Planning for the Day Before Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday to sit around with family and friends and just enjoy each others company. That’s true for the guests, and can actually happen for cooks too – as long as they are properly prepared. What does it take to be a prepared Thanksgiving cook? Basically, Thanksgiving prep takes setting aside the the day before Thanksgiving to do all the heavy prep work. They always say that the best offense is a prepared defense, so here’s our game plan for the day before Thanksgiving.

Luckily, most items on the common Thanksgiving menu can be prepared the day before, as long as you have ample refrigerator space. Fact tidbit – the night before Thanksgiving is the most popular day out at a bar or club (besides New Years Eve of course). So, if you get this list completed during the day, and aren’t too tired, then you too can relax and meet up with old friends in the evening.

So, make a list, check it twice and feel well prepared for the big feast.


The Day Before Thanksgiving Planning

Thanksgiving Prep - Prior to the Day Before

There are a few things that you should already have done – even prior to the last Wednesday in November. The following list can and should be done sometime during the week before Thanksgiving.

  1. Clean out your fridge.
    This step not only makes room when returning from the grocery, but also helps take inventory in order to make the shopping list for the big day.

  2. Gather recipes.
    These will help in the next step and can later be taped to the front of cabinets while working to save counter space.

  3. Make a list.
    Write down everything you’re serving, a grocery list and things you need to do.

  4. Defrost the turkey.
    If it was frozen it should be thawing in the refrigerator by the day before Thanksgiving. Depending on the size of the turkey, they generally take 2-5 days of sitting in the fridge to completely thaw out. If you forgot and it’s already the day before Thanksgiving, then grab a big bucket or empty and clean the sink. Place your frozen bird into the tub of cold water and change the water every few hours as it defrosts.

  5. Grocery shop.
    The most crowed day of the year at the grocery is the day before Thanksgiving! And, some of the things you count on may be out of stock – sending you to the next crowded parking lot! Shopping on Monday or Tuesday can help avoid both of these problems. Don’t forget the beverages – you may need a stiff one after reading this list!

  6. If you’ve got a big family (or not), assign everyone a dish to bring.
    If you let everyone bring what they’re good at then you’ve got a great meal without anyone getting all stressed out. Then you can concentrate on the turkey and making the house beautiful 🙂

The Day Before Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Prep on Wednesday

Things that can (and should) be done the day before Thanksgiving – here’s the list of items that store well when made early:

  1. Cranberry sauce – can be made a few days ahead if using fresh berries, if you are cutting it from a can then you can plate it only as early as the day before.

  2. Stuffing – this can be made 1-2 days ahead also, depending on what type of stuffing you are making. At least chop the onions and celery and place them into a baggie in the fridge. Also, cube or shred the bread and remember that stale bread is the best bread to use when making stuffing! Regardless of which type of stuffing you make, always keep the stuffing in a separate container from the turkey until Thanksgiving day. Never stuff a bird until right before cooking!

  3. Brine – make the brine, if you plan to brine the turkey. This doubles at making the house smell like the holiday is coming. Brining makes a turkey moist, but if you are using a Butterball turkey this step is not necessary because it was already done.

  4. Vegetable casseroles – the famous green bean casserole, squash casseroles or most any vegetable dish can be prepared the day before. Make it in a fridge to oven safe casserole dish so it can be baked as prepared.

  5. Mashed Potatoes – these can be made ahead and placed into an oven safe covered casserole dish to be heated on the big day – but you’ll need to add some extra moisture to the mix, perhaps sour cream or heavy cream. If you prefer them made fresh, which we do for this special occasion, then just peal and chop the potatoes today. Be sure to keep the cut potatoes stored properly to keep them from turning brown.

  6. Soups – if you are serving courses, a nice butternut soup can be made beforehand and then gently heated to serve.

  7. Salads – make the salad, but don’t dress it until just before serving. Another alternative is to make a layered salad recipe that actually should be made at least a day in advance in order for the flavors to blend.

  8. Jello – this keeps just fine for 1-2 days before serving, but don’t plate it until the big day.

  9. Butter – and other condiments or sauces can be made a few days ahead, except for the gravy which is usually made after the turkey so you can use the pan drippings. Thanksgiving is a good time to serve some herb butter.

  10. Par-baked breads – are a good option, so you can just heat them quickly after the turkey has been removed from the oven. Or, use a dough recipe that rises the day before Thanksgiving and can then be refrigerated overnight as long as it is allowed to come to room temperature the next day before baking.

  11. Pies, cheesecakes and other desserts – most traditional pies are great served cold and keep well if made the day before. Pecan pie is best at room temperature and can sit on the counter overnight. Apple pie can also rest safely overnight on the counter. If you prefer pumpkin pie cold, it can be made ahead and placed into the fridge. We like it warm, so make it Thanksgiving morning and then place it in the oven for cooking after the turkey is removed.

  12. Turkey – last but certainly not least. If you made a brine in the morning, then it is time to submerge the bird in the evening. Wash the turkey and remove all the innards (be sure to check both ends of the bird to get everything out) and place them safely back into the fridge for simmering on Thanksgiving morning. Place the turkey into the brine then the fridge overnight.

  13. Set the table. This might be difficult if you’ve got kids and animals, but you’ll be glad that it’s all set nicely when you wake up on Thanksgiving morning. If you’re worried, you could always place another tablecloth on top of the pre-made table to keep out dust and other disturbances. Make placecards for seating, if desired.

  14. Chill the wine and beer or make a punch.

The Day Before Thanksgiving

Additional Information

There are a few more things that should be completed by the day before the big day, but they don’t involve food so are just mentioned here. Make room in the closet for the coats of your guests. Since the closet isn’t used much in the summer, it often tends to attract stray items as a quick storage spot when picking up the house. Opening it in the fall could be inviting something to fall out on a guest! Also, be sure to park your cars tightly so that there’s sure to be ample parking space available for guests.

To check on the shelf life of all these Thanksgiving meal items, see our individual pages for cranberry sauce, stuffing, salad, jello, butter, bread and pie.

For help with how long leftovers last, see our leftover page.

To turn Thanksgiving leftovers into clever alternative dishes, including breakfast items, see our day after thanksgiving suggestions.

To find out how long other foods are good for, please visit the Dairy, Drinks, Fruits, Grains, Proteins, Vegetables and Other sections of Eat By Date or use the search function below.

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