Start Thanksgiving Meal Planning a Month in Advance

Customize Food & Wine's day-by-day meal planner to prepare for holiday hosting.

Thanksgiving Table Decorating
Photo: Rawpixel Ltd/Getty Images

Pulling off a flawless Thanksgiving dinner is akin to a beautiful dance: Everything appears effortless and elegant on the surface, but behind the scenes there's a lot of hard work, maybe some injuries and A LOT of advanced preparation. And the key to successfully hosting the biggest meal of the year (and actually enjoying it) is to start checking things off your to-do list now. From Thanksgiving menu planning to making your gravy and picking out your table décor, we've laid out each step for you, including an hourly breakdown of the big day. Let us show you how to tackle this holiday like pro, one day at a time. — Julia Heffelfinger

01 of 18

Last Saturday of October: Finalize your guest list.

Finalize Thanksgiving Guest List
Dougal Waters/Getty Images

Check with friends and family and figure out how many people will be attending. Once you have this number, then you can determine how much food and drink you'll need to buy!

02 of 18

Last Sunday of October: Clean out your freezer.

Clean out your freezer
Howard Shooter/Getty Images

This is a good time to eat those frozen leftovers and toss that freezer-burned vanilla ice cream. You'll need as much freezer space as you can get.

03 of 18

First week of November: Plan your menu.

Herb-Roasted Turkey
John Kernick

Three weeks should be enough time to have an epic menu developed. If you're searching for ideas, we've got a few. Whatever you decide, don't forget to check out these tips to make sure your meal goes off without a hitch.

04 of 18

First week of November: Check your equipment.

Le Creuset Bakeware
Courtesy of Williams Sonoma

Do you have a good roasting pan? Enough baking dishes? A reliable thermometer? Here are our essential tools for Thanksgiving.

05 of 18

First Friday of November: Order your turkey.

Cider-Glazed Turkey with Lager Gravy
Con Poulos

A flawless Thanksgiving begins with a high-quality bird. Here are our tips on what type and size to order to make sure that you buy a good turkey.

06 of 18

First Saturday of November: Make your grocery list and do your first round of shopping.

Grocery Shopping
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Organize your list by grocery store sections (produce, dairy, dry goods) or by shop (bakery, butcher, farmers market) to make your trip extra-efficient. Then go pick up all of your non-perishables (flour, canned pumpkin, bread crumbs, etc.) and what you'll need to make your turkey stock, gravy, and pie crusts (see next steps).

Tip: Don't forget to stock up on resealable bags and containers for leftovers.

07 of 18

First Sunday of November: Make your turkey stock and gravy.

Make Turkey Stock and Gravy
Bobby Fisher

No one wants to be whisking their gravy over a hot stove, waiting for it to thicken while hungry guests peer over your shoulder. Do yourself a favor and make your gravy when you make your homemade stock. Ask your butcher for turkey pieces like wings, backs and necks and make this deeply flavorful Turkey Stock and super-silky make-ahead Turkey Gravy from Anthony Bourdain. Just be sure to save enough stock for stuffing and soups.

Tip: Bulky plastic containers take up a lot of space. Try pouring your stock and gravy into heavy duty resealable plastic bags and laying them flat in your freezer.

08 of 18

Second Saturday in November: Make your pie crust.

Make Pie Crust
John Kernick

Our Homemade Pie Crust tips will give you flawless results. After making the dough, divide into disks and wrap very well with plastic to prevent any drying out or weird odors from your freezer permeating the dough.

09 of 18

Second Sunday in November: Plan your table décor.

Thanksgiving Table Decorating
Rawpixel Ltd/Getty Images

Setting a beautiful table doesn't have to be hard. Here's inspiration for everything from glassware to serving trays.

10 of 18

Third week of November: Shop for beer and wine.

Thanksgiving Wines
Con Poulos

We have plenty of resources for the best wines to go with turkey, plus other pairings like cider and fall cocktails.

11 of 18

Mid-November: Clean out your fridge.

Clean out your fridge
Gary Burchell/Getty Images

You'll need the space in preparation for the week of cooking ahead.

12 of 18

A week before Thanksgiving: Make copies of your recipes.

Thanksgiving Recipes
ChickiBam/Getty Images

If you're using recipes from a magazine (you know, any magazine) or a cookbook, copy them (or bookmark on your phone) so you don't have to keep flipping between pages and balancing a big book next to the stove. Then, study up. You don't want to get halfway through your prep and realize something needs to cool overnight.

Tip: Shuffling papers while your hands are covered in turkey juices is gross and no fun. Tape the recipes up on your kitchen cabinets for easy viewing (and finding).

13 of 18

The weekend before Thanksgiving: Pick up your turkey and perishable items.

Thanksgiving Grocery Shopping
photopalace/Getty Images

This is also a good time to make sure you're ready for the day after Thanksgiving. Pick up all the fixings you'll need for that epic leftover sandwich: good sliced bread, your favorite mayo, lettuce, some aged cheddar.

Tip: Stock paper plates so you can take a break from dishwashing.

14 of 18

The Monday before Thanksgiving: Ready your turkey and bakeware

Defrost the turkey
GMVozd/Getty Images

Defrost your turkey (if frozen) and your frozen prepped items (stock, gravy, pie crust) in the refrigerator. This is the best way to gently, and safely, thaw your turkey so as to give it ample time to defrost (at least 24 to 36 hours). If you're in a panic and it's time to prep your bird, but it hasn't thawed, let it sit wrapped and fully submerged in cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes.

Make your brine. Do this well in advance so that it has time to chill before you add your turkey. Be sure to use a pot that has enough remaining room for the bird and will fit in your fridge.

Lay out your platters and baking dishes. Label each dish with which food will be going in or on it. If you can, do this where your buffet will be to make sure everything fits.

15 of 18

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving: Prep and chill.

Prep Thanksgiving Ingredients
Anchiy/Getty Images

Pick up the items for your centerpiece (flowers, gourds, fruit, etc.).

Chill the wine and beer. If you're lucky and live in a cold place, the garage or a covered porch are ideal for this – just make sure it's not below freezing out!

Start prepping your side dishes and desserts. Wash and dry the lettuce for your salad, make your vinaigrette, roast and purée the pumpkin for your pie (if doing it from scratch), sauté the vegetables for your stuffing, stamp out your biscuits and store them in the freezer. The more you can get done today, the easier your next 48 hours will be.

Tip: Save your vegetable scraps (onion peels, carrot greens, turnip butts, herb stems, etc..) and toss them in a large resealable plastic bag. Put this bag in your freezer and use it to make stock with the leftover turkey bones.

16 of 18

The day before Thanksgiving: Clean and do some final make ahead prep.

Final Thanksgiving Prep
Dean Mitchell/Getty Images

Brine your turkey. If you're spatchcocking your turkey and your butcher hasn't already done so, do it before you brine. If you're able to store your turkey in its brine outside, make sure that the container is secure in a safe, animal-free spot. (Spoiler: Raccoons LOVE raw turkey.)

Finish your make-ahead sides. Assemble your stuffing, make your soup, mix your corn pudding – you can even make your mashed potatoes.

Clean your house. If you can, hire a cleaning service in advance, or put your loving family to work. Save the kitchen for last and don't forget to run your dishwasher.

Set your table and buffet. Pour yourself a glass of wine (you deserve it), make your arrangements, and lay out table runners, napkins, silverware, candles and place cards.

17 of 18

Thursday: THE BIG DAY

Citrus and Butter Turkey
Nicole Franzen

You've done hard work of planning and now it's time to make sure it pays off. Enjoy Thanksgiving!

18 of 18

Friday: Relax with your leftovers.

Thanksgiving Leftovers Sandwich

Matt Taylor-Gross / Food Styling by Barrett Washburne

Sleep in and take the day off (marathon a TV series, eat an epic turkey sandwich, and take a nap on the couch). For dinner, try one of these creative ways to repurpose those coveted leftovers.

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