Cooking your first Thanksgiving can be nervewracking. It’s a big day with SO MUCH pressure, it can feel crazy overwhelming.
So you’re the one who needs to survive cooking Thanksgiving dinner this year. Lucky you!
Except…. not. There are so many moving parts to Thanksgiving, how can you keep track of them all!?
Maybe you’re freaking out about cooking your first Thanksgiving because you’ve never cooked for these 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/aunt/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 will, too!)
But before that, here are 6 steps I learned from the ground up that can help you survive cooking your first Thanksgiving.
These tips will help whether you’re new to the game or just plain freaking overwhelmed.
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.
Next, write a rough timeline
This is where the dirt meets the road, my friends. Once you have the particulars like guest list and menu figured out, your timeline (or ‘game plan’) will be the single most important process of the meal- before you start cooking.
I’d wager to say it’s more important than the actual cooking. 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.
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 booze desserts whipped cream ice cream serving dishes and spoons napkins, cutlery, glasses, tablecloth side dishes
In all actuality, everything but the turkey can be brought potluck-style by someone else.
(And technically, the turkey can be brought in from somewhere else, too!)
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!
Add extra plastic storage containers, cling film, and ziplock bags to your grocery list so that you store leftovers and 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 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: What’s your Thanksgiving game plan?
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.
Other questions to help figure out your timing: How long 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 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: cooking (and reheating) everything on the day of Thanksgiving, 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.
But I’ve gathered a few tips in the meantime that will help you not make some of the same mistakes I did early on! Click the images below to enlarge. You can also pin them to save for later!
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!
Don’t forget to download my FREE Thanksgiving Game Plan by entering your email in the boxes below. You’ll get access to a gameplan breakdown cheat sheet, a checklist for the big day, and my food amounts cheat sheet. It’s a really helpful little packet!
Still nervous about cooking for the big day? I got your back, busy friend. Click here to buy my whole Thanksgiving meal plan, including recipes, grocery lists, cheat sheets, worksheets, storage and make-ahead ideas, and fully itemized grocery list. It’s insanely helpful and jampacked with info that will save you a TON of time planning, prepping and getting ready for Thanksgiving!