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Thanksgiving Prep: 5 Steps to a Stress-Free Holiday

I love cooking Thanksgiving dinner in all its glory and typically play hostess to 10-20 guests each year. However, my early efforts weren’t what I’d call carefree.

Years ago, you’d find me a stressed-out Martha Stewart-wannabee, worried over every detail and decorating to the hilt. But I quickly learned that family and friends aren’t terribly concerned about festive fall decor or dust bunnies under the sofa. As long as the turkey is succulent and the company good, the day is a win in their eyes.

If the thought of preparing a Thanksgiving feast has you on edge, why not try my 5-step formula for a stress-free Thanksgiving? With nearly 25 Thanksgiving dinners under my belt, it’s now become my roadmap for success.

1. Thanksgiving Prep: Start With the Kitchen Essentials

A cluttered, disorganized kitchen can quickly become a Thanksgiving horror story — believe me, I’ve been there! Lesson learned, I now spend a few hours the weekend before Thanksgiving organizing my kitchen, pantry and fridge.

This pre-prep doesn’t take long, plus it gives me a clean slate and clear mind to tackle my shopping and to-do lists. It’s also a good time to assemble Thanksgiving essentials in a handy place so I know what I have on-hand and what I need to shop for.

First, I make sure my cooking equipment and serving tools are all accounted for. Since I have just one oven, I turn to stow-away appliances like a turkey roaster, casserole-size slow cookers, Insta-Pot, and countertop convection oven-toaster combos to keep Thanksgiving on-track. Plus they extend my cooking and serving capabilities year-round. Here are my go-to faves:

I also make sure I have plenty of dinnerware, flatware, napkins and placemats for the big day. Since I don’t have the storage space for holiday-specific Thanksgiving dishes and placemats, I use everyday china and dress up my table in fall-inspired hues.

Some years I even turn to high-quality disposable plastic tableware to handle the crowd and reduce clean-up. Heavy-duty eventware is a great stand-in for regular dinnerware for all sorts of holiday get-togethers. Here are some good options if you want to go that route:

I finish my kitchen essentials pre-prep by making sure I have enough serving bowls, casseroles and platters on-hand; plus enough serving utensils for any contributions from my guests.

This takes about an hour or two at most and is time well-spent since it sets me up for a stress-free Thanksgiving Day.

2. Thanksgiving Prep Shopping: Make a List and Plan Extra Food Storage

I start making my shopping list as I organize my kitchen. It’s easy to take stock of what I have and note what I’ll need as I tidy up and make space in my pantry, fridge and freezer. Next, I turn to my favorite Thanksgiving recipes to add needed ingredients to my shopping list.

I try to make my big grocery shopping trip that weekend, or the Monday or Tuesday before Thanksgiving at the latest. This typically beats the crowds in my area and ensures that I can nab everything I need in one trip. If I’m doing a long outing, I stow a cooler in the back for my turkey. He’ll keep other perishables cool, too.

Remember, most stores group popular ingredients on islands or endcaps for easy pickings. If you don’t find something on the regular shelves, it may be in a holiday endcap or display.

I also add incidentals to my shopping list toilet paper, paper towels, carpet stain remover (just in case!), and some holiday craft kits if any kids are coming. If you’re hosting kiddos this year, check out some fun Thanksgiving kids’ table ideas in our Thanksgiving Kids’ Tables Made Easy video.

I usually end up with more than I can pack into my kitchen, so I stow dry goods out of the way my dining or utility room until I need them. I’m lucky to have a garage freezer, so freezer space for my turkey and other frozen foods isn’t an issue for me these days. In previous homes, a few coolers took care of freezer overflow.

In fact, I thaw my Thanksgiving turkey in a cooler nowadays to save on fridge space and you might give that a try if you’re space-challenged like me. Here is Butterball’s video on how to do that, plus other Thanksgiving turkey thawing tips from the pros.

Not sure how to defrost your Thanksgiving turkey? The pros at Butterball will help you get it done right!

3. House Prep: Quick-Clean and Decorate

How clean is clean? I follow the classic home entertainer’s adage to dust, mop and/or vacuum any surfaces that can be seen. I also do a quick dusting of baseboards, blinds, lampshades, windowsills and picture frames — here, Swiffer is my best friend.

I also add a few guest conveniences into my house-prep tasks, like extra hand towels and toilet paper, topped-off hand soap, and new air fresheners in bathrooms. If I’m having overnight guests, I freshen up beds, clear hanging space in closets, and add bath towels in the bathrooms. This really takes no time at all and prevents distractions on Thanksgiving day.

For decor, I keep it pretty simple nowadays and just add Thanksgiving color with a table runner and few handfuls of fall-hued leaves, mini pumpkins and candles. I’ve also wound leaf and floral picks onto light fixtures and around candlesticks for an extra dash of color. Of course, you do your thing here!

I shoot to have all of this completed on Tuesday or Wednesday so I can concentrate on dinner prep and guests on Thursday.

4. Wednesday Prep: Baking and Other Food Prep

Thanksgiving basics like sweet potatoes, stuffing, and green bean or corn casseroles aren’t difficult to pull together as the turkey roasts — but trying to do it all on Thanksgiving morning makes your day busy indeed!

To lighten my Thanksgiving Day load, I bake pies and cornbread (for my stuffing) the day before. I also do as much pre-prep as possible on Wednedsay, like chopping vegetables and making casseroles and chilled desserts. This lets me simply combine and cook everything on Thanksgiving morning.

I also pop my white wines into the fridge the day before to be sure they’re not forgotten during the Thanksgiving hustle and bustle!

Since I have just one oven, I use a turkey roaster on my porch to free up both oven and counter space in the kitchen. This is a great cook’s tool and I even use it while camping and for serving up other crowd-pleasers, like chili and New Years’ Posole.

I also roast my turkey upside-down, in a turkey bag — a trick I learned from my catering-pro parents. The dark meat juices cook down into the white meat so it’s never, ever dry!

True story: Upside-Down Turkey Surprise!

My upside-down turkey habit caused quite the first year that I, as a newlywed, hosted my first Thanksgiving dinner. I saw my in-laws peek into the oven and whisper that someone needed to tell me the turkey was upside-down — the horror! Apparently, my mother-in-law took pity and hushed the crowd so I wouldn’t be embarrassed. Later they all praised my super-moist turkey.

Guess who else cooks their turkey upside-down now?

5. Thanksgiving Day: Put it All Together and Enjoy!

If you’ve done your Thanksgiving prep work, your day should be relatively low-stress. You’re prepped, food is ready — or soon will be — guests are comfy and all you need to do now is enjoy sharing the meal.

After all is said and done, your last task is to assign an official dishwasher and put your feet up — you’ve earned it!

That’s a Wrap

I hope this 5-step run-down helps you organize your Thanksgiving prep so you can enjoy your day with family and friends. Have any tips of your own to add? Please share in the comments below.

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