The final countdown: Use this Thanksgiving dinner timeline for less stress

Southern Kitchen staff
Southern Kitchen

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.

In order to pull off a successful dinner, planning ahead is key, which is why we've provided a loose schedule to follow. Your mileage may vary, but one thing is universal: while preparing for your feast, don’t be too proud to ask for help. Rope in a friend or two and make quick work of the mise en place.

Two days before Thanksgiving

Your turkey should be brining in the fridge. You could also try a dry brine this year, which yields 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.

Clean up. Once your turkey's squared away, make sure there's room in your refrigerator for any last-minute purchases and to hold make-ahead menu items.

Pecan pie is a Thanksgiving classic. Find more desserts at

Buy last-minute needs. Peruse your recipes, make a shopping list for any missing ingredients, and brave the grocery store for hopefully the last time. Now's the time to pick up any booze, mixers or wine you need. Don't forget the ice and maybe some extra disposable cups just in case. You can also arrange for a delivery service to drop off the goods or delegate this task to a friend. 

Get to prepping. Once you unpack the groceries, you can begin prepping items you know you’ll need such as chopped onions, celery, peppers and shredded cheese. These can be stored in plastic containers or bags for easy access. 

Finalize your desserts. You could also start making food that holds well, including desserts. Here's a list you might try if you're still short on sweets. You could also make the cranberry sauce. If you're making cornbread for stuffing and you haven't done that, get on it!

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The day before Thanksgiving

Set yourself up. This is a good day to peel potatoes (store them in cold water) and bake the ham. You could also make the collards, the green bean casserole, the dinner rolls and the sweet potatoes

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 to throw everything together on Thanksgiving.

Do you know where your gravy boat is? You'll also want to find some time to pull out all of your serving platters and place settings. Label everything and take note of any dishes, flatware or stemware you'll need to borrow.

Do you need to iron a tablecloth or napkins? It'd be great to get that done tonight. Same with any cleaning of fancy dishes or refilling of salt and pepper shakers. If it can get done, get it done.

Square away your appetizers. Have something to feed early arrivals and also to nibble on while you cook. You don't want to lose steam halfway through cooking. Here's a list of 13 easy apps you can serve

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Thanksgiving Day

This is the day you’ve been preparing for. If you’re organized, 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 the macaroni and cheese, make the mashed potatoes and put together your stuffing

Linton Hopkins basting a turkey with drippings and butter.

To plan your turkey day timeline, work backward from your desired serving time, adding in 15- to 30-minute buffers to allow for the inevitable mishap or two. Since many people like to eat Thanksgiving on the earlier side of dinner (though we could make a pretty good case for eating later) here's a sample schedule for those who serve dinner around 4-4:30 p.m.:

In the morning

  • 10 a.m. Turn the oven on for the turkey. 
  • 10:30 a.m. If you're roasting a whole, reasonably large turkey, you'll want to get it in the oven now; 15 minutes per pound of roasting time is the general rule.
  • 11 a.m. Do a once-over of the dinner table to make sure everything is ready to go. 
  • 11:30 a.m. Eat lunch and sit down for 30 minutes.
Removing a turkey leg.

In the afternoon

  • 12 p.m. Make the gravy.
  • 12:45 p.m. Remove the green beans, collard greens, ham and other sides from the fridge and allow them to come to room temperature. 
  • 1 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 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 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. Finish anything that needs to be melty or crispy in the oven.
  • 4 p.m. Bring in some help to move all of the food into serving dishes and bring them to the table.
  • 4:30 p.m.Carve turkey. Eat!