Speedy Prep Tips for Turkey Day

Cooking Thanksgiving dinner is time-consuming—especially if you are doing most of that cooking yourself. (If you’re not flying solo in the kitchen, consider these ideas for crowdsourcing your dinner.) And, while I love the holiday, the cozy family time and of course, the food, I also love a good kitchen short-cut that doesn’t sacrifice quality and gives me more time to enjoy the day. Here are a few ideas for getting the food prepped faster—and you out of the kitchen quicker

Choose a simple menu.

As much as you might like to channel your inner Martha Stewart, save the fancy gourmet productions for another occasion. What people really want on Thanksgiving are traditional, familiar, and comforting favorites (a little twist here and there is fine, but nothing overly complicated). A roast turkey, some type of potato dish, a couple of veggie dishes, dressing/stuffing, cranberry sauce, and a couple of pies will always please. If you want to augment the menu, it’s easy enough to do by providing some high-quality, purchased foods for an appetizer. A festive big-batch cocktail is a nice touch, too, and will make the meal feel more special.

Check your recipes for make-ahead instructions.

Chances are that others have also tried to make some of these traditional dishes ahead of time, and typically if it’s possible, they’ll tell you that somewhere in the recipe. Look up top or at the end for any prep-ahead notes or tips.

Go for a cheese and charcuterie board for an easy pre-dinner nosh.

These beautiful platters or cutting boards filled with a variety of tasty cheeses, meats, pickles, nuts, dried fruit or fruit spreads, and crackers or toasts are super trendy and easy to put together—and you don’t have to cook any of it! Get ideas online (this is what Pinterest is for!) and then head to the store with your list so you don’t forget anything. The key here is variety and high-quality components—get the good stuff. Delegate the arrangement to a helper if you have one—entice them with the promise that arranging it can be fun and artistic!

Plan to make as many dishes ahead of time as possible.

There are multiple Thanksgiving dinner items you can prepare early, so at least try to get a few of them done ahead of time. Make a timeline of what you’re going to prep on which day so you don’t have to keep it all in your head. Here are some ideas:

  • Mashed potatoes—you can actually make them ahead of time and reheat them in your slow cooker or even on the stove or microwave. Or, make a mashed potato casserole—my personal favorite because it delivers more flavor and seems more special. Prep it ahead then just bake on the big day.
  • Cranberry sauce—it’s so easy to get this done ahead of time (here’s a tasty recipe). Make it a couple of days early and just refrigerate it.
  • Turkey—you won’t be cooking it ahead of time, but brining is certainly something you should be doing ahead of time (in fact, it’s required if you intend to flavor your turkey in this manner).
  • Stuffing components—if you make cornbread stuffing, make the cornbread a couple of days early (it’s okay if it dries out a bit, in fact, that’s preferable). If you use regular bread (or whole wheat bread for your stuffing), toast it a day early. If your stuffing uses a grain like wild rice, certainly cook that ahead of time (you can do it really early and freeze the cooked grain). You can also dice the celery and onions and keep them in a container in the fridge.
  • Veggies—whatever you like to have for veggies, chances are there are at least a couple steps you can do ahead of time. If green bean casserole is your thing, make that a couple of days early and just top it with the crispy onions before you bake it on the big day. If Brussels sprouts are your jam, trim them, halve them, or otherwise get them ready early. Squash can be peeled and cut or even pre-cooked depending on your recipe (check out this do-ahead winter squash recipe that’s a little different). I like to include a salad at Thanksgiving—it cuts some of the richness of all the other food and gives a nice textural and temperature contrast. Prep ingredients ahead if possible, and make any dressing you’ll need. Do as much cleaning, trimming, and cutting of veggies as you can—it’s just one less thing to do on the big day.
  • Pies—if you don’t care about a homemade crust, don’t sweat it. Just purchase the one you like best. By the way, if you get a frozen one that’s in a foil pan, you can usually remove it from the foil pan (while it’s still frozen) and slide it into your own pan. It will be more stable that way (and also not look so store-bought). If you do make your own crust, there’s no reason you can’t make those a week ahead of time and keep them in the freezer. Lots of crust recipes have make-ahead instructions; follow them. There are some pies that can even be completely made ahead of time and frozen. Again, the recipe will be your best guide regarding this.
Old Fashioned Fruit Crumble

Old-Fashioned Fruit Crumble

Two Guiding Stars iconTwo Guiding Stars indicate better nutritional value. This fruit crumble can be made ahead and is a lighter alternative to pie.

View recipe »

Set your table the day ahead if possible.

Okay, this is a Martha Stewart tip. She advises getting the buffet table set up early by putting the serving dish you will use for each component of the meal on the table with a stickie note on it. That way you can see what you have room for and your serving dishes will be ready and clean and waiting for you. You can also arrange your “tablescape” as the fancy people say—or as the rest of us call it, the centerpiece. Whether it’s candles or mini-pumpkins or a pretty bowl of fresh cranberries and clementines, get those items together, put your tablecloth down and doll up that dinner table ahead of time.

I wish you all a very happy Thanksgiving holiday filled with plenty of time to enjoy all the special moments.