Over the years I've developed and honed our list of Thanksgiving must-haves. Here are my essential recipes, plus timeline, shopping list, and equipment list for a perfect-enough, low-fuss, thoughtful Thanksgiving Day.
I like to approach Thanksgiving with the same philosophy that my best self applies to everything (and hey, my actual self does too, some of the time). This is true for the menu as well as every other aspect of the day.
- Take a pretty ruthless approach to deciding what's actually important and what's not
- Put lots of love and care into the important things and outsource or ignore the rest
- Do as much in advance as possible (flex your Type A qualities beforehand so you can indulge in your Type B during the event)
- Accept help, and try to evoke people's strengths in the process
- Aim for a spirit of abundance and generosity
And honestly, that's it. The better you get at those few skills, the more the rest will fall into place.
Essential Thanksgiving menu
Depending on the crowd, I usually like to serve a signature cocktail. A favorite for Thanksgiving is The Fifteen. It's a simple and sophisticated take on fall: apple cider, champagne, and rye, with a hint of lemon.
I also recommend having a "house favorite" white, red, and bubbly wine so that you don't have to reinvent the wheel every season unless you want to. My favorite flexible, easy-drinking, mid-priced choices these days are:
- Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc
- Oberon Cabernet Sauvignon
- Chandon Brut
For nonalcoholic beverages, I like to serve:
- An assortment of flavored seltzers
- Martinelli's sparkling apple cider
- A big pitcher of water that someone other than me is in charge of replenishing
- If I know there are soda drinkers in the crowd, I'll be sure to have some available
Easy, abundant appetizers serve so many purposes. They provide a focal point for socializing, help guests metabolize their cocktails, and buy you time in the kitchen to finish preparing the main meal. I would consider these two heavy hitters my Thanksgiving must-haves.
- Epic cheese and charcuterie board
- Knorr spinach dip and veggies
Here's everything you need to know to make a beautiful Thanksgiving turkey and decorate the platter. This method gives you great results without being overly finicky.
Gravy is really important to me, so I make it a priority in a couple of ways. First, I offer two types, including everyone's favorite vegetarian gravy, so that anyone skipping the turkey doesn't have to miss out. Second, I always make a lot, and it never goes to waste. It makes leftovers feel like the real deal, whether you're sending them home with guests or keeping them for yourself.
The turkey recipe above includes a fabulous pan gravy. This is my preferred turkey gravy when I have the time and wherewithal to make it right before serving. If you'd rather make your turkey gravy in advance, use the make-ahead version below. It's great too. (And you can always use the pan drippings to make gravy for your leftovers — it gives you an excuse to hold off on washing the roasting pan.)
- Make-ahead gravy
- The best vegetarian gravy
Even though I'm proud of my turkey recipe, I'm easily convinced that Thanksgiving is all about the sides. These are our must-have recipes for all the classics, almost all of which are more make-ahead friendly than you might think. (You can refer to the timeline below to learn more.)
I have a hard time deciding among essential Thanksgiving desserts, since apple and pumpkin season (and, hey, chocolate season) gives us so many alluring options. We have a master pie-maker among our family members, so truth be told I often leave this aspect of the day to her. When I'm doing the baking, these are my Thanksgiving must-haves:
- Apple crisp (pictured here à la mode with bourbon caramel sauce)
- Pumpkin cheesecake
It's also a good idea to have a selection of herbal teas and a pot of decaf coffee at the ready.
You might be surprised how much Thanksgiving prep you can do in advance. Here's a suggested timeline.
Up to three months in advance
Make and freeze:
- Cranberry sauce
- Vegetarian gravy and/or turkey neck gravy
The Saturday before Thanksgiving
If your turkey is frozen, transfer it to the refrigerator first thing this morning so it will have time to fully defrost. Conventional wisdom allows for 24 hours per five pounds, and I find it sometimes takes even longer.
This weekend is also a good time to get your Thanksgiving music playlist in order. It doesn't have to be complicated — I tend to default to one of my mellow Spotify jazz stations.
This is a great day for your grocery shopping or delivery. If you have a formal dining room, you could also consider setting the table and doing any additional decorating today. If not, it's a good day to make sure that any special serving ware and equipment is accounted for and clean.
Most desserts will hold well from this point on. You can make pumpkin cheesecake and bourbon caramel sauce from start to finish today, and choose between prepping apple crisp to bake on Thanksgiving day or baking it today and reheating. Same goes for most pies.
You can make your Knorr spinach dip and cut any vegetables today, too.
Today you can do virtually as much prep as you like, with a few exceptions. You can make:
- Stuffing (to bake tomorrow)
- Mashed potatoes
- Green beans
Defrost any frozen cranberry sauce, applesauce, and gravy.
Here's what to do on the big day. We'll be working backwards from your desired mealtime, leaving more wiggle room than you think. First things first, definitely enlist some help if you can — it makes everything better.
- About five hours before the main meal: The first order of business is to preheat the oven and get your turkey ready to roast. Your mileage may vary, but roasting a 14-pound turkey can take about three hours. Give yourself some grace and leave at least an additional hour for gravy making and carving.
- Right after the turkey goes in: If you haven't already prepped the stuffing, mashed potatoes, and green beans, now's the time.
- 30-60 minutes before the party starts: Assemble the cheese and charcuterie platter and put out the dip and veggies. Set out the beverages. Maybe make yourself a cocktail.
- When guests arrive: Serve drinks, acquaint everyone with the appetizers (and with each other).
- While guests mingle: Identify a few helpers to call on an hour before dinnertime and approach them to ask for help with particular tasks.
- An hour before dinner: The turkey will be coming out of the oven around this time. Set oven to 375°F and rearrange the racks to accommodate popovers and stuffing, and bake them. If you like, you can also reheat mashed potatoes in a covered casserole in the oven.
- During the final hour: Working together with your helpers according to everyone's strengths, carve the turkey, make the gravy, make the salad, cook or reheat the green beans, transfer all elements of the meal to serving vessels, open wine bottles, pour water, and bring everything to the table or buffet.
- Between dinner and dessert: Bake or reheat apple crisp, make coffee.
You can download a printable shopping list here.
In addition to everyday pots and pans, here's what I use to create this menu on Thanksgiving Day. I'm providing this list as a convenience in case there's something that helps you get the job done. Please do not feel like you need to go out and buy a ton of new equipment unless you want to.
- Roasting pan
- Carving board
- Chef's knife (I do not use a separate carving knife)
- A variety of ceramic bakeware (including at least one deep 9x13-inch pan)
- Oval platters (I have two)
- Instant Pot (for cranberry sauce and, later, turkey stock)
- Cheesecake pan
- Pie plate
- Plenty of trivets
- Plenty of serving utensils
I've linked to some additional platters and tools in the individual recipe posts as well.
P.S. Hosting overnight guests
Hosting overnight guests? Here are my tips for applying the same philosophy and making everyone feel at home.
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