How to Plan Thanksgiving dinner

How to Plan Thanksgiving Dinner When You’re Crazy Busy ( Step by Step Guide With FREE Spreadsheet & Invitations)

For many people, thinking about Thanksgiving dinner brings visions of turkey and pumpkin pie appearing effortlessly in front of them.

But, for those who have actually hosted Thanksgiving dinner, you know there’s A LOT more to it than that.

Time, money and planning all goes into creating the special scene on this nostalgic day. And hosting it is often squeezed into an already crazy schedule!

So, if you’re overworked and overwhelmed but want to pull off Thanksgiving dinner, we’re here to hook you up.

The following guide will break down all your Thanksgiving tasks into bite-size pieces. You’ll be super organized so you’ll have time to get ready for the holidays and keep up with everything else! 

So, check out this easy to follow breakdown and use the FREE spreadsheet to help you get organized. Plus, you can also print out these cute and FREE Thanksgiving invites.

2 Months Before Thanksgiving Day (Optional Step)

Pre-order a turkey.

You only need to start thinking about Thanksgiving two months ahead of time if you want to order a specialty turkey (like free range or heritage from a local producer) . Two months might seem excessive, but it’s better safe than sorry when talking about your main dinner item. If nothing else, you should get in touch with the producers at the two month mark and see what they recommend for timeline if they’re not quite taking orders (but I bet they are!).

If you’re not ordering a turkey like this you can just sit back and relax at this point.

One Month Before Thanksgiving Day

Contact your guests to save the date

Fall is a busy time and calendars fill up fast. One month before Thanksgiving dinner is a good time to let people know the plan and ask them to carve out time in their schedules.

Want a cute way to save the date? Use our free printable Thanksgiving invitations here. (If you do plan to use the mail invites adjust the timing based on excepted mail delivery of the people you’re inviting.)

*Also note: You may need to invite/plan with some of your guests a bit earlier if long distance travel is required. Flights are cheaper several months in advance!

Want some help tracking all your Thanksgiving guests? Get our FREE Thanksgiving spreadsheet here.

At this point you don’t need to know for sure what food you’re making but it’s a good time to ask about any allergies or dietary preferences you should be aware of. If you’ll likely want help with side dishes or drinks but you’re not sure what you need, let people know you’ll be in touch later. Unless you’re talking to someone SUPER organized, 1 month in advance for food assignments might be a bit early.

However, you might want to start looking around for certain foods at this time. If you have any traditions or “must haves” based on food at Thanksgiving, start thinking about it now. As long as the items are fridge/freezer/shelf stable you can start stocking up. It’s better to have them a bit early than risk not having them at all!

2 Weeks Before Thanksgiving Day

Meal plan and follow up with guests regarding what to bring 

Two weeks before Thanksgiving day is the next time you need to do any planning.

Now is the time to make a meal plan and assign guests to bring what you want them to bring.

To make your menu, write down all the dishes you want to have at your Thanksgiving dinner. Ask yourself how much food it will take to feed all the guests you are inviting. 

Get your meal super organized with our FREE Thanksgiving spreadsheet. You’ll get a tab for appetizers, main course, dessert and drinks. This will help you stay organized and on top of your grocery list. Get it here!

Then think about how much food you can reasonably make by yourself and how much food you need to ask other people to bring.

One thing to remember if you’re getting super stressed out – you are in charge.

You don’t HAVE to make anything particular.

If you’re already feeling overwhelmed it might be better to pair down the menu. This will allow you to feel more relaxed and more likely to enjoy yourself the day of.

Once you know what you’ll be making, go ahead and find recipes for each dish. Make sure to record the recipe book you found it in, or the URL of the website it’s on. 

If you’d like guests to contribute make sure to contact them at this time. Be specific if needed.

HINT: Two weeks before Thanksgiving is also a good time to quietly hide away a few of your kids best toys. In two weeks you’ll be whipping these toys out for your kids entertainment during the cooking frenzy on Thanksgiving day.

11 Days Before Thanksgiving Day

Prep dinner rolls.

11 days before Thanksgiving go ahead and make a freeze ahead recipe for dinner rolls.

Frozen roll dough keeps really well, so you can just thaw them, pop them in the oven when it’s time, and enjoy fresh, easy rolls.

9 Days Before Thanksgiving Day

Clean out the fridge.

Today is the day to clean out fridge, pantry, and freezer to make room for the food you’ll be buying and making. Get rid of anything rotten or expired, and organize the remaining food to leave lots of space. 

8 Days Before Thanksgiving Day

Buy your frozen turkey and non-perishables.

Now it’s time to buy your frozen turkey (assuming that’s what you’re having and you don’t have the freezer space to buy it earlier). You’ll need about 1½ pounds of bird per person so make sure you plan for the appropriate size. You also might want to bump the turkey size up a bit if there’s a chance of extra people showing up or you’d like lots of leftovers for turkey sandwiches and soup later on.

You’ll also need about 24 hours of defrosting time for every 5 lbs.of turkey. Make sure to get that turkey in the fridge in time to thaw!

In the same shopping trip you can also buy drinks and other non-perishables, including potatoes, root vegetables, and ingredients for pies and cranberry sauce. 

7 Days Before Thanksgiving Day

Prep the pies. 

Seven days before Thanksgiving it’s time to make pies and freeze them. There are lots of Thanksgiving recipes for freeze-ahead fruit pies on the internet, like this one.

I also found a great pumpkin pie make-ahead recipe here. Feel free to use one of these recipes, or take a look for your own.

You’ll thank yourself on Thanksgiving day when you have fresh, delicious pies that you did not have to whip up that morning.

6 Days Before Thanksgiving Day

Make cranberry sauce. 

At T minus six days, go ahead and make the cranberry sauce. Then you can throw it in the freezer and you won’t have to worry about it until it’s time to defrost the stuff. 

Also, no one is going to judge you for buying canned cranberry sauce. If it comes down the wire and you have to cut something out, just get the pre-made stuff. 

5 Days Before Thanksgiving Day

Begin defrosting the turkey. 

About five days before Thanksgiving you’ll want to start defrosting your turkey. Just to recap, to thaw a turkey in the fridge you need 24 hours for every 5 lbs. of bird. That means a 25 lb. turkey needs 5 days to thaw. 

It’s a good idea to keep your turkey cold while it thaws so you don’t get yucky bacteria growing on it – no one wants food poisoning during Thanksgiving! If you have questions about how to thaw your turkey safely, check out this website

4 Days Before Thanksgiving Day

Decorate your house. 

Now that Thanksgiving is four days away, it’s time to decorate your house if you want to.

If do decide to make your house look all festive then 1) I applaud and envy your ambition and 2) make sure you put those decorations up high cuz you know your kids are gonna tear them down if they’re not.

3 Days Before Thanksgiving Day

Prep mashed potatoes and other ingredients. 

At three days before Thanksgiving, it’s time to start getting the REALLY important stuff ready: mashed potatoes. Peel and cut your potatoes and store them in water in fridge. Then, on Thanksgiving day they’ll be all ready to cook. 

Today you should also prep any other ingredients that you can (for example, chop veggies for roast veggie dish).

2 Days Before Thanksgiving Day

Buy perishable ingredients, prep appetizers, and bake your pies. 

Two days before Thanksgiving you should go out and buy salad and perishable stuff so it’ll be nice and fresh.

If you’re buying a fresh (not frozen) turkey, now is the time to pick it up from the place you’ve pre-ordered it. You could take a chance and go looking at the store without a preorder now but I wouldn’t risk the main event!

You can also prepare any appetizers that will keep until Thanksgiving and store them in the fridge or freezer. 

If you have time, you can also bake your pies today and they will still be yummy on Thanksgiving (feel free to save this step until tomorrow if you prefer though).

1 Day Before Thanksgiving Day

Bake the rolls, make the stuffing, and decide when to start baking the turkey. 

If it’s one day before Thanksgiving that means it’s time for a baking and cooking blitz! It’s time to make the stuffing, bake the rolls, and decide what time to put your turkey in the oven the next day

You could also choose to bake a make-ahead turkey and steam it to reheat the next day. (I’ve done this and it worked AMAZINGLY). 

After making a mess cooking, it’s time to clean your house to get ready for your guests tomorrow. I know, it’s gonna be messy again by tomorrow, but maybe if you clean after the kids go to sleep it’ll last longer?

Thanksgiving Day

Cook everything else, do a last minute clean, set the table, and enjoy your meal!

Okay, so it’s Thanksgiving day:

Step 1:

Put your husband on kid duty or cooking duty. Whatever it is, you’ll need to divide, conquer, and give specific instructions to get everything done.

Step 2: 

Put the turkey in the oven (you need about 20 minutes per lb. for an unstuffed turkey).

Step 3: 

If you want to free up oven space, think about using turkey roaster, instant pot, or slow cooker to make more room. 

Cook all of your prepped food, make the salad, warm or bake the stuffing, and make gravy from turkey drippings.

Step 4:

Set the table at the last minute so young children only have time to mess it up a little bit. 

Step 5: 

Do a last minute clean before everyone arrives at your fabulous dinner!

Get Started on Thanksgiving Planning

Step by step guide for planning Thanksgiving

Now that you have this great Thanksgiving planning guide, it’s time to get started on planning your Thanksgiving feast!

So give the guide a read-through and print this Thanksgiving planner printable to remind you what to do. Soon you’ll be cooking up a storm and enjoying a low-stress Thanksgiving dinner. 

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