So you’ve never cooked a Thanksgiving dinner before. Easy peasy. (Ahaha!) Relax. Follow these simple instructions, plan ahead, and you’ll reduce the stress of planning and hosting a big holiday meal. You might savor the process so much you’ll want to repeat the performance. The key is keeping it simple, and keeping track of all the little details.
We’ll show you how to prep for every course (and everything else), and how to cook a turkey with a clear, photo-heavy recipe plus all the classic fixings. This guide lays out the plans for you to time it just right and gives you hints on things that are easy to overlook. And even if there are a couple mishaps along the way, you’ll enjoy your first Thanksgiving dinner immensely. We’ll even show you what to do with the leftovers.
Jump to a specific section below, or scroll through to see it all:
- The Planning
- The Shopping
- The Turkey
- The Stuffing
- The Mashed Potatoes
- The Gravy
- The Cranberry Sauce
- The Sweet Potatoes
- The Green Bean Casserole
- The Dessert
- The Recipes
- The Leftovers
First, figure out what you want to make, then write up a detailed list of what you need to shop for, including how much of each ingredient you need so you don’t wind up short of eggs for the pie or butter for the gravy. Think about what appetizers, snacks, or starters you want to include too; the easiest option is to curate a mix of high-quality store-bought items, but you could also make candied nuts or a simple dip, in which case, account for those ingredients as well.
Then make another detailed list of what you need to actually do—to make the recipes, of course, but also to complete other prep like cleaning the house and ordering extra dinnerware if you’re short on plates and forks. Break the to-do list down by week and day so you have a clear view of all you can do ahead of time (and when), and what needs to be juggled last-minute.
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Account for what specific cooking gear and how many serving vessels and utensils you’ll need too, in case you’re short on casserole dishes or serving spoons. Will you need extra plates for dessert? Do you have enough glasses for everyone to have water and wine without needing to rinse and reuse their cup?
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Related Reading: 11 Kitchen Gadgets That Make Thanksgiving Dinner Less Stressful
Let guests know if they need to bring anything—from a bag of ice to an extra chair. (Don’t be shy. Do be honest. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re feeling overwhelmed.)
Think about how you want to decorate your space and set your table too. You don’t need to invest in special occasion dinnerware and linens if you don’t want to (or don’t have the budget for it), but you will want to make sure you have enough plates, cups, napkins, and utensils for all your guests, disposable/compostable or otherwise.
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For more help with the non-food prep work, check out our tips on how to make your home cozy for hosting Thanksgiving and our list of things you shouldn’t forget to stock up on ahead of time.
Some things are better fresh, but many can be stocked up on well in advance.
Plan on one shopping trip a few weeks ahead to get the turkey (if you have space in your freezer to store it) and all the non-perishables or ingredients that will keep well for a while, like canned pumpkin, canned cranberry sauce, spices, butter, onions and other root veggies, and frozen pie crust if you’re not making it from scratch.
Related Reading: Store-Bought vs Homemade Pie Crust
We know it’s not going to be fun with stores likely packed and shelves potentially ravaged, but we suggest another trip no more than a few days ahead of time (a week at most) for things like Brussels sprouts, lemons, and fresh herbs if you’re using them—basically, anything that will suffer for being stored in the fridge too long.
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Or get your groceries delivered for the big day, but be sure to tip well.
When it comes to the turkey, make sure you account for the time it will take to thaw (unless you’re scoring a fresh turkey; most come frozen). Depending on the size of the bird, this can take up to 6 days. See our complete guide to How to Thaw a Turkey for more details, including tips on what to do if you forget. Also see our guide to the best turkey to buy and how much you need per person.
If you’ve never handled a whole turkey, be aware that you’ll want to remove the neck and giblets from the cavity once it’s defrosted, either before brining it if you’re going that route, or just before roasting. (If you are brining, the dry brine method is much easier!)
You can skip trussing the turkey, but it does help hold it together for a neater presentation. Here’s how to do it:
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Another option—which has the advantage of cutting down the cooking time—is to spatchcock your turkey!
However you cook it, use a meat thermometer to ensure the turkey is done, then let it rest—this benefits the bird and gives you time to make gravy and put finishing touches on the sides.
When it comes time to carve the turkey, here’s how it’s done. Make sure you have a good sharp knife and a meat fork ahead of time to make it easier on yourself.
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Stuffing (or dressing) is a must, but it’s best not packed into the turkey (for food safety reasons, but also because then there’s way less crusty surface area to go around). You can make it up to two weeks ahead of time and freeze it, then reheat it; have extra stock or broth on hand in case it needs some moisture added back. See our Ultimate Guide to Stuffing for more.
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Bake, cool, then pop this in the freezer, and back in the oven on the day of before taking it straight to the table.
The Mashed Potatoes
Best made fresh, mashed potatoes are easy as long as you follow a few simple pointers; see our Ultimate Guide to Mashed Potatoes for how to get perfectly creamy spuds every time (including non-dairy options).
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Making gravy from the turkey pan drippings isn’t as hard as you might think, but to be honest, there is the potential to mess it up—and since it has to be done at the last minute, it can feel stressful. For that reason, and because you can never have too much gravy, we recommend making a batch ahead of time as insurance. You just need to buy some spare turkey parts; see our Make Ahead Turkey Gravy recipe and prepare it up to a month in advance.
The Cranberry Sauce
If you love canned cranberry sauce, this one is easy. But if you want to make fresh cranberry relish, well, it’s still easy! See our Basic Cranberry Sauce recipe for the super simple how-to, plus some variations.
The Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potato casserole is another sure bet, and we have a recipe for the classic marshmallow-topped casserole for those who remain true—as well as some other, less-sweet options, like our Mashed Sweet Potato Casserole with Bourbon and Pecan Streusel below, or Sweet Potatoes Anna (thinly sliced instead of mashed, with maple syrup, orange zest, and walnuts). You could even go with Scalloped Sweet Potato Stacks, made in muffin pans (if your tins aren’t full of stuffin’ muffins already).
The Green Bean Casserole
We can’t forget about green bean casserole either (though some might want to). The classic Campbell’s recipe was invented back in 1955, but it’s come a long way since then. We do like a fresh, from-scratch version—like our panko-topped Fresh Green Bean Casserole recipe, or our Herbed Green Bean Casserole recipe with slivered almonds (below)—but even frozen green beans and a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup can take a twist (like coconut milk, ginger, and chilies; crab meat and Old Bay; or a puff pastry cap).
Bottom line: Make what you like and want to eat! (Or outsource the green bean casserole if you don’t really care.) And note that you can make this ahead of time too, just without the topping so it doesn’t get soggy when reheating.
If you do want to tackle a pie and don’t have a lot of experience, check out our tips for perfect pie crust (or just go with a press-in gingersnap crust).
Whether you provide them or make it BYOB (or a little of both), beer and wine are all you need as far as alcohol, but don’t forget non-alcoholic options including soda and seltzer for those who don’t imbibe.
If you want to make a house cocktail for the occasion, check out our fall fruit drink recipes (including both mocktails and spiked concoctions), or our drinks you can make from Thanksgiving dinner ingredients. Crock-Pot cocktails are also a great choice.
When it comes to wine, rosé is totally still an option in the autumn, but we have plenty more recommendations too: take these picks from a Sonoma wine pro and the Friendsgiving-approved bottles below, for instance.
This basic Thanksgiving menu is low on frills but full of flavor—and does have some interesting twists. To pull the whole thing off, set your table the night before (if you don’t have pets who will wreck the set-up), and while the turkey is roasting on the big day, do all your stovetop cooking.
When the bird comes out to rest, put all your premade sides back in the oven to warm up. Do the gravy last, as well as dressing a salad or heating bread if you’re serving it, and remember to see this timeline for even more specific tips broken down by day and hour.
But also, if you want to do something less traditional, go for it! We’ve got intel on turkey recipes that aren’t whole roasts, alternative birds, vegan Thanksgiving recipes, and ideas for fun Friendsgiving themes that could inspire a totally different menu.
There are lots of ways to cook Thanksgiving turkey, but this is a classic. A straightforward cooking method with only a handful of high-impact ingredients puts the all-important bird in easy reach, with a minimum of sweat. If you’ve never roasted a turkey before (or suffered a fail or two) this recipe is for you. Get our Easy Roast Turkey recipe.
The prospect of making gravy that has body (but is not gluey and floury) and is lump-free can seem like the Holy Grail of Thanksgiving novices, but fear not. This simple recipe will turn you pan drippings and roasted turkey neck into a smooth, lithe, and flavorful sauce. Get our Easy Turkey Gravy recipe.
This is an easy go-to recipe, appropriate for stuffing inside the turkey’s cavity or baking apart, in a baking dish (our preferred method, for the crispy top surface and lack of worry about timing). It calls for two types of bread, white and coarse country levain, plus sweet Italian sausage—use hot if you like things spicy! Get our Sausage Stuffing recipe. (Or try our classic stuffing with apple and sage.)
Okay, so this is not quite so basic, but it’s still so easy. Tannic pomegranate juice combines with crisp apples and sweet raisins for a multifaceted cranberry sauce that goes way beyond the Thanksgiving table. It’s best made at least one day ahead so the flavors can meld. Serve room temperature or warmed, which is kind of a revelation. Get our Cranberry Relish recipe. (And see our Basic Cranberry Sauce recipe if you prefer the classic.)
Mashed potatoes: arguably the true centerpiece of Thanksgiving dinner, thirsty bed for gravy and the thing that, if you didn’t make them, would leave Thanksgiving utterly pointless. Making perfect mashed potatoes is a simple affair, if you get all the details right. Get our Basic Mashed Potatoes recipe.
Candied sweet potatoes with a browned cap of mini marshmallows is definitely still a thing (see the Sweet Potatoes section above for our recipe, plus a couple other variations), but these yams—sliced and baked with orange juice, butter, fresh ginger, and apricot preserves—are even better. Yet they’re still simple as all get-out. Get our Baked Ginger Sweet Potatoes recipe.
Green beans offer color relief and a bright, healthy foil to all the rich, saucy, buttery, and sweet food at Thanksgiving. Keep them a little crisp, prep them beforehand, and—just before you sit down to the meal, and everything’s ready—give them a quick toss in a sauté pan to finish. Get our Basic Sautéed Green Beans recipe. (But check out the Green Bean Casserole section above for more traditional takes if you miss the creamy-crispy aspects.)
You start by making a simple press-in crust, then assemble a simple filling from canned pumpkin purée, spices, eggs, and condensed milk—it takes only a few minutes to mix and you won’t be left with any extraneous pumpkin to repurpose later. Pop it in the oven for an hour, and what you get is the best possible end to Thanksgiving. Get our Perfect Pumpkin Pie recipe.
A simple syrup with holiday spices, port, and Cointreau is an evocative medium for macerating apples and cranberries. For the sangria itself, port, Cointreau, and cranberry juice blend with Tempranillo rosé for a thrist-quenching Thanksgiving quaff. Get our Spiced Cranberry Sangria recipe.
Visit our Thanksgiving Headquarters for even more Thanksgiving tips, tricks, hacks, and recipes.