Some Tips on Cooking Thanksgiving Dinner for the First Time

Thanksgiving Blues Sat Eve PostSo this is it!  This is the year you’re not dealing with all the hassle of traveling and will be making Thanksgiving dinner for yourself and a few friends.  Good for you!  Despite all the drama you’ve witnessed throughout your life surrounding Thanksgiving dinner it’s really not terribly difficult to prepare if you’re sensible.  If you decide there has to be 5 different types of potatoes and all on the table by noon then yes, there will be drama.  But for the most part you’ll be able to pull it all off without too much stress if you prep correctly.  This year will make it six Thanksgiving dinners I’ve made so here are some thoughts, ramblings, or tips on how I go about it.

Review your battle plan.  Write out the menu and review the recipes.  Ask these questions: Who’s coming for dinner?  What are you going to need for each dish?  How long will they take to cook?  Do they need to be baked in the oven or cooked on the stove?  Can you make some things ahead of time?  For example, you can bake a pie the day before.  A lot of side dishes can be made while the turkey is in the oven and then finished when it’s resting.  These are important for time management (see below).  My Thanksgiving battle plan looks like this:

  • 2 days before, I break up the bread for the stuffing and set out to dry;
  • on the day before, I make the pumpkin pie;
  • day of, make the stuffing, stuff the bird, put turkey in oven;
  • prep side dishes, get all the ingredients ready and set up;
  • prepare the dishes which need the oven like creamed onions, green bean casserole;
  • remove cooked bird and allow to rest;
  • put oven dishes in oven when bird is resting;
  • cook your stove-top sides like mashed sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, carrots, and gravy;
  •  when the oven dishes are done the bird should be ready for carving depending on the size.

Shopping.  Got that grocery list right?  Good.  I wait until the sales start, usually the weekend before.  Trust me, you’ll never see sweet potatoes as cheap as Thanksgiving week.  I was in the grocery store on Monday and they didn’t even have fresh turkeys in the meat case yet so you still have plenty of time.  So what size bird?  Figure about 1 ½ lbs per person and you’ll have plenty along with a good amount of leftovers for sandwiches, soup, etc.  I do recommend a fresh turkey vs frozen since it can take days to thaw a frozen one.  And don’t worry, you’ll probably forget something and have to go back at least once.  For me it’s usually butter or cream.

Keep it simple.  Everyone has their favorite Thanksgiving dishes.  Stick with the basics and don’t get lost in the details.  No one is going to really remember the special cranberry sauce you saw in Food & Wine which took 2 hours from your life.  Now there’s nothing wrong with trying a new recipe but limit yourself to one.  If it doesn’t work out so well you’ve got some tried and true dishes to cover.  So don’t overdo it.  Turkey, stuffing, one potato dish (sweet or regular), one traditional vegetable you always have, and then 1-2 wild card vegetables which don’t take much to prepare.  For us it looks like:

Time management.  Face it, you only have four burners and one oven so you need to figure out your timing; which dishes are passive (pre-make and heat up) and which are active (stove-top where you are actually cooking).  Roasting the turkey is always the critical path.  Figure about 20 mins per pound for stuffed, and 40-50 minutes for resting and carving.  A 12lb turkey should take around 4 hours to cook plus another 45 minutes, so if you want to eat at 5pm put that thing in the oven at noon.  While the turkey is cooking make all the passive dishes (can even do these the day before) and prep the active ones.  When the turkey is done and resting put the passive dishes in the oven to cook and then work on your active ones.  With a little luck everything should come together right when the turkey is ready to be carved.  It never happens perfectly so don’t sweat it.

Delegate.  If this is your first time making Thanksgiving dinner there’s no reason trying to do it all.  Get pies from a bakery, give a dish to your wife/husband/significant other to make (Cheryl makes the green bean casserole).  If you’re having people over, ask them bring a side dish which just needs reheating.  Most people are more than happy to contribute to Thanksgiving dinner and are really happy they don’t have to cook the whole thing.  Not everyone loves cooking as much as you and I but are willing to help.

Have fun and make your own traditions.  At the end of the day all we really want is to spend time with family and friends.  Cheryl and I have a great tradition we’ve kept around from our very first Thanksgiving together.  After dinner’s over and if we’re not entertaining guests, it’s Xbox and scotch time!  We’ll order a 2 player video game (Cheryl’s in charge of this), one which you can co-op and play together, and a bottle of single malt.  Thanksgiving night is spent shooting bad guys and sipping scotch.  So have some fun and come up with your own.  Card games, board games, holiday movies, do something together and spend time relaxing after that big dinner.

As always, feel free to improv and make it work for your style.  You can do this!



    1. Thanks! It’s not the be-all-end-all but I remember the first time I did it, was deep in the weeds at the end!

  1. dee says:

    Always enjoy your blog 🙂 I still swear by the oven bags for cooking your turkey. My husband suggested it the year we moved into the house- everyone came for Thanksgiving and we were so busy showing them the house I forgot to put the 20+ lb turkey in the oven. We put it in an oven bag and 2 1/2 hours later no basting.. no fuss.. we had a perfectly browned, juicy turkey ..been using them ever since…and before dinner Grace said by Aunt Ri – so glad I was able to video it before she passed

    1. That’s not a bad trick. I think it’s all the other stuff which bogs you down and sucks up time, the turkey is the easy part! Yup, she was the one who always said it wasn’t she?

      1. dee says:

        Yes you’re right..and I think that was a great tip to do whatever you can the day before….. I have a small oven.. bed bath and beyond has a 3 tier rack you put in your oven for extra baking space so I am going to give that a try this year ..juggling the oven for the side dishes is always by biggest challenge…

        Aunt Ri- yup! We would always call her on the phone and put her on speaker so she could still say it for us after she moved to NC …

      2. Aw, nice. Yup pre-preparing the oven dishes and pies is key to freeing up time and kitchen space.

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