So you’re in charge of the big turkey meal this year. Lucky you!
Except…. maybe not so lucky. There are so many moving parts to a meal this large, how can you keep track of them all- especially if you’re cooking your first Thanksgiving dinner!?
Maybe you’re freaking out about cooking your first Thanksgiving because you’ve never cooked for this many people before?
Or, last year you cooked and it was a disaster. Cold turkey, chewy mashed potatoes (how!?), and a dinner that finally got on the table 3 hours after you started.
Or, your mom/grandma/uncle has always cooked an AWESOME dinner but they’re not able to this year, and the pressure is on!
Or, your kitchen is teeny tiny and you have zero space for a normal week’s groceries and gadgets, let alone the amount you’ll need for MORE.
Fear not, my busy friend. I’ve been there, I’ve burned the mashed potatoes, and I lived to tell the tale.
(You’ll live to tell it, too!)
Here are 6 steps I learned from the ground up so that you, too, can survive cooking your first Thanksgiving.
These tips will help whether you’re new to the game or just plain freaking overwhelmed.
P.S. Or, just skip the rest and just download my FULL Thanksgiving meal plan, for just $2.99! This is the breakdown I use every year for the last 15 Thanksgivings, and I’m sharing my secrets and plans with you, my friend. Click here for details.
Step One: Write it all down.
This is the first, and possibly the most crucial step of the whole process of Thanksgiving dinner: get it all out on paper.
Start with an enormous list; include every single thing you’ll need to remember. Just get it all out, then work backward from there, breaking the list into smaller parts.
Write your whole guest list first.
As you’re figuring out the guest list, now is the time- before you decide on the menu- to find out who’s got allergies, who’s vegan, who’s able to bring their famous pumpkin pie along, etc.
Don’t forget the kids!
For example, do you have an uncle who likes to pour gravy all over everything, even his salad? Make a quick note of that on your guest list, so you don’t forget when you’re writing out your menu.
Then, write your entire menu.
This is the fun part! Keeping those with dietary restrictions in mind, figure out the recipes you’ll be making for the big day.
Cruise Pinterest, magazines, blogs, Google, ask your friends and family on Facebook for recipe recommendations. Keep it simple, but have fun!
If a recipe is super new to you, try to fit in a ‘practice’ run in the week or so before Thanksgiving. Being familiar with a recipe helps to take the edge off the stress of cooking on the day of.
Another important tenet of writing out your menu is deciding on what you can make ahead of time and chill or freeze until Thanksgiving Day; I’ll touch on the specifics of that later in the post. But it helps to, as you’re writing out your menu for the day, make a mental note of what can be made ahead to take some of the day-of pressure off.
Here’s what to serve when cooking your first Thanksgiving:
If you’re drawing a blank on what a typical T-giving day menu includes, no sweat. Here’s what I always make sure to have on the big day:
–The turkey (duh) I plan the turkey seasoning too, including the stuffing/dressing (here is my tried-and-true turkey recipe)
–Gravy I make mine old school, using drippings from the gravy and extra chicken stock , but premade is fine!
–Some kind of salad (I usually serve this Kale Salad with Farro, Spicy-Sweet Bacon Candy, and Pomegranate Seeds)
–1-2 casseroles/side dishes (Homemade Green Bean Casserole is a must, and I love this Pear, Leek, and Cheddar Savory Bread Pudding too)
–Cranberry sauce I make mine from scratch by boiling cranberries and a little oj on the stove, but if you’re a canned fam, enjoy it that way!
THAT’S IT. Anything else on your menu is extra. Trust me on this one. You do not need to pull out all the stops!
Once your guest list and menu is planned, write a rough timeline
This is where the rubber meets the road, my friends. The timeline you put together for cooking your first Thanksgiving dinner (ie your ‘game plan’) will be the single most important process of the meal, other than, you know, the whole cooking thing.
With the right game plan, your stress load will be remarkably minimized!
The trick is to start early.
No matter how much more time there is between now and Thanksgiving, take a few minutes and write out everything that needs to be done between now and the morning of.
This includes grocery shopping. Turkey ordering. Booze procurement. Make-ahead items. The breakdown of cooking Thanksgiving day itself. Get it allllll on paper.
Step Two: Utilize Your Guest List.
Accept the help!
I get it, I do. It’s hard accepting help. I struggle with it all the time.
But with a dinner like Thanksgiving, it’s okay to lean on people.
When someone asks, “what can I bring?” be honest. Tell them!
Here are some suggestions you can ask people to bring:
- whipped cream
- ice cream
- serving dishes and spoons
- napkins, cutlery, glasses, tablecloth
- side dishes
- extra trash bags
- reusable containers and big ziplock bags for leftovers
- extra chairs, if you don’t have enough
- even the turkey!
What about the cleanup?
Don’t forget to figure this out! Try not to make it all on you; you’ll be doing enough that day!
Make sure to have extra plastic storage containers, cling film, and ziplock bags on hand so you can send stuff home with guests.
If someone asks how they can help, ask if they’ll chip in with cleaning and storing food after the meal. It’s a cheesy old adage, but it’s true: heavy hands really do make light work!
Step Three: Figure out how much food you’ll need.
If you buy my Thanksgiving meal plan, you’ll see I’ve included a super handy primer for figuring out how much food you’ll need for each guest. Obviously, you can play around with this; kids will eat less, some adults will eat more.
And don’t forget the leftovers! Turkey sandwiches the day after Thanksgiving is one of my favorite parts of the holiday!
Step Four: Get together a ‘cooking your first Thanksgiving’ gameplan together
Think of a football coach in this way; you need to have a full ‘game plan’ mapped out ahead of time. This is what helps you create a clear path to Thanksgiving victory.
The best way to create a ‘Cooking Your First Thanksgiving’ game plan is to start big, then whittle it down to actionable steps.
Here’s what I mean by starting big, then whittling down:
BIG THING: grocery shop
- Decide on the items you’re making (don’t include the dishes guests may be bringing).
- Write down every single ingredient you’ll need, then check your cupboards and fridges to see what you’ve got and what you can substitute in.
- Then, write your grocery list.
- Clear your fridge for the onslaught of new items you’ll be bringing home.
- Bring your list to the store (aside: Somehow, I manage to forget this every year 🤦 Don’t be like me. Remember your list!)
BIG THING: Cook Thanksgiving dinner
- Decide the time you want dinner to be on the table, then work backward from there.
- How long will the turkey take? That’s when it goes in the oven.
- How long do you need to prep the turkey before it goes in the oven?
- What items can be cooked beforehand and then reheated for dinner?
- What can be made or put together in the ~20 minutes while the turkey rests after it’s out of the oven?
Tip: To avoid looking at your now enormous list of clear steps and getting overwhelmed, start with the smallest, easiest things first. Not only will it feel good to cross a handful of things off your list in a short period of time, but it will get the ball rolling in a ‘snowball’ effect; more things done means more momentum for the rest.
You can do this!
Step Five: Work the Game Plan.
Getting down to business on the day of Thanksgiving
Now comes the real balancing act in the game of cooking your first Thanksgiving: cooking (and reheating) everything on the big day, and getting it all on the table at the same time.
This is the step that I struggled with for years! I would find myself frantically mashing potatoes while everyone else was sitting down to dinner, privately cursing my mismanaged time.
By writing everything out, planning ahead, leaving room for contingencies, and giving yourself grace- you’re already way ahead of the game, my friend.
Step Six: Get a Plan Together for the Clean-Up
It’s the least fun part of the day, but don’t forget the post-Thanksgiving dinner cleanup and storage.
Having a rough idea of how this will play out will make it go much smoother and faster. I personally kind of enjoy cleaning up after Thanksgiving, although I’m usually beat after all that cooking. But it’s a nice time to reflect and chat with people on a more casual, one-to-one level.
Plus, when you’re in the kitchen you’re located at the prime advantage point for sneaking another piece of pie or a glass of wine. Score!
When people ask if they can bring something to help, sometimes I’ll tell them not to bring anything but to plan on chipping in to wash dishes.
I also make sure to always clean as I cook, which cuts down on the anxiety-inducing pile of post-dinner casserole dishes.
And lastly, I make double sure that there’s plenty of big ziplock baggies, plastic storage containers, cling film, tin foil, etc to both store food easily and send people home with leftovers.
There you have it; the Six Steps to Cooking Your First Thanksgiving!
If you’re a veteran Thanksgiving cook, or you think I forgot something- I wanna hear about it! Do you have any extra tips and tricks you wish you knew before jumping into cooking a Thanksgiving dinner? Leave a message in the comment section below!
And if you’re ready to fully plan out the BEST Thanksgiving, grab my whole Thanksgiving meal plan for just $2.99! It’s packed with 9 recipes for a full traditional meal, seating and guest charts, grocery list charts, ideas to keep kids busy and involved, day-of game plans, prep-ahead cheat sheets, “how much to serve?” cheat sheets, AND MORE!
This is the same breakdown I use every year to plan my Thanksgiving dinner- and now it’s yours for just a few bucks. You’re gonna be so thankful you have this easy-to-follow planner in your back pocket for the big day!