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How To Cook Thanksgiving Dinner. And Live to Tell the Tale

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Are you freaking out because this is your first year hosting Thanksgiving dinner and you’re not sure you can pull it off? Fret not, little turkey. I’m here for you. Since I’ve been through this many times, I can assure you this is totally doable with the help of some Thanksgiving dinner planning.

Thanksgiving Dinner PlanningI want you to picture yourself gliding gracefully with your beautifully roasted turkey and setting it down on your perfectly decorated table, all to the chorus of appreciative ooh’s and ahh’s from your family and friends.

Your table is full of tastefully prepared side dishes which were all cooked with perfect timing.

Do you smell that? That’s victory, kids.

Victory and maybe a hint of mashed potato that’s stuck in your hair. And also maybe a hint of the wine you chugged like a frat boy at a kegger because you weren’t sure if the corn was going to be done in time for the sweet potatoes to go into the oven.

None of that matters now though. What matters is that YOU DID IT. YOU WON THANKSGIVING. And I’m going to show you how to make that dream a reality.

Thanksgiving Dinner Planning

All you really need in order to have a successful Thanksgiving is a plan. And please don’t think you can start Thanksgiving dinner planning the day before Thanksgiving and have everything turn out OK. No, you need to start planning at least the week before and maybe more.

I’m lucky because we have our traditional dishes we cook every single year.

Alex is a real stickler for tradition so there’s no varying from the plan without an intense trial and testing phase for any new potential dishes. And of course, she gets final approval.

But for the most part, I know what I’m cooking and I know how long it takes to put together and most importantly, how long it needs to cook. If this is your first year doing the hosting gig you may not have that list of pre-approved things to cook. But either way, the first step in creating your plan is to decide on your menu.

Thanksgiving Dinner Table

Thanksgiving Dinner Planning: Let’s Talk Turkey

A frozen turkey isn’t the only option. You could also grab a fresh turkey but you’re definitely going to pay more for it. And you can’t leave a fresh turkey in the fridge over 2 days. If you’re ordering it from a farmer or through a butcher, keep this in mind or you could end up freezing it anyway.

It’s recommended that your turkey should weigh one pound for every person who’ll be eating. But I also feel it’s important to account for all those leftover turkey sandwiches you could be having.

Oh, yeah. One last tip.

You might not be aware of this but there are extra pieces stored inside the cavity. Gross, right? I’m pointing this out because when I cooked my first turkey years ago, I didn’t realize this. And I’m going out on a limb here and assuming that others may not know this either, especially if it’s your first time dealing with a turkey.

If you’ve ever heard of giblet gravy, this is where it comes from. The giblets are stored both in the spaces in the front of the turkey and the back, so make sure you check both. The neck is usually stored in the back of the turkey and looks like a long tube. There will be a paper-wrapped package in the front of the turkey, under the flap of skin between the wings. This is where you’ll find the heart, liver, and gizzard. Put these in a Ziploc bag and store in the fridge.

They’re great to use to make stock for soup or if you want to try your hand at giblet gravy. Here’s an easy recipe for it if you want to check it out.

Cooking Methods

Assuming you’ve chosen turkey as your main course, you need to decide which cooking method you’re using.

Deep-Fried Turkey

It’s been a few years but we’re going to deep-fry our turkey this year. I think a deep-fried turkey tastes amazing.

There are a variety of flavors you can inject into your turkey if the idea of shooting up a turkey doesn’t bother you. Lemon garlic, Cajun, and plain butter are just a few that come to mind. You can buy an injection kit at stores like Target or Walmart. It’s really just a big needle that you put the marinade in. A deep-fried turkey takes a lot less time to cook than an oven-roasted turkey, which can help with timing the use of the oven.

A word of warning, even though I’m sure we’ve all seen the videos of flaming turkey horror when it all goes wrong, exercise extreme caution when deep-frying a turkey.

We’re dealing with a) propane gas b) boiling hot oil and c) meat.

Wear the proper safety gear and for heaven’s sake, do it outside. Never, ever, ever, try and deep-fry a turkey indoors unless you’re using an actual indoor turkey fryer. A few other turkey frying tips would be to let the bird come up to room temperature and thoroughly dry it before lowering into the hot oil.

No Thanksgiving Dinner Fire


Turkey on the Grill

I’ve never tried this myself, so I can’t offer an opinion on it, but I hear that turkey cooked on a barbecue grill is pretty good too. Yet another option for you to consider. Here’s a great article from Weber (yes, the grill people) on cooking your turkey using your gas grill.

Oven Roasted Turkey

If you’re not keen on the idea of scarring your kids for life with the sight of a fiery turkey-frying fail or you don’t want to fire up the grill outside, there’s always the traditional method of roasting it in the oven. This takes the longest of any other and requires the most planning if you’ve got other dishes that require the oven too.

A fully thawed turkey takes about 15 minutes per pound to cook in the oven.

Don’t rely on the little plastic button to pop up to determine doneness. Invest in a real meat thermometer.

Stick it in the thickest part of the breast and the innermost part of the thigh. When it reaches 165 degrees F, pull it out. That 15 minutes per pound is just an estimate and not a guarantee. If you have the oven full of baking sheets and casserole dishes, it could take longer.

And my secret weapon when cooking a turkey in the oven is CONSTANT BASTING. Maybe not constant vigilance because you’ll have a lot going on but baste well and baste often and you’ll end up with a beautifully browned and moist turkey.

Thanksgiving Dinner Turkey

You don’t have to serve turkey at Thanksgiving

It’s perfectly acceptable to serve ham or even a nice roast beef. 

But if you’re going the turkey route, decide early. A frozen turkey takes approximately 24 hours to thaw in the refrigerator for every 4-5 pounds. If you’re serving a 15-pound turkey that means you need to start thawing it at least 3 days before the big day. How many Thanksgivings have come to a screeching halt because the turkey is still frozen? I have no official stats on that but I’m guessing a lot.

Your Thanksgiving Dinner Sides

Are you still with me? I hope so because the good news is that the hard part is out of the way.

The turkey is by far the most complicated puzzle to solve in your Thanksgiving planning. What kind, how to cook it and how long to cook it are the most important questions you’ll need to answer.

The rest is just gravy. See what I did there?

You just need to decide on the remainder of the side dishes now so you can create a schedule.

It seems like side dishes are about as subjective as art. Many families have their own traditions and recipes that get passed down through the generations. Some families prefer to try new and exciting dishes every year. Since we definitely fall into the former category, I’ll use more traditional options as a guideline to give you an idea of how to put your schedule together.

Figure out your cooking and prep times

Once you’ve chosen your dishes, write down both the amount of time it takes to prepare the dish and the time required to cook it

This is important if you have a dish that requires a lot of prep work like peeling or chopping because you’ll need to account for that.

Next, decide what can cook in the oven at the same time.

If you’re fortunate enough to have 2 ovens, put the turkey in one and use the other for your sides. Otherwise, you’ll have to get creative with your scheduling and oven space.

If anything can be prepared ahead of time, set it aside on your list.

Include any appetizers or munchies you’ll be serving too. The important thing here is to get it all down with as much detail about times and temperatures and work involved as possible.

Next, decide what time you’ll be sitting down to eat.

We’re going to work backward from this time so we know when to start. Genius, right?

Here is a list of common Thanksgiving dishes, with prep and cook times. This is just a sample menu. If you’re planning on having different dishes, simply substitute them in and adjust the time. Easy peasy.

Common Thanksgiving Dishes
Name of DishPrep TimeCook TimeOven, stove or other
Lil Smokies – Appetizer5 minutes15 minutesStove
Cheese Ball – Appetizer20 minutesNoneOther – chill in the fridge
Turkey – Main dish3 days + 1 hour day of3.75 – 4 hoursOven 325 degrees
Mashed Potatoes – side20 minutes30-45 minutesStove
Gravy – side10 minutes10-20 minutesStove
Corn pudding – side10 minutes1 hourOven 350 degrees
Candied Sweet Potatoes – side10-15 minutes1 hourOven 375 degrees
Green Bean Casserole – side10-15 minutes30-45 minutesOven 325 degrees
Dressing – side10-15 minutes1 hourOven 350 degrees
Cranberry sauce – side5 minutes20-30 minutesStove, then chill in the fridge
Apple Walnut Fruit salad – side20 minutesNoneOther – chill in the fridge
Dinner Rolls – sidenone7-8 minutesOven, 400 degrees

In this list, there are 4 side dishes that need to go in the oven, plus the turkey. It’s a safe bet that the corn pudding and dressing can both go in the oven at the same time, but they’re supposed to cook at a higher temp than the turkey.

Should you turn the heat up or let the sides cook at the lower temperature?

My choice would be to cook the sides at a lower temp because you don’t want to take any chances that the turkey will overcook and get dried out.

The turkey is the real star of this show so treat it like the diva it is.

The sweet potatoes and the green bean casserole cook at different temps. Again, I’d cook the sweet potatoes at the lower temp and extend the cooking time. The oven is the primary factor in determining the schedule. While things are cooking in the oven, you’ll work on the items that get cooked on the stove or just need to be refrigerated.

Create Your Schedule

OK, let’s do this.

Let’s say you want to eat at 2.

To start, take the item with the longest cooking time and count back from there.

Obviously, it’s the turkey. In my example, we’re cooking a 15-pound turkey which at 15 minutes per pound should take between 3 3/4 – 4 hours.

Alrighty, that means at the bare minimum the turkey needs to go into the oven at 10. Does that mean you’re going to stick it in the oven right at 10? No. No, you’re not.

The turkey will need to rest for a bit before carving so the juices can get redistributed throughout and you get the moistest turkey possible. This is convenient because you’ll probably need the oven for at least 30 minutes or so to finish up your side dishes and dinner rolls. You also need to count the time it takes to get the bird ready to go into the oven.

Depending on your recipe or method I’d give this at least 30 minutes.

For those of you with the deer-in-the-headlights look right now, my process for preparing the turkey is this:

  1. Thoroughly rinse the thawed turkey
  2. Remove the “parts” from the cavity of the turkey (see above)
  3. Pat it dry using a soft dishtowel or paper towel
  4. Place turkey in the center of a roasting pan
  5. Rub softened margarine or butter over the skin of the turkey
  6. Sprinkle salt and pepper over the outside of the bird
  7. Add about a cup of water to the bottom of the roasting pan
  8. Cover turkey with foil
  9. Pop into the oven at 325 degrees!

Now we’re getting somewhere. The above takes about 30 minutes plus you need the extra 30 – 45 minutes after it comes out of the oven.

If you want to eat at 2, the time when you need to start your day is around 8:30 a.m.

That’s 4 hours for the turkey to cook plus an extra 30 minutes turkey prep time and the extra time after and also a few minutes, in the beginning, to wake up, make the coffee and put our game face on! So we know when we need to start cooking. We know what we’re cooking and how long it takes to cook. Why we’re doing it is a deep philosophical question for another day…

Finally! With all those questions answered, we can now put together a schedule for our Thanksgiving dinner preparations.

Thanksgiving Dinner Schedule

Evening before – make cheese ball or other appetizers that can be prepped ahead
8:30 a.m. – Start Time
8:30 a.m. – 9:00 a.m. – Turkey Prep (see above)
9:00 a.m. – Turkey goes in the oven
9:05 a.m. – Prepare cranberry sauce –  (homemade cranberry sauce is super easy – 1 bag of cranberries, 1 cup of sugar, 1 cup of water – cook until all berries pop, then refrigerate)
9:30 a.m. – Make apple walnut fruit salad
10:00 a.m. – Check on turkey. Baste

10:10 a.m. – Peel potatoes for mashed potatoes
10:30 a.m. – Sneak some Bailey’s into your coffee because we still have a way to go….
10:30 a.m. – Boil sweet potatoes (it’s so much easier to peel and slice if they’re partially cooked)
11:00 a.m. – Check turkey. Baste

11:00 a.m. – Put together corn pudding
11:15 a.m. – Peel and slice sweet potatoes for candied yams (leave topping off yams i.e. marshmallows)
11:45 a.m. – Corn pudding and sweet potatoes go into the oven for one hour
11:45 a.m. – Prepare dressing
12:00 p.m. – Check turkey. Baste

12:15 p.m. – Prepare green bean casserole
12:20 p.m. – Remove foil from turkey. Baste
12:30 p.m. – Add marshmallows to the top of sweet potatoes

12:45 p.m. – Sweet potatoes and corn pudding come out of the oven. Cover tightly with foil to retain heat or set on a warming pad.
12:45 p.m. – Dressing and green bean casserole go into the oven
12:50 p.m. – And now it’s time to bust out the wine because it’s go-time
12:50 p.m. – Boil potatoes for mashed potatoes
12:55 p.m. – Stick cocktail weenies in a pan on top of the stove and cover with bbq sauce. Heat over medium heat until warmed through.
12:55 p.m. – Cut and arrange an assortment of cheeses and crackers
1:00 p.m. – Serve appetizers to hungry guests
1:02 p.m. – Wow, that wine went fast. Time for a refill!

1:05 p.m. – Remove turkey from oven. Replace foil and let sit on counter
1:15 p.m. – Drain potatoes
1:30 p.m. – Cook gravy on the stove
1:45 p.m. – Mash potatoes (for a great mashed potatoes recipe, check out my 7-day meal plan here
1:45 p.m. – Green bean casserole and dressing come out of the oven
1:50 p.m. – Cook rolls in the oven
1:55 p.m. – Start carrying the dishes to the table
1:56 p.m. – Since you’ll be taking the bottle to the table anyway, you might as well top off your wine glass
1:57 p.m. – Also, don’t forget the rolls are in the oven…

2:00 p.m. – And finally, carry the turkey to the table. This is your moment so be sure to soak it all in.  You did it!! All the food is on the table precisely when you wanted it to be ready. Your family and friends are gazing at you in admiration and adoration, raising their glasses for a toast to your greatness.

Thanksgiving Dinner Dessert

Now you know the secrets of those who came before you. Alex told me the other day that she doesn’t feel ready in any way to take over Thanksgiving hosting duties. And someday soon I’ll be passing the baton to her. Wait, what? No, I am NOT crying. *sobs uncontrollably on laptop*

Remember, a successful Thanksgiving dinner is the result of a little forethought and planning. And a shot of Bailey’s in your coffee in the morning.

And just think. Christmas is only 32 days away and you can do it all over again. Where’s that wine….?

To grab my free printable Thanksgiving schedule, click the image below to download.

Pre-Cooked Thanksgiving Dinner


Thanksgiving Dinner Planning That Will Help You Win Thanksgiving

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