Thanksgiving Meal Planning Made Easy

Thanksgiving Meal Planning Made Easy

By Kresha, Contributing Writer

I love big feasting holidays.

I love the excuse to gather with people I love to give thanks for the blessings in our lives, I love the little traditions that spring up over the years, and I LOVE the food.

But when it’s a large meal with more food than can fit in the oven at once and lots of family favorites to accommodate, it can become unwieldy and overwhelming to make sure everything gets done.

The key is just to plan ahead and go with the flow.

Thus, here’s a run-down of how to plan for a large meal and think through everything, so you can enjoy the day and enjoy cooking. (And you can certainly use these tips for any large feast or party. I catered an outdoor surprise birthday party for my mom’s 50th birthday several years ago using these tips, so they’re certainly not exclusive to Thanksgiving.)

And remember, these tips are meant to help and/or inspire anyone, so while some tips may appear self-evident, it may not be that way for everyone. Just skip the ones that don’t apply to you.


Thanksgiving Planner page

1. Sketch out your preliminary menu

Preferably, do this at the beginning of November. That way, if there are certain items you need to special order, say a specialty turkey from your local butcher or a special food item from your family’s heritage (haggis, anyone?), you’ve got ample time to do so.

Also, this can be a fun time that gives you an excuse to drool through your favorite cookbooks and magazines, or it can be very quick and practical.

For me, it varies from year to year. Some years, I make time and sit down with a glass of wine to just enjoy going through recipes and dreaming (my Pinterest boards have become dangerous for this…), but in other years, I just want to get it done, so I copy my list from the year before and toss in new ideas from the other cooks in the family (i.e. my sister and my mother).

To make the list, start by listing the “required” items – you know, the ones you’ll hear complaints about if they’re not present.

Then, list any new recipes you’d like to try or requests that have been mentioned by family members. This is where you can decide if you want to try a carrot pudding or a sweet marrow custard or those Sweet Onion Tartlets you’ve had your eye on.

Sketching out a preliminary menu is especially important if you have new dietary needs you’re working with – perhaps your family is grain-free for the first time this year, you have a guest who is allergic to nuts, or you’re wanting to purchase everything from local producers as much as possible. These certainly can affect which recipes you choose.

Writing down your preliminary ideas makes sure you don’t forget the little things, either, like a relish tray or cranberry sauce. If you forget all those little items, the minutes before you sit to eat will be a whirlwind of little details, but if you see them coming, you can prepare them more easily whenever it’s convenient for you.

This is also the time to look at your list of family and guests. Your guest list certainly doesn’t have to be final, but knowing whether you’re cooking for five or 25 certainly makes a difference. Also, it can give you an idea of how many items on your list can be delegated to others to bring.

This is also a time to take a look at what you want Thanksgiving morning to look like. With any large cooking endeavor, the largest amount of effort comes in the few hours before serving, so decide whether you want to minimize those details or whether you want to be constantly in the kitchen for those hours. Either way certainly has its advantages, but YOU just have to decide what’s right for you and choose your dishes accordingly.

And lastly, this is a good time to decide your policy on leftovers. Do you want to purposely plan lots of leftovers so you’ve got meals more or less ready for the next several days or do you want a modicum of leftover food? Will you be keeping leftovers at your own home or will you be sending “care packages” of leftovers home with your guests?

Quick Preliminary Checklist

  • What are your main dishes?
  • What other dishes do you want to include? Make sure to include small relishes, condiments, and appetizers.
  • Are there any dietary needs?
  • Estimate the size of your guest list.
  • Do you want to do most of your cooking on Thanksgiving Day or the majority ahead of time?
  • Do you want lots of leftovers or do want to try to avoid having leftovers?

2. Make a timeline

Now, look at each recipe and see:

  • what’s required, time-wise (is it all hands-on or are there stretches where it doesn’t need to be watched)
  • if there are parts that can be made ahead
  • if there are any wait times required (for example, a jellied cranberry sauce that needs time to set)

My family’s typically looks something like this:

menu timeline
(Yes, I think in color…. You should have seen my textbooks in college!)


Here are other things to keep in mind as you make your schedule:

Decide how many ingredients you’ll be making from scratch. For example, will you make the pumpkin puree for your pumpkin pie from scratch or will you buy pre-canned pumpkin? Do you want to make cranberry sauce or buy it? If you’re making items from scratch that will be used in other recipes, they need to go on your timeline, too.

Decide whether it’s worth it to pre-chop and prep all your ingredients. For example, if you look at all your recipes and see that three of them use diced celery, then perhaps it’s worth it to just chop an entire bunch of celery and then just grab-and-measure into your recipe. The French cooking tradition calls this mise en place – everything in place. This is the core of every restaurant cooking brigade – when all your ingredients sit prepped and ready, you can quickly make anything your heart desires! But pre-chopping may not be a time-saver for you – you decide what’s right for your schedule.

As you write your timeline, remember to keep in mind your oven space and refrigerator space. The turkey, the stuffing, and the green bean casserole likely won’t fit in the oven all at the same time, so be sure to figure out what you can make ahead and then just stick it in to reheat after the turkey comes out of the oven.

Also on your timeline, don’t forget breakfast, snacks, and beverages! For example, if you’re baking Cranberry-Orange Sourdough Muffins or Cranberry-Orange Cinnamon Rolls for Thanksgiving Day breakfast, the turkey can’t go in until they’re out.

And if it’s a cold day, I like to put hot drinks in the slow cooker rather than on the stovetop. Not only do they add to the delightful smells filling the house, they are available anytime someone comes in from the cold and needs something cozy without taking up room on the stove. Mulled wine, Honey Caramel Apple Cider or Homemade Chai Tea Concentrate are definite favorites for this.

Schedule when you’re going to go shopping. Planning for your shopping (or just incorporating your holiday list with your regular grocery shopping) will not only keep you from having to run out on Thanksgiving morning for little things, but it will help you maximize the sales that happen around the holiday.

Optionally, you might want to schedule setting the table and preparing a buffet area, depending on how you serve. I typically don’t do this, as we’re pretty casual, but I have a handful of friends for whom having to deal with all the table setting and decorating in the midst of the final food preparation is more stress than they want to deal with, so they set the table the night before. Do whatever works for YOU!

Also, setting the table, setting out candles and decorations, and folding cloth napkins can be a great way to get kids of all ages involved. I have this How to Fold Napkins book on hand specifically for Thanksgiving and special occasions, as having each child flip through the book to choose a pattern they want to fold is now a family tradition.

(If you need to have other activities on hand to keep little hands busy, perhaps make some Pumpkin Spice Play Dough. Lovely!)

Quick Scheduling Checklist

  • Determine how long each recipe will take to prepare, as well as if it can be prepared in different stages.
  • Which foods can you ask others to bring?
  • Are there from-scratch ingredients you need to make ahead of time (homemade cream of mushroom soup base, pumpkin puree, etc)?
  • Are you going to pre-chop any vegetables or pre-measure any ingredients?
  • Have you accounted for other meals in your planning (e.g. Thanksgiving Day breakfast, dinner on Friday, etc), both time-wise and shopping-wise?
  • Is there enough room in your refrigerator for all the prepped ingredients? Is there room in the oven for all the dishes?
  • When are you going shopping?
  • Would it be helpful to set the table ahead of time?

 3. Follow Your timeline (But Be Flexible)

No matter how much you plan, the plan will change.

Either you’ll realize that the turkey you purchased to try in a new brine came pre-brined (ask me how I know….) or you’ll forget to take the squash you carefully prepped out of the freezer on time.

Or perhaps your toddler is extra-clingy, so you’re constantly interrupted, or the phone doesn’t stop ringing so you burn the potatoes.

Whatever it is, remember that despite all the time and effort we put into planning the food for such a feast day, this day ISN’T about the food. This day is a day of celebration, of thankfulness, of recognition of the privileges and blessings we do have no matter how hard or easy our lives may be, and of service to those who need extra care.

So, whether you eat on time or not, or whether you eat what you’ve planned or end up ordering in Chinese food, take joy in the Lord’s rich blessings.


menu journal

4. Keep a journal

Keeping a journal is both practical and fun. I’m surprised how much I don’t remember from year to year.

In our family, the idea to keep a Thanksgiving journal was a tradition my sister introduced a number of years ago after we had all moved out and started our own homes and families. She purchased a simple-but-elegant blank journal and each year we fill up just one page. It’s not for huge reflections, although I’m sure you could go to town if you wanted with every person writing in something for which they are thankful – we use it merely for food and general comments.

We write down what we served with little notes about dishes we especially loved, we list the wines we chose, little notes about the weather – even something simple like “a snowy day” – and notes on which cookbook or recipe file certain favorite recipes can be found so that we can easily find and make them again.

We are discovering that even though we began it in order to be able to record where our favorite recipes were located (e.g. “Bon Appetit magazine, November 1998 issue, top shelf of cookbook cupboard”), we are finding that it is becoming a treasured keepsake as it triggers memories of each of those get-togethers. And now that our family is scattered across three countries and two continents, those moments together are more precious than ever and even just seeing the name of a certain bottle of wine written down has been known to trigger a, “Oh, hey! Do you remember that time…?”

When it's a large meal with more food than can fit in the oven at once and lots of family favorites to accommodate, like Thanksgiving, it can become unwieldy and overwhelming to make sure everything gets done. The key is just to plan ahead and go with the flow. Here's a run-down of how to plan for a large meal and think through everything, so you can enjoy the day and enjoy cooking.

Need a bit of inspiration to get you started?

Just in case you don’t already have a stack of recipes you’ve been dying to try, here are a few ideas to get you started. And please share any family favorites of YOURS in the comments!

100+ Healthy Holiday Recipes

Maple-Glazed Yams with Cranberries and Orange

3 (Scrumptious) Liver Pâtés

Pumpkin Bundt Cake with Pumpkin Whipped Cream

Pumpkin Maple Baked Oatmeal

Orange Cranberry Scones

Beet, Fennel, and Blood Orange Salad in a Citrus Vinaigrette

Cabbage Salad with Mint

Brussels Sprout and Bacon Gratin

Sauteed Mushrooms

Cranberry, Apple, and Walnut Cake


What are some traditions your family has developed through the years? Do you have tips that make your Thanksgiving meal planning easier?

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  1. Thanks for sharing this. I am going to try the bundt cake – I am just crazy for pumpkin thus year! Have been using your puree instructions-thanks again! Many blessings to you & yours:)

    1. That bundt cake has been one of my favorites for many, many years (the pumpkin whipped cream really takes it over the top…) I hope you enjoy it!

      Many blessings to you too, Tori! 🙂

  2. What an amazingly helpful post, Kresha! Thank you so much for sharing your super organized strategy! Wishing you and your family a super blessed Thanksgiving! 🙂 Blessings, Kelly

  3. This is so awesome, thank you! I’ve only hosted Thanksgiving once before, and it was so hectic I ended the day by loudly exclaiming that I would never do it again! However, my in-laws are coming this year, and I want it to be special. This post is EXACTLY what I needed to get myself into gear. Thank you again!

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