The Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Schedule: A Guide to When and How to Prep Every Dish

Your Thanksgiving dinner can be made almost entirely ahead of time. Here’s your step-by-step guide, starting three weeks out. Prep now and thank us later.

Brioche stuffing thanksgiving dinner plate

Alison Bickel

Picture this: It’s the morning of Thanksgiving and you can kick up your feet and enjoy time with your family because the prep work is complete, and most of the cooking is finished, too.

Follow this game plan for cooking Thanksgiving dishes ahead of time, and all you’ll have to do on the big day is negotiate oven and stove space to reheat a few items, and maybe pour yourself an extra glass of wine. This is your Thanksgiving destiny if you choose to accept it.

Many Thanksgiving staples can be made entirely ahead of time and reheated before mealtime – think Mashed Potatoes, Sweet Potato Casserole, Green Bean Casserole, and Apple Pie. Others can get most of the way there with minimal cooking the day of. 

As for the turkey, if it’s prepped and brined 72-24 hours in advance, all it needs is a hot oven the day of, so there’s minimal monitoring, very little active cooking, and practically nothing to sweat. 

Here’s a day-by-day cooking countdown to Thanksgiving.

Three Weeks Ahead: Reserve the Bird, Start Shopping, and Freeze Some Pie

Order Your Turkey: It’s not Thanksgiving without the bird, so however you intend to cook it, just make sure to order it in time. Our suggestion? Go big to ensure leftovers. (Think of the turkey and stuffing sandwiches!)  

Start shopping: While you’re at it, you can start buying nonperishables you know you’ll need even before you’ve planned your menu, any special cooking gear that might come in handy, and essentials like paper towels. You could wait to purchase everything within two weeks or even one week of showtime, but we give you full permission to start now (if you haven’t already!).

This early shopping list could include canned pumpkin; canned cranberry sauce; cranberries to store in the freezer; potatoes; onions; carrots; sweet potatoes; marshmallows; salt for your turkey brine; ingredients for baking, like butter, sugar, and flour; wine and beer. 

Pumpkin Pie and Pecan Pie: Did you know you can freeze fully baked pumpkin pie and pecan pie and thaw them the night before Thanksgiving? Try it with this Old Fashioned Pumpkin Pie or Pecan Pie. Make sure they’re cooled completely before wrapping them tight in plastic wrap and then in foil. You’re welcome.

Making Cranberry Sauce

Two Weeks Ahead: Menu Plan, Shop, and Make the Cranberry Sauce 

Menu Plan: If you haven’t already started menu planning, here’s our reminder to get started now.

Looking for the classics? Below is a great lineup that includes the recipes included in this timeline. If you stray from these recipes, more power to you. Just let these recipes serve as your guideposts for your own timeline. 

Shop: If you didn't shop last week, better do it this week! For a full Thanksgiving shopping guide, see here.

Cranberry Sauce: If you’re ready to get one dish out of the way, cranberry sauce stores well in the refrigerator, so feel free to cook up this classic recipe Cranberry Sauce, or, if for something fancy, these Brandied Cranberries. If two weeks feels too far out to start cooking, you can make cranberry sauce anytime between now and the big day.

Parker House Rolls
Sheryl Julian

One Week Ahead: Make and Freeze Pie Dough, Dinner Rolls, and Stock

Shop: Thanksgiving is in sight, so it’s time to finish shopping. Between now and whenever you’re ready to cook, feel free to buy herbs or any other vegetables that you’ve been holding off on buying for freshness. It’s go time! 

It’s also time to make space in your freezer; you’re going to need it. 

Pie Dough: You can make pie dough now and freeze it for a few days before rolling it out. 

Dinner Rolls: You can also bake Parker House Dinner Rolls and freeze them so that they’re ready to pop in the oven and serve on Thanksgiving. 

Turkey Stock and/or Gravy: If you’re making homemade turkey stock for your gravy (which we highly encourage!), you can make and freeze the stock now. If you want to go the distance, you can make the gravy itself too and put that in the freezer as well for a few days before reheating on the stovetop the day of. Follow this great recipe for Make-Ahead Turkey Gravy.

Woman pouring hot liquid inot a bowl of bread to make classic Thanksgiving Stuffing.
Alison Bickel

Four Days Ahead: Make Gravy, Prep Stuffing, and Start Defrosting the Turkey

Gravy: If you haven’t yet made and frozen your gravy, make this Make-Ahead Turkey Gravy now and store it in the fridge. With roasted turkey wings, you can forget all about rushing to make day-of gravy with drippings from the roasted bird while your family patiently (or not) waits at the table. Try this and all will be right in the world, or at least in your kitchen.

Stuffing: Whether you call it stuffing or dressing, this tops many people’s list as the favorite Thanksgiving dish, so don’t leave it to the last minute. Stale or toasted bread is best, so consider drying out your bread now. If you’re making this Thanksgiving Stuffing with Sausage and Apples, cube and toast the bread today, and store in an airtight container. 

Turkey: If your bird is frozen, start defrosting it in the refrigerator now. Frozen turkeys take a long time to defrost: approximately one day for every four pounds. So if you have a 20-pound bird, start defrosting four days ahead. If you have a 15-pound bird, you can start the process three days ahead.

make apple cranberry filling for pie
Elise Bauer

Three Days Ahead: Start a Dry Brine and Make Your Fruit Pie Filling

Dry Brine: A dry brine is salt or a mixture of salt and herbs that you apply to the turkey ahead of time to bring out maximum flavor and juiciness. Depending on the size of your bird and how early you want to start, you could start dry-brining up to 72 hours in advance. You can also dry brine for 48 or 24 hours ahead of time.

Fruit Pie Filling: Fillings for apple pie or other fruit pies will stay good in the refrigerator for a few days, as will a crumb topping. Make and store them separately any time between now and go time.

And get a move on anything you haven’t already started from the previous days’ tasks. 

Overhead view of a bowl of garlic mashed potatoes with cloves around it.
Cambrea Bakes

Two Days Ahead: Prep Veggies, Mash Potatoes, Make the Sweet Potato Casserole, Roll Out Pie Dough

Veggies: Today is the day to wash, peel, and cut most vegetables, including carrots if you’re making something like these Classic Glazed Carrots; Brussels Sprouts if you intend to serve something like these Roasted Brussels Sprouts; and anything vegetables going into your stuffing. Store each vegetable wrapped in a damp paper towel, inside a zip-lock bag. (You can reuse these damp paper towels for cleaning on the big day!)

If you’re feeling ambitious, or worried about stove space in two days’ time, you can finish the glazed carrots today and store them in an airtight container in the fridge. Your Brussels are better cooked on Thursday, however.

Mashed Potatoes: Did you know mashed potatoes reheat well, which makes them a great dish to make ahead of time? Now you know! Reheating them gently in the microwave is the easiest method, but you can also reheat them on the stove or even in the slow cooker. Just make sure to stir occasionally and monitor to make sure they don’t heat up to quickly and scorch. 

Try these Perfect Mashed Potatoes, which are made with Yukon Golds for a creamier, naturally buttery mash. 

Sweet Potato Casserole: You can also make your entire sweet potato casserole ahead of time, and probably should because the flavors have time to really develop. If you’re in the marshmallow camp, try this classic Sweet Potato Casserole with Marshmallows, and if you’re not, turn to this Sweet Potato Casserole with Pecans. Store in the refrigerator, then reheat and add toppings the day of.

Pie Dough: If you’ve made and frozen your pie dough, roll it out into disks and store the disks in the fridge. If you have not yet made dough, get to it! 

If you haven’t yet done the following, hop on it: Cube bread for stuffing, start a dry brine, and make fruit pie filling. 

Brined whole turkey in a bucket with brining liquid.
Mike Lang

One Day Ahead: Start a Wet Brine, Prep the Rest of your Sides, and Make the Custard Pie Filling

Wet Brine: A wet brine is a salty solution that could include herbs or other aromatics. Like a dry brine, it’s used to bring out flavor and make that turkey extra juicy. If you’re taking the wet brine route, start brining today and see here for an easy and delicious wet brine recipe.

Stuffing: Today is the day to prepare the stuffing almost all the way by combining like ingredients: your dried or toasted bread with other dry ingredients, including vegetables and nuts; and your stock or wet base. If you’re making Mom’s Stovetop Turkey Stuffing, you’ll combine the dry ingredients and add the stock the next day. If you’re making this Thanksgiving Stuffing with Sausage and Apples, you can either make the base and add in the bread the next day, or you can bake the entire dish and reheat.

Green Bean Casserole: First things first, forget the canned kind and make this Green Bean Casserole from Scratch. The homemade mushroom cream sauce has a wonderful, round umami quality thanks to real button, cremini, or even Chanterelle mushrooms, and the cream ever so slightly sweetens (and definitely enriches) the deal. Homemade fried onions are an equal gamechanger (though we’ll never turn down French’s Fried Onions.) And yes, you can make this whole dish today and store it in the fridge.

Pie filling: If you’re making a custard filling for pie, like this Old Fashioned Pumpkin Pie, you can do it now and store it in the fridge to assemble and bake tomorrow.

Whole Pie: Or feel free to make whole pies today! Store fruit pies on the counter and custard pies in the fridge. If you’ve already baked and frozen whole pies, remove them from the freezer and let them thaw on the counter overnight. 

rosemary and clementine place cards for thanksgiving
Claudia Cash

The Big Day: Roast the Turkey, Reheat, Assemble, and Enjoy! 

Turkey: Today’s the day! Make sure you leave plenty of time for your bird – fully defrosted and brined by now, if you’re taking that route – to roast to the proper temperature.

Pie: If you haven’t yet baked your pie, do so in the morning. They’ll keep on the counter until mealtime, and if you want them warm, pop them in the oven while you’re eating. 

Stuffing: Time to finish the stuffing. If you’re making Mom’s Turkey Stuffing, assemble all the ingredients and bake. You can do this early and either keep warm on the stove or reheat in the oven while the turkey is resting. If you’re making this Thanksgiving Stuffing with Sausage and Apples and haven’t yet completed the dish, combine the base and bread and bake in the oven. 

Brussel Sprouts: If you’ve already scrubbed and sliced your Brussels, you basically just need to get them to the heat. Roast them in the hot 400°F degree oven, or, if there’s no room, char them in a cast iron skillet on the stove! Here's another

Glazed Carrots: If you still need to make these, hopefully you’ve at least cut your carrots and can go straight to the glazing. Cook time is quick – 20 minutes – so you can save these for last or close to last. (Famous last words, right?)

Reheating on the stove:

Gravy: If you’ve made your gravy ahead of time, reheat straight from the freezer or the refrigerator just before you’re ready to serve. (If you’re making it “a la minute” with drippings from your roasted bird, get ready, get set, go!) 

Mashed Potatoes: The key here is gentle reheating, which is tricky on the stove. Try the microwave instead or watch them carefully on the stove. If there’s no stove space, reheat in the slow cooker! Just remember to stir often. 

Reheating in the oven:

Dinner Rolls: Unwrap frozen dinner rolls, wrap them in foil, and reheat them in the oven when you can. You can brush them with butter before toasting if you choose!

Casseroles: Make way for sweet potato and green bean casserole, oven. Add toppings to each dish, then warm them up. If you’re using marshmallows in your sweet potato casserole, bring the potatoes almost to temperature before adding the marshmallows on top with 5-6 minutes to go.