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Pull off a stress-free Thanksgiving dinner with this turkey day menu and timeline

Let’s face it, no matter how wonderful it is to be surrounded by family and friends on Thanksgiving, cooking for a group of people is an incredibly daunting task. For most people, prepping for turkey day takes days to mentally and physically prepare.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash
Thanksgiving feast

In order to pull off a successful dinner that you’ll actually enjoy, planning ahead is key. That means shopping well in advance, cooking dishes in advance that hold well in the refrigerator and following our Thanksgiving menu and timeline.

Here’s the menu the Southern Kitchen team will be whipping up come Thanksgiving:

The Mains
Oven-Roasted Turkey
Virginia Willis’ Bourbon Baked Ham

The Sides
Grilled Kabocha Squash Salad with Maple Vinaigrette
Oyster Cornbread Dressing
Bebe’s Green Beans

Bourbon Collard Greens
Extra Cheesy Mac and Cheese
Truffle Mashed Potatoes
Sage Gravy
Cranberry Sauce

The Dessert
Apple Cranberry Crisp
Sweet Potato Pie with Marshmallows and Pecan Streusel
Southern Kitchen’s Pecan Pie

The Cocktails
Old Chatham Artillery Punch
Maple Bourbon Smash

Now, onto the schedule. Word of advice here — while preparing for your feast, don’t be too proud to ask for help. Rope in a friend or two and make quick work on the mise en place (fancy French word for prep work). The last thing you’ll want to do is find that in the middle of cooking you need to chop an onion!

Three days before Thanksgiving
Clean out your refrigerator. This may seem like a strange first step, but Thanksgiving has a way of taking over your entire kitchen. Since you’re grocery shopping today, it’s best to get this task out of the way so you can quickly put away perishable groceries.

Finalize your guest list or at least get a rough estimate. This is only really important at the moment because it’ll determine how big of a turkey you’re going to need to buy. Only serving a group of four? Opt for a bone-in turkey breast. Hosting the entire extended family of 25? You’re definitely going to want a bigger bird.

Make a shopping list and brave the grocery store. You’re going to want to pick up everything needed for your dinner including the turkey. Speaking of turkey, odds are that your bird will arrive either partially or fully frozen. Buying it three days in advance allows time for it to defrost fully before getting brined. Make sure to store it in the fridge when you get home. We like to put ours on a big baking sheet.

Pick up any booze, mixers or wine. You can also arrange for a delivery service to drop off the goods or delegate this task to a friend.

When you get back home, unpack the groceries. This is also a good time to start prepping items you know you’ll need a lot of like onions, celery, peppers and cheese. Store them in plastic containers or bags so you can easily access them when needed.

Two days before Thanksgiving:
Today is the day to start cooking. Traditionally, that means desserts and dishes like collard greens, green beans and the cranberry sauce. This is also a good day to do tasks like peeling potatoes and baking the ham. Assemble oyster cornbread dressing: In its baking dish, covered in plastic wrap and stored in the refrigerator.

By far, brining the turkey is the more important job today. We prefer a dry brine and in order to get that perfectly crispy skin, the hallmark of a delicious roasted turkey, it’s important to let your bird rest uncovered in the fridge for at least 12 hours while the brining seasonings penetrate the meat.

Set the dinner table. Whether you choose to go ultra-glam or take a more simple route, setting the table today eases the pressure of having the throw everything together on Thanksgiving. You’ll also want to find some time to pull out all of your serving platters and place settings this evening. Label everything and take note of any dishes, flatware or stemware you’ll need to borrow. Do you need to iron a tablecloth and/or napkins? It’d be great to get that done tonight. Same with any cleaning of fancy dishes or refilling of pepper shakers. If it can get done, get it done.

Thanksgiving Day:
This is it, the day you’ve been preparing for. If you’ve followed this timeline, today should be a breeze since all your desserts are baked, your ham simply needs to be reheated and half of your side dishes are finished as well. The first thing you’re going to want to do this morning is pop your turkey in the oven. From the moment it starts cooking, you’ve got about four to five hours to finish up macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes sage gravy and oyster stuffing.

We like to create a turkey day timeline and work backward from the desired serving time, adding in 15- to 30-minute buffers to allow for the inevitable mishap or two. Personally? we like to keep Thanksgiving on the earlier side of dinner and serve around 4:00 or 4:30 p.m. Keeping that serving time in mind, here’s how the day-of schedule will go:

In the morning
10:00 a.m. Turn the oven on for the turkey.
10:30 a.m. If you’re roasting a whole turkey, you’ll want to get it in the oven now — 15 minutes per pound of roasting time is the general rule.
11:00 a.m. Do a once-over of the dinner table to make sure everything is ready to go.
11:30 a.m. Eat a snack/lunch and sit down for 30 minutes.

In the afternoon
12:00 p.m. Make the gravy.
12:45 p.m. Remove the green beans, collard greens and ham from the fridge and allow them to come to room temperature.
1:00 p.m. Take all desserts out of the refrigerator and allow them to warm at room temperature
1:15 p.m. Start boiling water for macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes.
1:45 p.m. Put the dressing and the macaroni and cheese in the oven.
2:00 p.m. Start making batched cocktails. If you’re serving wine, make sure to chill bottles now.
2:30 p.m. Do a final clean up of the kitchen before guests arrive, make sure to get dressed now, too.
3:00 p.m. Remove turkey from the oven and let it rest on a carving board. (Note: Your turkey will stay plenty hot for a good hour after it comes out of the oven, so if you need more time to finish up your sides before serving, do so! Just make carving the turkey the last thing you do before serving.) Add any drippings to the gravy and reheat on a low burner. Reheat mashed potatoes in the microwave and transfer to a covered serving dish.
3:15 p.m. Throw the ham in the oven to reheat and reheat any sides that need to be served piping hot.
4:00 p.m. Bring in some help to move all of the side dishes to serving dishes and bring them to the table.
4:30 p.m. Carve turkey. Eat!

By  Ryan Shepard

Author imageRyan Shepard is the editor-in-chief at Southern Kitchen. Though originally from Los Angeles, she has lived in Atlanta since early 2017 and cannot imagine calling any other city home (except maybe New Orleans). Before joining Southern Kitchen’s staff, Ryan worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on public policy issues. When she’s not at work, she enjoys hunting down the best Mexican food in the city and drinking whiskey, obviously.