Thanksgiving is the wildest day in the kitchen each year. We’ll help you get ready with this handy pre-Thanksgiving calendar.

Nov. 8, 2023
You can tame the wildness that happens on Turkey Day in the kitchen by starting two weeks ahead. Try using tjhis Thanksgiving planning checklist and cook as much as you can ahead of time so you can enjoy a delicious, calm celebration. Photo: Getty Images.
You can tame the wildness that happens on Turkey Day in the kitchen by starting two weeks ahead. Try using tjhis Thanksgiving planning checklist and cook as much as you can ahead of time so you can enjoy a delicious, calm celebration. Photo: Getty Images.

This meal that you are going to cook in a couple of weeks — the annual Thanksgiving Day dinner — is the wildest day in the kitchen each year. And why is that? Because it means so much to us, and so we make it happen that way. Good on us; we know what matters.

But it’s daunting — isn’t it? — this mammoth pile-on of so many dishes that the dining room looks like a midnight buffet in Vegas.

Keep in mind that you are able to tame that wildness by preparing much beforehand, well before the day itself, sparing yourself the agitation of trying to do it all early that week. Plus, cooking a considerable amount of Turkey Day food ahead of time makes the dinner itself even more delicious.

Here’s help in the form of a Thanksgiving planning checklist — a calendar of sorts — that arranges the preparation work for the Thanksgiving Day meal in steps beginning two weeks ahead.

Like, now.

Two weeks before Thanksgiving:

  • Bag the bird. If pre-ordering a turkey (for example, a heritage breed to be shipped or one that’s been pre-brined), do it by now.
  • Most folks roast their turkey, so make certain that you have the necessaries for that (a strong, adequate-sized roasting pan, a long-handled basting spoon, kitchen twine).
  • Begin laying out your Turkey Day menu, especially if you will cook all of it. With the menu in mind, inventory your pots and pans, the serving dishes, and serving ware. (Think of the entire menu: from nibbles and appetizers through all the main dishes, relishes and condiments to the desserts at the end. All of it sits on dishes.)
  • A classic tip is to take out all the serving items, temporarily arrange them in the places where they’ll be served and even label them. It’s a profitable overview. (Maybe run rarely used dishes, serving ware, and the like through the dishwasher?)
  • Another key inventory to take, again with your particular menu in mind, is to think through how it all will cook, over time, through your oven, stove and warm or hot spaces, especially on Thanksgiving Day. If something needs to be done at the last minute, room might be tight.
  • Oddly enough, cataloging ahead all the places or methods to keep foods warm may be the smartest thing you do for the big day. (Slow cooker and toaster oven, sure, but also clean the outdoor gas grill or shake out an electric blanket.)
  • After all this planning, if something looks unworkable or no-can-do, delegate. But, again, don’t assign preparations or recipes that need to be done at the last minute or perhaps even that will require you to reheat them.

One week out from Thanksgiving:

  • Now’s a good time to clean out — and clean — the refrigerator. You will need the room.
  • Shop for and store up on non-perishables (potatoes to be mashed, squashes to be roasted, onions to be diced, et. cetera.)
  • Make these two foods in advance: buckets of turkey (or chicken) stock — the recipe below — and at least six basic pie dough crusts, rolled flat in the form of large discs and individually frozen in large plastic zippered bags.
  • Sharpen all your knives — all of them. This is like switching out the batteries in your home clocks every March and November with the “savings time” shifts. Thanksgiving dinner prep is the perfect reason to sharpen all the kitchen knives.

Four to six days before Thanksgiving Day:

  • If the turkey’s still frozen, start defrosting it — in the refrigerator, not on the counter, not in a tepid bath. It takes one day for every four (4) pounds of frozen bird to thaw both adequately and safely in the refrigerator.
  • If you sport two sorts of cranberry sauce on T-Day, ahead of time is a good time to make the lumpy kind. In fact, its flavors will blend and develop over the next couple of days, making it more layered and delicious than if you made it closer to the dinner deadline.
  • Get in the habit of securing any cutting board by placing a moistened (paper or fabric) towel flat underneath it. A slipping or slippery cutting board is perhaps the most dangerous place in the kitchen.
  • If you have room on your kitchen counters, have all the tools or gadgets that you’ll use for any preparation, especially on Thanksgiving Day, ready at hand, laid out on a sheet pan or long towel, not stored in their usual drawers. You’ll save lots of time not having to search them out, one after the other, from their normal cubbyholes.
    photo of pies
    Consider making your pies a day ahead of time. Photo: Getty Images.

Monday of Thanksgiving week:

  • Get to the store early and buy perishable goods (leafy greens, herbs, citrus, even horseradish — all the things that can handle three days out without losing something for Thursday’s shine).
  • Sauté what can be stored in the refrigerator but that also will play key roles in the next few days: diced onions, carrots, celery, sausage, and the like, all the savory foundations for sauces, stuffing, and gravy (if you haven’t made gravy ahead; see note with the recipe below).

Tuesday, two days before Thanksgiving

  • Set out cubed or chunked bread to stale for the stuffing, for the ducks in the pond on the walk, for Hansel, for Gretel.
  • Remove frozen items to begin thawing in the refrigerator. If you’ve run out of refrigerator cooling space, use some large beer or pop coolers left over from summer shindigs that are set in the garage or on the porch. (If the outside weather is especially cold, say on the porch, consider getting ice and keeping the cooler inside, but in a spot where it also can drain.)
  • Assemble creamy dips; make salad dressings.
  • Begin to put together the sideboard and the Thanksgiving table by stacking what dishes, cutlery, serving pieces, and napery you’ll need for the number of people who will be pecking at your food.
  • Cheat on Wednesday by doing what you can today from the Thanksgiving list below.

Wednesday, ’twas the ‘night’ before Thanksgiving:

  • That crunching sound that you hear is the clock.
  • Make or assemble reheatable side dishes (mashed potatoes, sweet potato purée, any casserole, mac ‘n’ cheese, creamed pearl onions, and the like).
  • Wash and spin greens and vegetables that require cleaning.
  • Bake some pies, especially the pumpkin pie. Use your frozen, rolled-out crusts.
  • Assemble in its cooking/serving dish the stuffing that will be baked in the oven outside of the bird.
  • Shock (and awe) green vegetables that will be cooked tomorrow: Brussels sprouts, green beans, asparagus, cauliflower. Blanching them both holds their color plus gets them one step closer to service.
  • Peel (if desired) and chunk potatoes and keep them covered in cold water.
  • Set the buffet table. Set the dining table. Beautiful.

Thursday, Thanksgiving Day

  • Give thanks.
  • Preheat the oven first thing in the morning because…
  • Time to roast the bird. An unstuffed turkey will take anywhere from two to four hours’ roasting time, plus 45 minutes to an hour of resting time, before carving and eating. That’s a sizeable chunk of the day’s whole time.
  • Chill well all the wines or beers. Whip whipping cream and store it in the frig.
  • Bake or heat through thoroughly all those things you’ve prepped: pies, rolls, breads, casseroles, make-ahead stuffing.
  • Do what you can on top of the stove: sauté Brussels sprouts; boil or steam peas or cauliflower; make gravy with the drippings.
  • Give thanks again.

Thanksgiving recipe: Concentrated make-ahead turkey or chicken stock

Makes 4-5 quarts. Best if prepared several days ahead of use in other recipes.

More great tips and recipes from Bill St. John.


5 pounds chicken or turkey parts, raw or previously cooked (see note)

2 medium onions, unpeeled but sliced along their “equators”

4 stalks celery (leaves OK), cut in halves

4 medium carrots, peeled, cut in halves

6-8 cloves garlic, to taste, peeled, lightly crushed

8-10 parsley stems, leaves OK but not necessary

1 bouquet garni (optional)

2 bay leaves

1 heaping teaspoon whole black peppercorns

1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt

When prepping vegetables, keep back scraps and peelings—even onion skins—for the deep flavors that they can add to stocks or roasts. Photo by Bill St. John, for UCHealth.
When prepping vegetables, keep back scraps and peelings—even onion skins—for the deep flavors that they can add to stocks or roasts. Photo by Bill St. John, for UCHealth.


Rinse well the pieces of turkey or chicken and remove any excessive pieces of fat. Set aside. Heat a very large stock pot over medium-high heat and place the 4 onion halves, sliced sides down, on the bottom and let them char to a light brown, about 10-15 minutes. Remove, set aside, and do the same with the carrot and celery pieces, another 10-15 minutes. Set these aside.

Add 8-9 quarts of water to the pot and the reserved pieces of fowl. Bring to a boil, lower to a simmer and cook for 90 minutes, skimming off any white or grey scum that rises.

Add the reserved and browned vegetables, the garlic and all the seasonings and return to a simmer and cook, the pot’s lid ajar, for 2-4 hours or until the level of the liquid in the pot is about half as much as when started.

Cool enough to strain the stock of its large solids, then let cool in a refrigerated (or cold outdoor and secure) space overnight. Remove and discard the congealed fat that has risen to the surface. Strain further, if desired, of any other fine solids and keep in the refrigerator for up to 5 days or frozen, in conveniently sized blocks or portions, for up to 3 months.

Note: If using chicken, go heavy on wing sections, thighs or drumsticks. If using turkey, same pieces. In either case, and if using leftover, previously cooked fowl (say, rotisserie chickens), use only bone-in parts and with the skin on. Additionally, all pieces may be roasted in the oven, in high heat, so that they render many browned bits and fond. Along with the stock, these latter may be used as the basis for a make-ahead gravy for Thanksgiving Day dinner that you will freeze and reheat day-of.

Reach Bill St. John at [email protected]

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.