The first time I cooked a traditional Thanksgiving meal from scratch, I can say for a fact that I used every single cooking vessel — pots, pans, roasters and Dutch ovens — in my reasonably well-equipped kitchen. Although I had lists upon lists and every step mapped out well beforehand, it still took three days of intensive cooking and resulted in my exhausted-self, muttering in an exasperated tone, “How the heck do people do this every year?”
Experience has shown me the value of starting well ahead — a month or more, ideally. If this seems excessive, think of it as trading a frenzied few days for an hour here and there, resulting in a relaxing Thanksgiving.
Here is a foolproof way to space out your Thanksgiving feast and make sure everything is on time, right up to the moment guests take their seats at the dinner table.
Thanksgiving Menu: (Serves 8)
One Month To Go
Order Your Turkey From the Butcher
You definitely don’t want to be the recipient of last-minute turkey on the big day, when selection is sparse and crowds are full. Ordering ahead — especially if you’re asking the butcher to do something more involved such as spatchcocking or you have a specifically sized bird in mind — will give you time to discuss your menu and get some cooking tips.
A general rule of thumb is a half pound to one pound of meat per person, but you want to err on the side of being lavish — leftovers are one of the best parts of Thanksgiving. For a foolproof turkey measure, the Turkey Farmers of Canada offers an online turkey calculator that will tell you the size of turkey you should buy, depending on the number of guests.
Sit Down and Plan Your Menu . . .
. . . right down to drinks and appetizers. Decide on how many people you’re looking to invite and send out invitations with an RSVP time of next week. If your friends and family are notorious for bringing unexpected guests, budget space and food accordingly. Be practical: do you have enough seating and table room for everyone to comfortably eat?
Clean Out Freezer Space
This is the time to start using those meals you’ve put aside for a busy day or ditch that crystallized ice cream — you’re going to need that room in the weeks ahead.
Three Weeks To Go
Finalize Your Menu
Now’s your opportunity to whittle down your menu from all the things you optimistically wanted to make. Be ruthless in your planning — do you really need eight appetizers and five desserts for a party of eight? (The answer is no.)
Make Two Shopping Lists
Read all your recipes carefully and make two shopping lists: one for non-perishables (you’ll be buying those this week) and one for perishables to be purchased closer to the big day.
Beat the crowds and head out to the grocery store to stock up on your long-storing items in bulk: store-made or canned/boxed stock for gravies and soups, flour and sugar for baking, cocktail napkins, and juices and pop for drinks. Also, think about buying ingredient staples, such as garlic, onions, apples, potatoes, carrots or parsnips, which all keep well and will save you from an overloaded cart later on. Buy ingredients for stuffing, cranberry sauce, and gravy to make next week. Consider purchasing wine and mixes for winter cocktails, such as a festive mulled cider.
Open your cupboards and review your platters and serving dishes that can go from freezer or fridge to table, and assign them to each dish: appetizers, turkey, stuffing, sauces, vegetables, dinner rolls, mashed potatoes, and desserts. Have a spare handy in case you misjudge the volume.
Two Weeks To Go
Make Your Pie and Cheesecake Bites
Store them in the freezer on pretty plates that you can place on the table.(Read this article for tips on freezing cookies and bars.)
Time to Think Savoury Thoughts
Make-ahead gravy will take a last-minute item off your plate on the big day and let you focus on other things. Using roasted chicken wings builds a flavour base, so all you have to do is add the drippings when you’ve cooked your turkey and you’re all set. Cover and store in the freezer.
Cranberry sauce is easy to make ahead, as well. Store it in a small microwavable dish that can go straight from the freezer to the table to save a plating step.
Get ahead of the game by making stuffing and storing it in the freezer and oven-safe dishes to make reheating a snap. Instead of one big container, consider making two portions to avoid having to pass big platters around the table (and upping the potential of using a toaster oven to reheat it on the big day, freeing up precious oven space), or look at a plate of these apple and onion stuffing muffins to make portion size and plating easy.
Now’s also the time to par-bake dinner rolls to store in freezer bags (make sure to get out all the excess air) and whip up some make-ahead mashed potatoes to store in the freezer in oven-ready dishware.
One Week To Go
Grocery Shopping Round 2
Back to the grocery store with your second list of perishables, including vegetables such as green beans, cauliflower, and broccoli, dairy such as butter, milk and eggs, coffee and tea, and any ingredients you need for appetizers. Consider some pots of fresh herbs for garnishes and aromatic table decorations.
Time for a Kitchen Inspection
Clean out space in the refrigerator for leftovers, and give it a quick wipe down so that new food doesn’t absorb the odours of last week’s takeout. Check your oven, toaster oven, stovetop and range hood to ensure they are clean and ready to go. Pop out greasy filters to give them a soak so that your fans work effectively. Locate your fire extinguisher (better safe than sorry), warming trays or chafing dishes and check that you have enough power outlets to run everything — a power failure is the last thing you need.
Check your Dishware and Cutlery Situations
Do you have enough matching plates, forks, spoons and sharp knives, coffee cups, and wine and water glasses? Locate your cloth napkins and tablecloths, and wash them if necessary.
Three Days To Go
Pick up Your Fresh or Frozen Turkey
If it’s frozen, now is the time to start defrosting it in the refrigerator (for a 10 lb bird, Turkey Farmers of Canada recommends two days and two hours of defrosting time in the fridge).
Two Days To Go
Make your green bean casserole and cauliflower and broccoli cheese in table-ready serving ware, cover them securely and store in the fridge.
One Day Before
Get Your Gear Ready
Assemble serving platters for the turkey and rolls, as well as serving implements for each dish. Check how many trivets you have for warm dishes going to the table to preserve your tablecloths. Put together your smaller items, such as corkscrews, pie servers, gravy boats, ladles, electric carving knife, strainers and hand blenders for last-minute gravy adjustments, etc., to have on hand so that you’re not searching for them at the last minute. If you don’t use your coffeemaker or espresso machine regularly, pull it out of storage. Assemble appetizer and dessert plates with cocktail napkins.
Set the Table
Cover the whole table with another tablecloth or bed sheet to keep it dust-free, and watch out on removal so you don’t end up performing an inadvertent, unsuccessful, magic trick.
Prepare and Truss the Turkey
And store it uncovered in the roasting pan in the refrigerator to let the skin dry out for crispness.
Gather Your Garnishes
A bit of watercress or other greens is a pleasing contrast to the turkey. Put butter into serving dishes, cover, and store in the refrigerator. Assemble your appetizer platters and store, covered, in the refrigerator. Chill white wine, juice and soda. Print out the game plan below so you can check items off as you go.
The Big Day
In the Morning: Treat yourself and sleep in! You’ve earned it, and you’ll need the energy as the day goes on.
Noon: Make sure to have some lunch, so you’re not starving as the day goes on. Look over your lists and recipes again. Take the apple pie out of the freezer to defrost.
1 p.m.: Carefully remove the cover from the table setting and add any last-minute touches (the pots of herbs for an informal centrepiece, candles, fresh flowers, etc.).
2 p.m.: Pull turkey out of the fridge to bring to room temperature.
3 p.m.: Turn on the oven to 350 ° F to preheat.
Add aromatics such as onions and apples, if desired, to the cavity of the turkey.
3:30 p.m.: Put the turkey into the oven.
4 p.m.: Open or decant wine. Put mulled cider on the stovetop to simmer.
5 p.m.: Bring your appetizer platters out of the fridge to serve, adjusting any seasonings or last-minute garnishes.
Bring the mashed potatoes, stuffing and vegetables out of the fridge to bring to room temperature.
6 p.m.: Guests arrive.Serve appetizer platters, wine and mulled cider.
Serve appetizer platters, wine and mulled cider.
Take the turkey out of the oven and cover with foil to rest.
Pour off juices to add to gravy (reserve a 1/4 cup) and put on stovetop to heat.
Put mashed potatoes, stuffing and vegetables into the oven.
Carve the turkey. Take reserved juices and pour on top of the slices to keep them moist and plate them on your prepared platter with watercress.
6:45 p.m.: Take out potatoes, stuffing and vegetables and put them on the table.
Put dinner rolls in the oven to finish baking and melt butter on a low heat on the stovetop to brush over.
Call everyone to start getting ready to eat.
Pour wine and drinks. Bring the rolls and turkey to the table.
7 p.m.: Dinnertime!
Turn the oven off. Put pie in the oven to warm for dessert and bring out the cheesecake bites. Turn on the coffeemaker.
8:30 p.m.: Serve desserts and coffee and tea.
10 p.m.: Relax…the dishes can wait until tomorrow.
Looking for to plan your own menu? Start with these Great Canadian Thanksgiving Recipes.