Hosting Thanksgiving dinner for the first time or need a quick refresher? Our Thanksgiving planning guide is here to save your holiday!

By Linley Sanders
Updated October 13, 2020
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Hosting Thanksgiving for the first time can seem like a daunting task, but don't panic just yet! We've put together the ultimate week-by-week checklist to help you stay organized and get dinner on the table—stress-free! While this year may look a little different (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has shared your safest bet is to celebrate with members of your household), you can still make the holiday special. Preparing for the big feast is simple when you have a pre-planned shopping list and a classic holiday menu. Our tips for a stress-free Thanksgiving include an easy-to-follow timeline and guides to a traditional Thanksgiving menu. By starting your meal planning in early November, you can secure the perfect ingredients for holiday appetizers, cocktails, and side dishes.

Plus, putting up early Thanksgiving decorations and arranging make-ahead side dishes can cut your Thanksgiving work in half. Guests will be convinced you pulled off the impossible—but all it takes is a little holiday planning. So whether you're hosting for the first time or just looking for a better way to plan, our day-to-day Thanksgiving dinner checklist will help you host a fabulous meal with ease.

Here's your timeline to success with all your Thanksgiving preparations.

thanksgiving table with candle centerpiece
Credit: Marty Baldwin

1 Month Before Thanksgiving

Plan the Thanksgiving Dinner Menu

When it comes to the Thanksgiving menu, planning earlier is always better. Make a shopping list of perishables and non-perishables, then you can pick up items slowly throughout the month instead of running through the grocery store in a rush. If you are ordering a fresh turkey, do it now. Be sure to determine any special dietary needs for your guests before setting the menu. That way if you need to customize the Thanksgiving menu plan, it’s easier to find substitutes in advance.

Speaking of customization, we have 30+ Thanksgiving menu ideas that cover all sorts of tastes and dietary restrictions so you can plan the perfect meal for your family.

Distribute Responsibilities

With a finalized guest list, you can begin coordinating table decorations and menu items. Family members who don't live with you can help by grabbing the non-perishable items—like Thanksgiving place settings. Make a to-do list, listing all the little things you feel must get done prior to Thanksgiving, and indicate who will take care of that task. Take a peek at our guide to setting your Thanksgiving table to make sure you've accounted for all the elements you need.

Make a Thanksgiving Wreath

Impress Thanksgiving guests with a lush fall wreath, then leave it up through Christmas for easy transitional decor. (And if you're in need of a table centerpiece, this wreath will do the job glamorously—just add a few candles to the center!)

2 Weeks Before Thanksgiving

Plan Thanksgiving Table Settings & Decorations

No need to rush around setting the table while Thanksgiving dinner gets cold. Decide which china, glassware, and table linens you'll use before the holiday meal, and make sure you have enough tables and chairs for your guests. If Thanksgiving tablecloths and cloth napkins need to be cleaned or ironed, do it about two weeks before Thanksgiving. Once the table settings have been decided, you can print your own placemats to delight kids or make clever napkin rings.

Make a DIY Thanksgiving Centerpiece

Once table settings have been decided, order a floral centerpiece or make plans to create your own. Crafting your own DIY Thanksgiving centerpiece can take the holiday table to a whole new level. Between polishing the silver and checking the serving dishes, find time to express your Thanksgiving spirit with a DIY centerpiece, like our simple wood centerpiece box. Use this fall container as inspiration to arrange your own autumn accessories, or learn how to build your own custom Thanksgiving bounty box.

Finalize Guest List & Menu

Map out a cooking timetable to ensure all dishes are done when needed and note which dishes will be made ahead of time.

Editor's Tip: If you'll be cooking to accommodate food allergies, now is a good time to purchase specialty ingredients online or in stores.

1 Week Before Thanksgiving

Put Out Thanksgiving Decorations For Guests

About a week before Thanksgiving, you can put the finishing touches on the guestroom or set out front porch decorations. Prepare the guest room with fresh linens and other amenities and rake the leaves when you get a chance. If children will be attending, get out Thanksgiving movies or games that kids will love. Will you need a high chair, crib, or booster seat? Bring them out and clean, or arrange to borrow these items from a friend or the parent. If you don’t get to everything in the next week, don't fret. Family and friends will appreciate your efforts big and small.

Take Inventory

Double-check your home to make sure you have enough of everything for everyone. Think napkins, plates, serving bowls, name cards—even ice! This is a good time to wash or dry-clean your table linens, too!

Aerial view of Thanksgiving meal spread
Credit: Blaine Moats

4 Days Before Thanksgiving

Order Groceries

With a notebook in hand, peek through your pantry, liquor cabinet, and fridge. Write down any items you'll need to buy; remember to consider meals for the rest of the weekend if guests are sticking around. Turkey should be first and foremost if it isn't already ordered. Consider purchasing perishables like milk and fresh fruit a day or two before the party so they don't go bad.

Editor's Tip: If you're purchasing a frozen bird, allow the turkey to thaw in your fridge for 24 hours for every 4 pounds of turkey (so a 16-pound bird needs four full days to thaw). You can keep a fully thawed turkey in the refrigerator for up to four days before cooking.

Make Ice

Save money on ice by making your own ice cubes now. When they're frozen, dump them in a freezer bag and begin the next batch.

Plan for Leftovers

Speaking of that delicious Thanksgiving turkey—plan ahead for tasty turkey leftovers. Make sure you have enough containers to hold all the leftovers.

Plan Activities

Kiddos coming? Get crafty! Simple coloring stations, board games, and cards are sure to keep the little ones entertained. Get extra-festive by creating Thanksgiving placemats in the shape of turkeys—or better yet, let the kids design their own! We've got free and fun printable games for kids that will entertain kids of all ages; print yours now!

Editor's Tip: Throw in a hard-to-solve jigsaw puzzle and a few classic board games to keep older kids (and even adults) happily occupied.

Clean the House

Cleanup is quick and painless if you take it in strategic small steps. Start by room, paying particular attention to those your guests will wander most: the living room, dining room, and bathroom. Take 10 minutes to tidy up, 10 to dust, and 10 to vacuum. Your house will be spic-and-span in no time!

Editor's Tip: Remember to wash your good plates and wine glasses now if they've become dusty in storage.

Make & Freeze Soup

Need an easy, satisfying meal to feed guests as they arrive on Wednesday—ideally, one you can make ahead, freeze, and reheat? Think soup, like our just-spicy-enough Chicken & Poblano Pepper Soup. Simmer the ingredients together now, then store it away in your freezer to save valuable space in your refrigerator. Warm-up soup in a slow cooker or on the stovetop to provide guests a fuss-free, fragrant welcome. Just add chips and cheese!

2 Days Before Thanksgiving

Prep Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Appetizers

The secret to a stress-free feast? Prepare ingredients in advance and tackle make-ahead dishes where you can. Two days before Thanksgiving, clean and peel any vegetables and refrigerate them (keeping them in water can keep them from browning). Set out the bread for homemade stuffing (stale stuff works best), and pre-make your favorite sweet cranberry sauce and creamy mashed potatoes. Our Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Menu is filled with dishes that help you save on day-of work. Whip up a few Thanksgiving appetizers to tide guests until dinner, and fill the salt and pepper shakers.

Editor's Tip: Don't forget to run the dishwasher so it will be empty and ready for party dishes.

Set Up the Bar

A self-serve bar leaves you free to check on food and mingle with guests come party time. Find a convenient spot close to the dining table to set out clean glasses, pitchers, and ice buckets. Fill pitchers with one or two signature drinks. We recommend apple cider studded with cinnamon sticks. Leave it up to guests to spike them!

Editor's Tip: If limited space prevents a table-side bar, try making a big-batch cocktail like this Apple Cinnamon Winter Sangria that stores easily in the fridge (and tastes better over time!). Pour it when guests arrive Wednesday night and let guests help themselves throughout the weekend. For an even more festive take, try a champagne cocktail; the bubbles are always fun!

Set the Table

Make serving extra-easy with a planned layout. Fill the dining table with your chosen serving bowls and glasses, placing food labels in the proper dishes. If you're buying flowers for your centerpiece, remember to pick those up today.

Editor's Tip: Set glasses upside down on the table to keep them dust-free before the feast.

Five pies with slices on plates
Credit: Blaine Moats

1 Day Before Thanksgiving

Make Thanksgiving Desserts & Overnight Rolls

Most Thanksgiving chopping, peeling, or toasting can be done about 24 hours before Thanksgiving. Make the Thanksgiving pies if they need to refrigerate, and set out the overnight dinner rolls to rise. As you prepare the side dishes and appetizers that can be made early, remember to set out any dishes or kitchen tools that you will need for Thanksgiving Day. If there’s time, you can even make a staging area for coffee, desserts, and drinks. Stock with flatware, sugar, creamer, and cups to avoid guests finding themselves underfoot.

Editor's Tip: Any mashed potato recipe can be made ahead and reheated in a slow cooker. To keep reheated mashed potatoes warm for serving, set the slow cooker on low and mix in a little milk if the potatoes appear to be drying out—they'll stay ready to serve for up to two hours!

Aerial view of people enjoying Thanksgiving dinner
Credit: Karla Conrad

Thanksgiving Day

Recruit Help

Happy Thanksgiving! At last, the day arrived. As guests arrive, assign specific family members or relatives to be in charge of tending the fire, pouring drinks, answering the door, hanging up coats, and watching the children.

Cook the Turkey

Remove the Thanksgiving turkey from the refrigerator for one to two hours, and prepare the stuffing. Put the turkey in a preheated oven and baste every half hour or according to your recipe. As the turkey cooks, prepare any sides or desserts that aren’t finished. Once the turkey is complete, remove the stuffing and let the turkey rest, covered, for about 20 minutes before slicing.

Clean Up

After you’ve finished Thanksgiving desserts and guests are sufficiently stuffed, put away leftover food in containers, foil packs, or plastic bags. Distribute the leftovers into labeled bags for guests to take home. Quickly fill the dishwasher with one load of dinner dishes and glassware, then wipe down counters. Once the basics are done, organize a family game or turn on a Thanksgiving movie. Don’t worry about what worked and what didn’t—you can always perfect it next Thanksgiving and build the holiday routine that best works for your family and friends.

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