Thanksgiving to-do guide

Thanksgiving and Christmas turkey dinner

If you’re hosting Thanksgiving this year, you have plenty on
your plate. There are groceries to buy, linens to iron and dishes
to prepare. We offer a planning guide to help you with the holiday.
We’ve included turkey cooking times, food safety tips, schedules to
get you through the day and more.
If you’re hosting Thanksgiving this year, you have plenty on your plate. There are groceries to buy, linens to iron and dishes to prepare. We offer a planning guide to help you with the holiday. We’ve included turkey cooking times, food safety tips, schedules to get you through the day and more.

Preparation checklist for the big day

Wednesday (the week before Thanksgiving)

– Finish the guest list. If anyone is bringing a dish, get a commitment on what it will be.

– Choose the menu, including appetizers, beverages and turkey size. Figure on 1 to 1 1/2 pounds uncooked turkey per person, to allow leftovers.

– Make a copy of this checklist and hang it in a handy place.

– Assign cleaning chores to your spouse and children.


– Clean out the refrigerator, freezer and cupboard.

– Clear off the kitchen counters. Put away appliances you won’t need this week.

– Make a shopping list in two parts: Things you need right away, and perishables. Include paper goods such as napkins and cups, cleaning supplies, and bags and wraps for leftovers.


– Get out the serving pieces. Match them against your menu and make sure you have a container and serving spoon for every dish. Label the bottoms with tape or Post-it notes. Count glasses, plates and chairs and make a list of anything you need to rent or borrow.

– Get out your pots and pans and do a mental run-through of the menu. Do you have a roaster that will hold a 20-pound turkey? (Use a sack of potatoes as a rough guide.) Will it fit in your oven?

– Polish servers and silverware if needed.

– Get out table linens, check for stains and iron them if needed.


– Go shopping for nonperishable items. If you’re buying a frozen turkey, get it now so it will have time to thaw. If you are ordering a fresh turkey or floral arrangement, do it by today.

– Start the housecleaning, or check on chores assigned to family members.


– If you’re using a frozen turkey that is larger than 16 pounds, put it on a pan to catch drips and move it into the refrigerator. If you’re using a fresh turkey, you can get it today.

– If you’re serving a green salad, core and wash the lettuce. Wrap it in paper towels, place in a resealable bag, press out the air and refrigerate.

– Finish the housecleaning and rearrange any furniture if needed.

– Thin out your coat closet to make room for guests’ wraps.


– If you’re using a frozen turkey that is less than 16 pounds, place it on a pan to catch drips and move to the refrigerator.

– Make cranberry sauce and re-frigerate it. If you’re making an appetizer such as a cheese ball or toasted nuts, make it today.


– Sweep the front walk and porch if needed.

– Make up drinks, such as iced tea or mulled cider, and refrigerate them.

– Make a final trip to the store for perishables if needed. Pick up a couple of bags of ice if you can store them.


– Set the table and arrange the centerpiece.

– Make mashed potatoes. Refrigerate. Cut and toast the bread for the dressing.

– Bake the sweet potatoes, peel and mash, if desired. Cover and refrigerate.

– If you’re brining the turkey, make the brine. Unwrap the turkey, remove the giblet bag and the neck from the cavities. Place turkey in brine and keep cold in refrigerator or cooler filled with ice. If you’re not brining, check to make sure the turkey is thawed.

– Prepare any desserts and refrigerate.

Thanksgiving Day countdown

– 9 a.m.: If the turkey is 16 to 20 pounds, preheat the oven. If the turkey has been brined, rinse it well. If you’re stuffing, spoon dressing loosely into body cavity and neck. Place on rack in roasting pan. Place in the oven. Refrigerate remaining dressing.

– 10:30 a.m.: If the turkey is 12 pounds or under, preheat the oven and start it now.

– Noon: Finish setting the table. Make sure salt and pepper shakers are full, put out serving spoons and get the butter dish ready. Get sweet potatoes out of the refrigerator and let them come to room temperature.

– 1:45 p.m.: Put mashed potatoes in the oven to reheat. If you didn’t stuff the turkey, cover dressing with lid or foil and place in the oven. Wrap fresh bread or rolls with foil and set aside.

– 2 p.m.: Get the cranberry sauce out of the refrigerator and put in a serving dish. Remove the covers from the dressing and add broth if it seems dry.

– 2:30 p.m.: Remove turkey from oven and tent loosely with foil. Drain drippings if you plan to make gravy. Put the bread in the oven. Ask a volunteer to pour drinks.

– 2:40 p.m.: Make gravy.

– 2:50 p.m.: Carve the turkey. Remove the mashed potatoes, dressing and bread from the oven and take them to the table. Put the sweet potatoes in serving dishes and take them to the table.

– 2:55 p.m.: Start the coffee pot. Get dessert from refrigerator.

– 3 p.m.: Sit down, relax and enjoy your dinner.

– 4 p.m.: Don’t let the turkey sit out longer than this. Trim off leftover meat. Wrap meat for sandwiches and refrigerate up to 3 days. Cut up extra meat, wrap well and freeze. Wrap the carcass and refrigerate for soup. Put away other leftovers and plan to use within 3 days.

– 4:30 p.m.: Take a walk and enjoy yourself.


– Large glass measuring cup: Preferably 4- to 6-cup capacity, although 2-cup is also fine, for measuring and degreasing pan juices for gravy.

– Fat-separating cup: A glass measuring cup will work, but these cups with offset spouts save a lot of mess.

– Roasting pan: A good-quality, heavy pan distributes heat more evenly and is safer and more convenient to handle than a disposable pan.

– Turkey lifter: It’s not indispensable, but if you’re cooking a very large turkey, it’s handy.

– Roasting rack: There are many styles, including flat racks and V-shaped versions that are often adjustable. Whichever kind you choose, make sure it will fit in your roasting pan.

– Bulb baster: These are handy for basting dressing and turkeys and removing juices from the pan. Make sure it’s heat-resistant.

– Kitchen string: For tying legs (many turkeys now come with slits in the skin or metal or plastic clips for this).

– Brining bags: If you’re brining, these disposable bags make things easier.

– Meat thermometer: Don’t trust the pop-up timers in turkeys. They’re unreliable.

– Instant-read thermometer: Indispensable, for checking the temperature at the center of stuffing or dressing, and for checking to make sure leftovers have been thoroughly reheated.

– Carving knife and meat fork: A sharpened chef’s knife will work fine.

– Whisk: For gravy (a fork will also work).


What size: Figure 1 to 11/2 pounds per person to allow for plenty of leftovers. Turkeys smaller than 12 pounds often don’t have much meat on their bones. Turkeys larger than 16 pounds are difficult to handle, so consider switching to two smaller birds.

What kind: You have a lot of choices. Fresh turkeys are common in supermarkets now, along with the full array of frozen birds. Free-range turkeys are available from some stores, although they usually have to be specially ordered.

Thawing: The safest way is in the refrigerator. Figure 24 hours for every 4 pounds of weight. If you need to thaw it faster, put the wrapped turkey in a sink filled with cold water. Check the water every 30 minutes to make sure it stays cold. Figure 30 minutes per pound.


– Unwrap the turkey.

– Remove giblets and neck from the body and neck cavity. Reserve for making stock for gravy.

– Wash well, inside and out, with cold running water. Pat dry with paper towels.

– Prepare turkey according to your recipe, including brining, rubbing skin with oil, butter and herbs, or placing onions and celery in the cavity.

– Tie legs if desired, or use the clip provided with the turkey, or tuck legs into slit in skin. Hold each wing by the thickest section and bend the tip so you can push it under the back.

– Insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the inner thigh, near the breast, angling to make sure it doesn’t touch bone.

– If you don’t have a meat thermometer, use an instant-read thermometer to periodically take a reading at the same spot. (Don’t leave the instant-read thermometer in the bird while it’s in the oven.)

– Place in a roasting pan, preferably on a rack.

– Wash your hands with hot, soapy water and dry them with paper towels after handling raw turkey.

Stuffing vs. not stuffing

A stuffed bird takes several minutes per pound longer to cook, and you must make sure the center of the stuffing reaches at least 165 degrees. Use an instant-read thermometer to check it. Don’t combine stuffing and eggs until just before using and don’t stuff the turkey in advance. Spoon stuffing loosely into the turkey cavity; it will expand as it cooks. Remove stuffing as soon as it comes out of the oven.

Turkey roasting times

Recommended cooking times at 325 degrees, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Adjust if you’re following a recipe that calls for a higher temperature or for starting the turkey at higher temperature and reducing the heat later in the cooking time. Never use a method that cooks turkey at less than 325 degrees.)

Food safety

– Keep hot foods hot and keep cold foods cold. Hot food shouldn’t be below 140 degrees for more than 2 hours. Cold foods shouldn’t be above 40 degrees for more than 2 hours.

– Avoid cross-contamination. Wash your hands with hot, soapy water after handling raw meat. Wipe up spilled meat juices with paper towels.

– Watch the clock. Refrigerate cooked turkey and perishable foods within 2 hours.

– Chill cooked turkey efficiently. Remove stuffing from the cavity as soon as possible. Cut meat off the bones; refrigerate or freeze. Transfer other leftovers to containers. Wrap carcass and refrigerate until ready to use for soup or stock. Reheat turkey, gravy and all side dishes to at least 165 degrees.

Need help?

Where to call or get information when the bird isn’t baking like you planned.

– USDA Meat & Poultry Hot line: (888) 674-6854, toll-free, or visit

– Perdue: (800) 473-7383, toll-free, or visit

– Butterball Turkey Talk Line: (800) 288-8372, toll-free, or visit

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