I’ve often thought of Thanksgiving dinner as a home cook’s final exam. Between trying to time the turkey to getting all of the sides and desserts made, it can seem like an overwhelming task. When I had my first experience cooking the entire meal for my husband’s family a few years ago, I was nervous. So I decided to prepare weeks in advance by researching cooking times and recipes, and then making a list to put it all together. By writing it all out and keeping it simple, the Thanksgiving meal turned out great and everyone enjoyed themselves. Below is what I learned- from planning a traditional Thanksgiving dinner menu to executing it. With some careful planning, your Thanksgiving meal will turn out delicious.
Planning a Thanksgiving menu can seem daunting, but if you keep it simple, everything will turn out fine. Here’s a traditional Thanksgiving menu that’s not too difficult to prepare:
Turkey with Gravy
Sweet Potato Casserole
Green Bean Casserole
If you have favorite or family recipes for these items, by all means, use them. Otherwise, stick to classic versions of these recipes that have been trusted over time. This way, you’ll know they will work.
As for timing, it depends on how many ovens you have to work with. If you just have one (as I did), you need to pay closer attention to timing than if you have two-one for the turkey and the other for the sides. Closely calculate how much time your turkey will need and allow for some extra time as well (birds rarely take the precise amount of time in the directions). Put it in first, and when it’s done, let it rest. While it’s resting, you can put the side dishes in the oven, make the gravy, and finish the rest on top of the stove. The pie can be made the night before. If you need to heat the rolls, this can be done last while the turkey’s being carved and the side dishes are being kept warm. Then, everything will be ready to eat together.
Turkey With Gravy
This is the trickiest and most time-consuming portion of any Thanksgiving dinner menu. If you can get a fresh turkey, that’s better so that you don’t have to worry about defrosting it in time for the big day. But if all you can get is a frozen one, make sure you follow all directions and give it ample time to defrost so that it cooks evenly. There are many ways to cook a turkey, but rubbing the skin with a simple blend of oil or butter and sprinkling it with salt and pepper is a simple and traditional preparation. Keep in mind that the cooking times for a turkey are generally for turkeys that aren’t stuffed; if you’re putting the stuffing in your bird, add the appropriate amount of time or else you’ll be waiting an extra hour or more for your bird to be done. If you want to be on the safe side, put some simple onions, carrots, and salt and pepper in the turkey cavity for flavor and cook the stuffing as a side dish or on the stove. While the turkey rests, make the gravy. Strain the fat from the juices, transfer the juice to a medium saucepan, and heat it with a mixture of cornstarch and water, as well as salt and pepper, to thicken and season it. Bring it to a boil and then let it simmer until the meal is ready.
There are many varieties of stuffing, and one of the biggest decisions is whether or not to cook it inside the turkey. If you choose to do it this way, make sure you give yourself at least a half an hour to cook and assemble the ingredients so that you can stuff the turkey and get it into the oven on time. Also, make sure you add extra overall cooking time to your turkey if it’s stuffed. Be careful not to stuff it too full; this can cause the turkey to take even longer to cook through because the heat can’t circulate evenly. And always check the temperature of your stuffing to make sure it’s heated through to a safe temperature since it was cooking inside raw poultry.
Otherwise, cook your stuffing on the stovetop or in a casserole dish with the other sides. This is an easier method; you can tell if it’s cooked through and the turkey cooks more quickly and evenly too.
Mashed Potatoes, Corn, & Cranberry Sauce
These three dishes are essential to a complete, traditional Thanksgiving dinner menu, and the simplest to prepare. All three can be cooked on top of the stove, so you don’t have to worry about precious oven time and space. The potatoes will take the longest to cook, so it’s best to start them as the turkey’s finishing up, before you put the casseroles in the oven. Red bliss potatoes are my favorite, but many enjoy golden potatoes or russet as well. Peel and chop them into one-inch pieces, cover them with water and a dash of salt, and bring to a boil. Simmer them until they’re fork tender, and then either use a stand mixer, electric beaters, or old-fashioned potato masher to mash or whip them, adding butter, salt, and pepper as you go. Finish them with either milk, cream, or sour cream for a rich and creamy texture.
Keep the corn simple; simply heat up the frozen or canned variety on the stove or microwave while the turkey’s being carved so that’s it’s ready right before you eat. And as for cranberry sauce, I still prefer it jellied out of a can (pure tradition), but if you want to make a homemade variety, it’s easiest to make this the night before and refrigerate it in the dish you’re going to serve it in, covered with plastic wrap. This way, it’s all set to go. Just pull it out about 20 minutes before dinner to take some of the chill off and it’s ready to eat.
Sweet Potato & Green Bean Casserole
These casseroles are easy to prepare ahead of time and pop into the oven when the turkey’s done, yet their flavors are essential to any traditional Thanksgiving dinner menu. In the morning, prepare each of these casseroles after you put the turkey into the oven, placing them in the dishes you’re going to cook them in. Keep them covered in the fridge, and once the turkey is done and comes out of the oven to rest, place these two dishes in the oven to cook. They usually take between 30 to 40 minutes, depending on your recipe, which is the time it takes for the turkey to rest and be carved. If the turkey, gravy, or stovetop dishes aren’t quite done when your casseroles are, turn off the oven and use the residual heat to keep them warm. These are not dishes you’d want to prepare the day or night before; allowing them to sit to long can affect the finished product by making them too mushy.
Rolls & Pumpkin Pie
Since these two components of the Thanksgiving meal are baked, it’s best to prepare them the day before so that they don’t take up oven space and time. A pumpkin pie doesn’t have to take very long; it’s easy to purchase a premade crust in the refrigerated section, roll it out, and make the filling all in about 20 minutes. Bake the pie, cool it, and refrigerate it for the next day. Take the pie out of the oven about an hour before you sit down to eat, bringing it to room temperature by the time everyone is ready to have dessert.
Rolls can be kept simple; purchasing them the day before from a bakery or the grocery store is the easiest way to go. However, if you prefer, you can buy brown-and-serve rolls or make your own the day before. If the rolls must be heated, pop them in the oven when your casseroles are done or at the end of their cooking time so that everything is ready at the same time.
Overall, cooking Thanksgiving dinner doesn’t have to be scary. Plan ahead, write down the order of each dish, and simply take it one step at a time. Enlist others to help, and don’t stress if everything doesn’t go exactly according to plan. Most traditional Thanksgiving dishes are simple, and even minor mistakes go undetected. Overall, everyone will appreciate your efforts, and it will come together and be delicious.