The First-Timer’s Guide to Planning Thanksgiving Dinner

Planning Thanksgiving dinner can be daunting, especially for first-timers. If the torch has been passed to you this year, follow this easy guide for holiday success!

Break out the cranberry sauce and French fried onions—it’s time for Thanksgiving! If this is your first time preparing the turkey and all the fixin’s, follow this Thanksgiving guide for smooth sailing. (And check out these Thanksgiving recipes that are as easy as pie.)

Don’t settle for a ho-hum holiday. Find your Thanksgiving party style with this helpful quiz.

Keep it simple

Before we get started, it’s important to remember to keep things simple. Don’t take on more than you can handle, especially if this is your first time planning Thanksgiving dinner. Stick to tried-and-true recipes or family favorites to keep things running smoothly.

And simplify the beverages—making individual cocktails can be time-consuming, but a slow cooker filled with spiced cider can be both kid-friendly and easily made into an alcoholic option for adults. Try our favorite Slow Cooker Cider or one of our other Thanksgiving drink recipes.

Make a plan

Planning is the most important part! We can’t say it enough—having a plan will help keep stress at bay on Thanksgiving. If you’re not a list maker by nature, now’s the time to pick up the habit. Make lists for the recipes you want to tackle, ingredients needed, beverages and the timeline of the day. You can even plan out the week before Thanksgiving so you know when you’ll grocery shop, when you need to cook make-ahead items and what else needs to be completed.

To help make your plan, you’ll need to know how many guests you’ll have (here are our top Thanksgiving picks for groups larger than 12), what the family favorite recipes are, what time the meal will be and what everyone else is bringing, which leads us to:

Accept help

Don’t forget: you don’t have to do this on your own! Accept your friends’ and family members’ offers of bringing dishes or helping set up. In general, guests enjoy helping out—it makes them feel more comfortable! If guests ask what they can bring, be specific. That way you can fill in any gaps in the menu and prevent having three green bean casseroles. Pro tip: be sure to mix up the types of dishes you serve so you have enough space on your stove and in the oven on Thanksgiving day.

Try these tasty desserts:
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Go shopping

Before you head to the store, read through your recipes, make a list of everything you need and take a peek inside your pantry to see which ingredients you already have on hand. Then it’s time to hit the store. Try to go well in advance of Thanksgiving just in case you forget something the first time. Shopping early can also mean less-crowded stores!

Don’t be afraid to supplement your meal with store-bought items. Buying fresh rolls or a pie from the bakery is an easy way to add to the meal and reduce your to-do list.

Buy the turkey

If this is your first time buying a turkey, here’s what you need to know:

  • Should you buy fresh or frozen? If you have time to properly thaw a turkey, buy a frozen one. Otherwise, buy a fresh turkey one or two days before Thanksgiving.

  • How do you thaw a turkey? The refrigerator is the best place to thaw it. It’ll need about 24 hours per 4 or 5 pounds of turkey. Or you can thaw it in cold water, which requires 30 minutes per pound. You’ll need to change the water every 30 minutes to keep it cold.

  • How big should it be? You’ll need about 1 pound of bone-in turkey for every person, or 1½ pounds if you want leftovers. Don’t skimp out by buying the cheapest turkey—it’s the centerpiece of the meal!

  • Tip: Stay away from cooking your stuffing in the turkey. It could be dangerous.

If you’re looking for turkey inspiration, here’s how to cook a turkey, plus some fun ways to make it more flavorful.

Find our top turkey recipes:
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Do a test run

If you’re feeling particularly nervous about preparing the meal, try a test run. It can be helpful to try out new-to-you dishes or to practice your skills on a smaller turkey.

Prepare make-ahead dishes

The more dishes you make in advance, the less you’ll have to do on Thanksgiving. Side dishes, breads and desserts can all be made ahead of time. Not only will this mean less stress, but it’ll also help ensure you have enough valuable oven space on the big day.

Try our best make-ahead recipes:
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Set the table

Think about your decor in advance, and try to set the table at least a day before Thanksgiving. It’ll be one less thing you have to do, and it’ll also help you know if you’re short on silverware or plates. If you’re not sure how to set a table, check out our guide.

It’s the big day!

To know when you should start preparing each dish, start with the time of your meal and work backward. Keep a list of the dishes you’re serving handy so you don’t forget anything. And give yourself at least an extra hour when it comes to preparing the turkey—it’ll need a half hour to rest once it comes out of the oven.

Most importantly, enjoy yourself! Don’t forget to sit back, relax and enjoy the food you prepared and the time spent with family and friends.

Clean up

You did it! Congrats on preparing your first Thanksgiving meal. Now it’s time to clean up and put away leftovers (here’s our guide to storing ’em). And most importantly, it’s time for a well-deserved post-meal nap.

Here's how to use up your leftovers:
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At the end of the day, your family and friends will remember the time spent together most of all, so don’t sweat it if something goes awry. But if there is a mishap, you may want to check out how to prepare a full Thanksgiving dinner in 30 minutes. Happy cooking!

Alexa Hackfort
Alexa is a writer who believes there’s always room for ice cream. Based in Milwaukee, she enjoys exploring the city, tackling new recipes and planning her next trip.