How to Plan Thanksgiving Dinner in Under an Hour

Thanksgiving is one of the biggest food events of the year, and making Thanksgiving dinner can rattle even the most seasoned home cooks. Whether you’re trying to feed two or twenty, this guide to planning dinner will help you get ahead of the stress and ensure Turkey Day success!

My mom first taught me how to plan out our Thanksgiving dinners; she does it every year using recipe cards and a spiral-bound notebook. These days I use my computer and a Google Doc for my family’s plan, but either method is perfectly acceptable. On paper or online, the Thanksgiving plan document will contain six things:

  1. the guest list
  2. menu
  3. “how can I help?” list
  4. recipes
  5. grocery list
  6. schedule for the holiday

Creating your Thanksgiving Day game plan takes less than an hour. I start with the hardest thing first: a quick family meeting to get all of us on the same page.

10 minutes: Family Meeting
Start by talking with your family for a few minutes about the following questions. Your notes from this conversation will serve as the framework for the rest of your plan.

  • What is your budget for the meal?
  • How many people are attending Thanksgiving dinner?
  • When and where will you eat?
  • What does everyone want to eat?
  • Do you want leftovers of each dish?
  • How does each family member want to help?

Congratulations! Getting everyone to agree on these basics is usually the hardest part of planning the meal. From here, it only gets easier!

Now it’s time to assemble the plan.

7 minutes: Guest List & Dinner Menu
First, write out your guest list. Don’t forget to include yourself! Next, write out the Thanksgiving dinner menu. This doesn’t need to be fancy, just organize the notes from your earlier family meeting into appetizers, main dishes, side dishes, condiments, and desserts.

20 minutes: Recipes
Once you have the menu written out on paper, decide how to cook the turkey and each dish. Indicate which Thanksgiving dishes you can buy prepared, which you can make-ahead, and which you will need to cook on Turkey Day.

Gather the recipes for each dish as you go, either by writing them out on recipe cards or by copy-pasting them into a single document on your computer. There are several free resources online to help with this, like, Whole Foods’ Holiday Cooking Guide, and Veg Kitchen’s collection of Vegan Holiday Recipes.

3 minutes: “How can I help?” List
Now take a look at your menu, the recipes you’ve gathered, and your guest list. Take five minutes to brainstorm ways your guests and family can help you. Which dishes can you ask guests to bring? Can your children be responsible for setting the table, assembling salads and other simple tasks? Gather all of these thoughts on a “How Can I Help” list.  I find that this step is helps me avoid the dreaded “Turkey Day Martyr Syndrome,” and it gives me graceful answers for when dinner guests ask, “How can I help?”

10 minutes: Grocery List
The next step is to make a grocery list and a list of kitchen equipment that you will need. If you’re a Greenling customer, go ahead and place your grocery order now, so that you don’t have to worry about that later. Don’t forget to reserve your turkey now, too! Plan for 1.5 pounds of bird for every guest, more if you want leftovers. That means if you ‘re planning a meal for 10, you’ll need at least a 15-pound turkey.

10 minutes: Schedule the remaining tasks
You’re almost there! With a complete guest list, menu, recipe collection, delegation list, and grocery list, you have everything you need to jot down a schedule of tasks leading up to Thanksgiving Day. This should include calling guests to ask for help, grocery shopping (if you haven’t already done that online), cleaning the house, thawing the turkey, and cooking or unwrapping each dish on your menu.  If you need a little help, check out this sample schedule online for inspiration.

That’s it for now! The last step for today is to click “save” if you’re working online, or to put your papers away in a safe place. Make sure you know what your next scheduled task is, and quit worrying about Thanksgiving until then.


2 responses to “How to Plan Thanksgiving Dinner in Under an Hour

  1. My biggest problem is deciding how many dishes to make. I am always torn between old family recipes i want to continue with the tradition of, and using the big food day to try new things. And then there are always requests. I usuallly make to many things.

  2. Pingback: Giada’s Family Dinners

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