Trying to do all of your Thanksgiving cooking the day of your feast just leads to frustration, possible irritation, and a lot of wasted time not visiting with your guests.
It’s no fun to be tied to your kitchen while friends and family visit, enjoy appetizers and drinks, and relax for their day off.
In our family, we’ve adjusted our schedule of things. We used to shop Wednesday (NO FUN) and cook on Thursday morning. My mom used to get up at 6:00 a.m. to prep and start the turkey roasting because our extended family expected to eat at 1:00 or 2:00. Again, NO FUN!
I put up with this kind of schedule for years, trying to dodge the duty of being primary cook for the day. And one day, I put my foot down and changed the schedule.
Now, we shop over the weekend or a few small things on Monday or Tuesday. Then we prep and cook as much as possible on Wednesday so that Thursday is a relaxed day with family and friends.
What Can Be Cooked Ahead of Time
- Stuffing for the bird: Stuffing actually turns out better if you make it as much ahead of time as possible. By toasting the bread and sweating the aromatics, you can assemble it a day or two ahead of time. Tightly wrap it in plastic and stow it in the fridge where the flavors can settle together. Then when you bake it with the turkey the day of, it’s delicious.
- Pies and Other Desserts: Supposedly pies are better served warm, but if you try it, you’ll see that cooking and cooling them works better. Pumpkin and pecan pies especially need to fully cool in order for them to set. If you want to avoid a sloppy mess when serving, cook and cool these ahead. Apple pie, a favorite in our family, is best cooked, cooled, and reheated in the oven to serve with cheese, ice cream, or whipped cream. Once cooled, the juices thicken and reabsorb and allow you to cut tall, impressive slices.
- Gravy: The best gravy is made far ahead of time. Think weeks! If you make a huge batch of turkey broth with parts like wings and necks, add aromatics and cook in your Instant Pot or slow cooker, you reduce and turn a bunch into gravy to freeze and freeze the rest for a ready store of stock. No worries rushing around the day of trying to make gravy. And you can make much more gravy since you just never have enough.
- Mashed Potatoes: I’ve been in charge of mashed potatoes in my extended family gatherings for over 20 years. It’s my specialty and I hate the way anyone else in my family (except my mom who taught me) makes it. Making them is time-consuming, especially the peeling and cubing. We peel, cube, and cook the potatoes the day before. Then we mash them with a little milk and butter, and season them to taste. I line a container to store them with plastic wrap to make a tight inner seal and cover after placing them there. You can store them in a plastic container with a tight-fitting lid. Then the day of, reheat in a saucepan over low heat and mix in some warm milk and butter. They are extra tasty and flavorful that way.
- Vegetables: Not all vegetables will qualify for making ahead, but some do take considerable prep work and can be partially prepped ahead of time. My family is big on fresh green beans, and cleaning and cutting them down can take time. If you go that far, season them, and wrap them in plastic in a tight container, all you’ll have to do is get them out and saute or roast them to taste. This works great for carrots as well (another favorite).
- Appetizers: We have a few standards in our family that are easy to make ahead of time. Relish trays are perfect. Assemble the things you love, cover on a tray with plastic wrap, and store in the refrigerator. You can save space by individually wrapping the ones that need to go in the fridge and set the others aside. Then assemble the day of in a few minutes. Dips with vegetables or crackers are another specialty. Dips mixed ahead can blend while refrigerated and served cold or heated to warm them through.
- Setting Your Table: Count out flatware for your number of guests. I always count out one extra (or maybe two) in case of dropped flatware or an unexpected guest. Same for plates, serving dishes, and serving utensils. Set everything out on the counter and the table. I always cover the table with a second tablecloth just to keep everything in place and neat and clean.
Bonus – 3 Things You Should Not Prepare In Advance
Some things might seem to be an easy addition to your prepare-ahead list, but these three items are an absolute no-no.
- Salads: You might think that cutting everything up, making dressing, and dressing your salad makes sense, but NO. Just NO! You can wash and cut vegetables, but dry and wrap them in plastic individually like you did with the vegetables and relish tray items. You can make your salad dressing and again store in the refrigerator, but do not dress that salad until it is time to serve. If you do, you’ll have limp, soggy, and unappetizing salad and nobody likes that.
- Breads and Rolls: Breads and dinner rolls smell heavily while baking, but if you’ve ever tried a next-day dinner roll, they are dried out, hard, and totally tasteless. I’ve tried it a few times and they never come out great by reheating the next day. I’ve even tried freezing them a few days ahead and rewarming and they just aren’t as good as fresh-from-the-oven rolls.
- Turkey: I honestly can’t believe anyone would deliberately cook the turkey the day before. No matter how you store it, reheating a roasted turkey pretty much absolutely dries it out. Yuck! You can season and prep it and have it ready to go in the oven right away on Thanksgiving morning, but save yourself the agony and don’t do it before that.
So even if you consider one or two of these items to save time cooking on Thanksgiving or Christmas feasts, you’ll appreciate the additional time with family and friends.