’ve selected. Break it down into ingredients you can purchase ahead of time like canned goods versus perishables to buy closer to T-Day.
-Create a cooking schedule. Know what dishes you’ll cook in advance (and when) and which will be prepared at the last minute. For foods prepared in the oven, coordinate cooking temperatures so you know which dishes you can prepare together. Also, double-check that you have all the pots, pans, serving dishes and utensils you need.
-Choose wines for your meal. Select bottles from your cellar or buy the new ones you want. Also purchase liquor, cocktail mixers and soft drinks. If you won’t have room in your fridge, consider using a cooler.
-Make dishes or components you can freeze, such as soups, stocks and pie crusts.
One Week in Advance:
-Clean out the refrigerator and freezer to make room for the Thanksgiving groceries and prepared dishes.
-Now is the time to buy all the non-perishables for your dinner, such as onions, flour, potatoes, etc.
-If you’re using a frozen turkey, pick it up now to avoid the rush.
-Select some background tunes.
Four Days in Advance:
-If you’re using a frozen turkey, start thawing it in the refrigerator. Every five pounds of turkey requires 24 hours of thaw time—i.e., a 15-pound bird needs three days to thaw.
-Make cranberry sauce—flavors meld deliciously after sitting for a few days.
Three Days in Advance:
-Clean-up time! Tidy your house. Make sure tablecloths are washed and ironed. Clean tableware and polish silverware.
-Create your menu so that you won’t forget to serve dishes you’ve slaved over.
One Day Before:
-Pick up your fresh turkey and buy last-minute groceries like salad greens, fresh breads and seafood.
-Set up your table and bar.
-Prepare dishes that can be made in advance such as dips, casseroles and sauces. This is also the perfect time to prep veggies and make turkey stock for your gravy.
-Assemble dry ingredients for stuffing. Don’t add eggs until you’re ready to stuff the bird.
-Consider having take-out foods or leftovers for dinner—you’ll be plenty busy cooking all these other foods in advance.
-Put white wine in the refrigerator to chill about four hours before guests arrive. If necessary, decant red wines about one-half to one hour before serving.
-Finish your stuffing by adding any wet ingredients, like eggs.
-Stuff and roast your turkey. Here are suggested cooking times, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture:
-Always use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of your turkey and stuffing. Roast until an instant-read thermometer (inserted deep into the thigh but away from the bone) reads 165°F and juices in the thigh run clear when pierced with a fork.
“What’s worked for me is having the game plan, plus all the Thanksgiving recipes clipped together. Shopping list, menu, platters and serving pieces, what got cooked on which day. Just do a quick review each year and make minor adjustments. But truth be told, the biggest help was my husband taking the kids to the Thanksgiving Day Parade on T-Day.” —Gloria Zalaznick, New York, New York
“I do a pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving dinner using trusted friends as guinea pigs. Doing a trial run also helps me locate the turkey baster, potato ricer and roasting rack that were put away. Since Thanksgiving is usually a family affair, get the relatives to bring the side dishes, dessert and bread (for those lazy ones who won’t go near a kitchen if their lives depended on it).” —Michelle Steinhart, Mill Valley, California
“I like cooking turkey with citrus, such as oranges with a good douse of Grand Marnier. Port is also good. Use with stock in the stuffing. You can cut way down on butter. The turkey doesn’t need to be cooked anywhere near as long as our mothers cooked it. And you definitely want leftovers.” —Kate Miller, New York, New York
“I like to roast my turkey in the Weber. It frees up oven space and imparts vibrant taste to the bird. (If you’re doing this for the first time, check that your turkey does actually fit onto the grill.) Since my family and friends are all wine lovers, I often add a blind tasting to the festivities. Ask guests to bring wines around a theme, such as Zinfandel or Burgundy. Hide the bottles in brown bags so you can’t read the labels and get everyone’s take on the different tastes. It’s fun to see how the different wines open up during the meal.” —Risa Wyatt, Seattle
“I’m a minimalist about not having too much going on with your tabletop because you want your food to be the star,” says Leslie Bauer, owner of event design at Wine Country Party & Events with her husband, Marshall Bauer. Based in Sonoma, the company arranges party rentals, events and weddings throughout Northern California. She shares Thanksgiving planning tips for being creative—and saving money at the same time.
Trends: Vintage is in vogue. “We utilize wood farm tables, either whitewashed or in oak, and mismatched antique flatware—mixed pieces like you might have from relatives.” Combine those with little etched glasses or Venetian tumblers. It creates a shabby-chic look that’s simple but elegant. In addition, you can mix china patterns. It’s fun looking for pieces at flea markets or consignment stores. Bauer adds, “It’s a beautiful way to get pieces with a little history.”
Modern Times: To create a more contemporary look, limit yourself to just two colors. Keep the plates mostly white; perhaps use square dishes. Include something reflective, such as gold or silver flatware, to add pizzazz and bring the table to life.
Colors: Bauer loves bringing in the tones of autumnal fruits and vegetables, such as pomegranates, persimmons, pumpkins and gourds, for the centerpiece. Pick just one of those colors for your napkins and have a muted ivory or tan tablecloth.
Flower Arrangements: Hollow out pumpkins or gourds and use them as vases. If you’re hosting a casual dinner, use Mason jars for your flowers, with satin ribbons tied around the glass.
More Tabletop Tips: Cake plates can hold pillar candles or nuts. Use beautiful autumn leaves as place cards, with the guest’s name written in silver or gold.
Rent Beats Lent: If you’re hosting a large gathering, consider renting not just chairs and tables, but also dishes and glassware. “You don’t have to wash them,” explains Bauer. “You just put them back in the rack and send them away. It makes cleaning up a breeze.”