Thanksgiving Survival Guide

Thanksgiving is just two days away. Are you ready? You’ll be fine – trust me. Remember, Thanksgiving is all about friends and family, the food is just a catalyst for the gathering. As you gird up to face the coming three days, I thought it might be useful to share some of my tried-and-true tools for surviving any big cooking expedition.

Make a Plan

Even if you aren’t a planner, a meal with so many different dishes that don’t necessarily complement one another can benefit from even a few notes jotted down. Heck, use the back of an envelope you were going to recycle anyway. Think through when you need to assemble each dish and set it to cook so you know in what order you need to do what. You’ll also see any cooking time or oven temperature conflicts before they happen so you can adjust as necessary. Don’t forget to include these oft overlooked activities:

  • Pre-heat the oven(s). Plan at least 30 minutes for any oven to come up to temperature.
  • Let the turkey rest. Remember, it should sit out for at least 30 minutes after cooking so the juices can redistribute. This is a great time to finish up any side dishes or bread that need the oven.
  • Set out serving dishes and setting the table. This is a great activity for the day or evening before the big day. I forget everything within about 5 seconds, so I label each serving dish with a post-it note to remember why I got it out in the first place, but I need every bit of help I can get. Oh, and don’t forget the serving utensils.
  • Make time to relax, shower, and dress. If you look harried when your guests arrive they may feel like a burden instead of a welcome guest. You’ll also feel better if you give yourself some down-time before the final sprint to finish prepping.
  • Pre-prep ingredients for last-minute dishes. If you are making gravy or mashed potatoes right before you serve dinner, get everything measured, chopped, and ready so they come together quickly.
  • Warm any dishes your guests are bringing. If folks need oven or stovetop heat to finish their dishes, you’ll want to plan for that so you’re not hogging these precious resources.
  • Have a bite to eat early in the day. You’ll be no good to anyone if you pass out from low blood sugar just before you carve the turkey. Yes, I know you’ll be consuming you weight in turkey and carbs later that day, but you’ll be busy until then, so be sure to take in a little fuel to keep your engine running strong.

Gear Up

I’m an Alton Brown devotee, so I’m not a big believer in having many single-tasking specialty tools around for Thanksgiving dinner preparation. The tools I use for this meal are the same I’d use for any other. However, before the cooking frenzy begins, I always check to be sure these three in specific are in good working order:

  • Instant-read meat thermometer. A turkey is a curious beast. Different parts are at temperature at different times, so the safest way to be sure your bird is ready to go is to take its temperature at the deepest part of the thigh away from the bone. Ideally it will be 165 degrees when you pull it from the oven because its temperature will rise a few degrees while it rests. A meat thermometer is the best tool for this job. Be sure to calibrate yours according to its package directions sometime before Thanksgiving so you can trust its measurements.
  • Sharp knives. Thanksgiving sides involve a lot of chopping, so at least on good sharp knife is a must to not only reduce your prep time but to keep you safe. A dull knife is a disaster waiting to happen. Be sure your knives are super-sharp and ready to go before you start all of that prep work.
  • A big work bowl. Often you’ll have 8 or more guests at Thanksgiving so you’ll be working with bigger batches of everything. A good size work bowl is a blessing because it keep messes to a minimum. If you don’t have a decent size bowl, a quick trip to your favorite big-box store like Target will solve your problem. Don’t feel like you have to spend a ton of money, a good metal bowl should cost less than $20 and it will pay for itself in spades year-after-year.

Ask for Help

Thanksgiving is the penultimate communal meal. You don’t have to go it alone. Ask friends and family to bring a dish, or, at the very least ask a couple of them to help you out in the kitchen in the final 30 minutes. They can stir, plate, garnish, or even hold your wine glass. To make things go more smoothly, consider how they can best help you ahead of time so you’re ready to give instructions when they arrive. If you’re as crazy as I am, you could even make each person their own little task list – but that’s only if you’re my kind of weird.

Enjoy the Ride

Above all, have fun with your guests. If the turkey is a little dry or the stuffing a little wet, they won’t remember. They will remember that you put your time into preparing a great meal for them and that’s what really matters. So cut yourself some slack!

A Recap of my Thanksgiving Posts

This holiday season I’ve tried to focus on the big picture rather than recipes so you’re armed with the knowledge you need to create a menu that fits your tastes and needs. Here are my posts coolcted for quick reference:

I hope you find these helpful and I’d love to know what I can do to make the Winter holidays easier as well.

When You’re Tired of Turkey

By Friday afternoon I’m so over turkey and sides I don’t know what to do with myself. If you find yourself in the same spot, here are some recipes to give your tastebuds a completely different experience:

Happy Thanksgiving

Have a wonderful, energizing, fulfilling holiday. Happy Thanksgiving from my family to yours.


  1. Hey Natanya! Long time no chat. I wanted to stop by and thank you for this really thoughtful Thanksgiving breakdown, as well as to wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday. I can’t wait to check back throughout the holidays and see what delicious things you cook up!

  2. Love your insight into putting together the biggest meal of the year! Having served 30 this year in my small 1924 home, I had every minute, side dish, spoon, etc planned out. Beautiful write up.