Your Thanksgiving Meal Questions, Answered!

How soon can I start preparing? How many appetizers do I need? How do I make the best mashed potatoes? We've got a comprehensive guide to 28 Thanksgiving meal questions you're probably asking right now.

Thanksgiving meal illustration

Simply Recipes / Madelyn Goodnight

It’s that time of year again! As you gear up to celebrate one of the most popular holidays, you likely have a lot of questions on your mind. You may be wondering, “How soon can I start preparing?” or “How many appetizers do I need?” or “How do I make the best mashed potatoes?” 

We know Thanksgiving can feel overwhelming sometimes, and we want to give you some peace of mind. We thought long and hard about the most common questions (and frustrations!) from planning to execution, from the turkey to the pumpkin pie. So, let’s make this the best Thanksgiving yet with our handy guide answering all of your Thanksgiving questions. 

rosemary name place cards on checkered cloth napkins
Claudia Cash

Planning and Execution

How should I prepare for Thanksgiving? What should I buy now?

No reason to wait until the last minute! Here's How to Stock Your Fridge, Freezer, and Pantry for Thanksgiving.

What should be on my Thanksgiving menu: How many mains? How many sides? Do I need bread?

Planning a Thanksgiving menu can certainly feel overwhelming, but with a few helpful tidbits, you will have all the knowledge you need to cook a successful meal. To make the process a little easier, we compiled a list of suggestions based on the total number of guests. 


Plan on 4 to 6 bite-sized pieces per person. For a party of four, this could mean serving one appetizer with 16 to 24 pieces or four appetizers with 1 to 2 pieces. Decide how many appetizers you would like to make, then calculate the amount you'll need to serve the number of guests you have. Keep the appetizers on the lighter side to leave plenty of room for dinner.

  • 4 people: 16 to 24 bite-sized pieces. We recommend 1 to 2 appetizers.
  • 8 people: 32 to 48 bite-sized pieces. We recommend 2 to 3 appetizers.
  • 16 people: 64 to 96 bite-sized pieces. We recommend 2 to 4 appetizers. 

Main entrée

Plan on 2/3 pound to 1 pound of bone-in meat per person. If you want leftovers, err on the side of more meat – between 1 and 1 1/2 pounds per person.

  • 4 people: 3 to 4 pounds of meat. Whole turkeys typically don't come smaller than 6 pounds, so you could purchase a whole turkey (and keep the leftovers), turkey legs or breast meat only, or a whole chicken. 
  • 8 people: Purchase a turkey between 6 and 8 pounds. 
  • 16 people: Purchase a turkey between 10 and 15 pounds. 
  • If you need more than 15 pounds of meat, you can purchase two turkeys.

Side Dishes

  • Cooked vegetables (ex: Green Bean Casserole, Sweet Potato Casserole, etc.): 3 to 4 ounces in total per person
  • Gravy: 1/2 cup per person
  • Cranberry sauce: 1/2 cup per person
  • Pasta: 2 ounces per person
  • Side salad: 1 cup per person
  • Potatoes: 1/3 to 1/2 pound per person; 1/2 pound will yield more leftovers
  • Stuffing: 1/2 cup per person
  • Soup: If serving a soup with the meal, go for 3/4 to 1 cup a person. If the soup is a separate course, increase the amount to 1 1/2 to 2 cups. 
  • Bread: Do you need bread at your Thanksgiving meal? A lot of times, sliced bread or rolls can be more of an afterthought. And if you have enough other starchy side dishes, you can absolutely omit the bread. That being said, a soft, buttery roll still warm from the oven can be a wonderful side dish, especially if it’s served alongside whipped compound butter.

For a small Thanksgiving group of 4 people, choose a minimum of 2 larger side dishes or 4 smaller side dishes. Try to diversify your options to have at least one starch-based dish and one cooked vegetable dish. If choosing 4 smaller side dishes, we recommend one cooked vegetable dish, one potato dish, cranberry sauce, and stuffing. 

For 8 people, choose 4 to 5 side dishes. And for 16 people, aim to serve 6 side dishes (or go as high as 8, if several of your sides are smaller). 


The rule of thumb here is 1 pie per 4 guests. But, even with a smaller group, I like to make 2 desserts, often a pie and a simple non-pie dessert.

  • 4 people: 1 pie plus an optional additional dessert
  • 8 people: 2 pies or 1 pie and 1 other dessert
  • 16 people: 4 pies or 2 pies and 2 other desserts

Keep in mind that these amounts can vary considerably, depending on the nuances of your particular event. For example, if 50% of your guests are vegetarian and 50% eat meat, then you will need significantly less meat at the table. Therefore, you may want to provide a separate entree for vegetarians while also increasing the number of vegetarian side dishes. If you value leftovers, skew towards the higher end of the range. 

What dishes should I plan for a small gathering?

For a small gathering, take a look at A Thanksgiving Menu for Small Gatherings.

How far ahead should I be planning my Thanksgiving meal?

We wrote a whole post about that! Check out The Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Schedule: A Guide to When and How to Prep Every Dish.

What are some smart shortcuts I can lean on?

Here are some easy shortcuts to rely on during your Thanksgiving cooking prep.

  • Use canned pumpkin puree for your pies and casseroles instead of fresh. In fact, most pumpkin pie recipes already call for a canned version. 
  • Diced butternut squash saves you the effort of peeling and hacking your way through a hefty squash. 
  • Snipped green beans skip the prep step so you can get straight into cooking!
  • Pre-fried onions are a smart way to skip the chopping and frying onions for your green bean casserole. 

How can I get my kids and other family members involved?

Once you've planned your menu, you can enlist help from family members and break up the menu into smaller tasks. You can assign tasks in a couple of ways:

  • By Recipe: Assign a given recipe to each family member. Pair up kids with an adult family member so that everyone can be involved. 
  • By Skill: Break up the tasks into the category of work. For example, one family member could be assigned to vegetable prep (washing, cutting, and slicing vegetables), while another family member could be assigned to all dishwashing. 

To make the process more enjoyable for everyone, choose a fun playlist and make sure to take breaks every so often. 

What are some easy swaps for guests with dietary restrictions?

Nowadays, there are lots of diet-friendly recipes accommodating a range of lifestyles, from gluten-free to dairy-free. Below, we've listed a few easy tricks:

  • For nut allergies, swap in crispy roasted chickpeas or pumpkin seeds. 
  • For gluten-free options, you can make a gluten-free pie crust or opt for a crustless pie. 
  • For dairy-free options, coconut milk (or coconut cream) is a great substitute for cream in most cases. Use in place of cream in soups and even some desserts. Try this Coconut Whipped Cream recipe on top of your pies. 

Is it okay to assign foods or recipes for people to bring?

It is absolutely okay to ask for help cooking a Thanksgiving dinner. To facilitate the process, consider a few details:

  1. Are folks traveling? Out-of-town guests will likely only be able to pick up a premade item from the grocery store. The easiest options would be to have guests bring wine, dessert, or a readymade cheese platter.
  2. For local guests, there is more flexibility. If you plan your menu a month or two in advance, you can poll your guests to see what they would be comfortable preparing. The advanced notice will also ensure they schedule time to make the dish. 

What are the best tools to have on hand to make it all easier? 

  • Peeler: You will likely be prepping a lot of vegetables, so a peeler will save you a lot of time. Depending on the size of your meal, you may even want to purchase an additional peeler. 
  • Grater: You may need a box grater (or food processor grater) for mac and cheese or a casserole. 
  • Baster: A baster ensures you are redistributing that delicious fat to all of the right places. It's a great tool to have on hand, especially if you regularly cook Thanksgiving dinner. 
  • Roasting Pan: A roasting pan is a great piece of bakeware because it catches all of the bird's drippings. 
  • Blender: For soups, drinks, and even some casseroles, a blender can make the job a whole lot easier. 
  • Food processor: Food processors can be used for everything from pie dough to dip!

How should I get my kitchen ready for Thanksgiving?

There are a few essential details to help you prepare your kitchen for Thanksgiving.

  1. Check your equipment and tools: After planning your menu, make sure that you have all the equipment necessary! There is nothing worse than realizing you don't have a roasting pan on Wednesday night. In addition to the roasting pan, you may also need a baster and kitchen twine. 
  2. Sharpen your knives: You will be doing a lot of chopping, so be sure to sharpen (either with an electric knife sharpener or a sharpening stone) and hone your knives in advance. 
  3. Clean your kitchen: Clean your kitchen to ensure an efficient, organized workspace. 
  4. Take out the non-perishables: The night before you start cooking, take out non-perishable items needed for recipes.
  5. Print out any recipes. For easy access, you can even tape them on the cabinets or walls of your kitchen. 
Holiday Punch
Garrett McCord

Appetizers and Drinks

What are some easy but impressive Thanksgiving appetizers?

Thanksgiving appetizers don't have to feel stressful or complicated. Most finger foods are easy and delicious. Here are a few options for appetizers and snacks that require less than 20 minutes of prep time.

Charcuterie boards, chips and dip, and cured olives are other quick, readymade appetizers with little prep. 

What are some fun holiday cocktails I can serve to my guests?

Treat your guests to some fun and easy holiday cocktails! Here are some of our favorites:

Smoked Thanksgiving turkey breast, one breast sliced, the other whole, on a platter with other Thanksgiving side dishes

Mike Lang

Turkey and Main Dishes

How long does it take to fully thaw a turkey? Is there any way to speed up the thawing process?

Great question! Here's a guide to How Long to Thaw a Turkey.

What does it mean to brine a turkey, and what is the difference between dry and wet brining?

Brining a turkey involves treating it with a brine or salt solution to improve flavor and texture. Dry and wet brining are two methods used to roast meat. Learn more about how to dry brine a turkey here.

Dry brining involves rubbing a turkey with salt, then letting it sit, uncovered, in the refrigerator for 24 to 72 hours. The salt on the surface of the meat causes the bird to release moisture, which then gets reabsorbed with the salt for a more flavorful, tender meat. 

Wet brining submerges the bird in a saltwater solution, typically for 12 to 24 hours. Before baking, the bird is drained, rinsed, and patted dry. Try our wet brine turkey recipe. 

What temperature should I cook a turkey?

Should I cook my turkey at 350F? Or 500F? Check out our post on What Temperature to Cook a Turkey for the most important info.

How long does it take to cook a turkey?

The cooking time on your turkey will vary considerably, depending on the size of your bird and the temperature you're baking it at. As a rule of thumb, an unstuffed turkey takes about 13 to 15 minutes per pound. So, a ten-pound turkey might take anywhere from 2 hours to 2 1/2 hours. 

But you should never rely on temperature alone. The safest way to check if a turkey is done cooking is to use an accurate thermometer. According to the USDA, "The turkey is ready when it reaches a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit as measured with a food thermometer. Check the internal temperature in the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the thigh, and the innermost part of the wing. If stuffed, make sure the innermost part of the stuffing also reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit before you stop cooking the turkey."

How do I carve a turkey?

Carving a turkey can be daunting, so make sure to check out this step-by-step guide for How to Carve a Turkey.

My guests don't like turkey. What are some alternatives?

There are a few different alternatives depending on your dietary restrictions. If your guests eat meat, swap in roast chicken for turkey. Or go the extra mile with a classic rack of lamb

Roasted salmon is an excellent option for pescatarians, as are steamed mussels. And for vegetarians, you can see a few examples noted below. 

What are some great vegetarian or vegan Thanksgiving main dishes?

You don't have to cook turkey for a showstopping Thanksgiving meal. Instead, here are a few ideas for vegetarian main dishes:

A bowl of roasted garlic mashed potatoes topped with a pat of butter.
Cambrea Bakes


How do I make the best mashed potatoes?

We recommend steaming potatoes for the creamiest, most flavorful result. In fact, it's how a clever cook makes faster (and better!) mashed potatoes.

How do you make gravy? How do you prevent lumpy gravy? 

Have a look at our step-by-step recipe on How to Make Smooth, Lump-Free Gravy.

How can I use electric appliances like an Instant Pot or slow cooker for my Thanksgiving dinner?

For a feast as grand as Thanksgiving, a little help goes a long way. Using an Instant Pot or slow cooker will save much-needed space in the oven or stovetop; plus, your dish stays warm inside the vessel. You can cook everything from mashed potatoes to pumpkin cheesecake in an Instant Pot. Or, employ a slow cooker for glazed carrots, soup, or a dip

What's the difference between stuffing and dressing?

Technically, stuffing refers to a mixture of various ingredients, including bread and vegetables, that are stuffed inside a cavity. During Thanksgiving, stuffing is typically stuffed inside a turkey. 

Dressing typically refers to the mixture baking outside of the cavity, in a separate baking dish. 

Language differences across the United States also complicate these definitions. Many southerners call the dish dressing, regardless of where the baking happens. 

Pressure Cooker Pumpkin Cheesecake
Coco Morante


What are some dessert alternatives to pie?

If you or your guests aren't huge fans of pie, or you want to add some variety to your dessert table, here are a few options:

My pie dough is too dry/crumbly or too sticky. How can I fix it?

Though pie dough only uses a few ingredients, making it from scratch can be finicky. If you don't feel comfortable doing it yourself, you can always purchase a store-bought crust! Or try our Perfect Pie Crust, which is more forgiving because of the use of shortening. 

An important lesson I learned from Stella Parks, a master pastry chef, is that temperature can significantly affect the dough's texture. Pie dough can feel too sticky or wet when too warm or dry and crumbly when too cold. Make sure to use chilled butter and keep the formed dough at room temperature. If your house runs warm, don't be afraid to stick the dough in the fridge as needed to cool it down. If it runs cool, use warmer water to make the pie dough. 

If your dough is not coming together correctly, first assess the temperature instead of immediately adding more flour or water according to the rules above. 

How to fix a dry or crumbly pie dough:

  1. Is the dough too cold? Let it sit in a warm spot until it comes back up to room temperature. Then proceed to the next step of the recipe.
  2. If the dough still feels too dry, use a spray bottle to moisten it slightly. 
  3. If the dough still feels too dry, add a teaspoon of ice water at a time to bring it together. 

How to fix a sticky or wet pie dough:

  1. Is the dough too warm? Stick in the fridge for ten minutes to chill, then proceed to the next step of the recipe.
  2. If the dough still feels too wet and you need to roll it out, generously dust with flour. You can always wipe off any excess flour. 
  3. If the dough still feels too wet as you roll it out, you can add a teaspoon of flour at a time to the dough to bring it together. 

I’m specifically having issues with my pumpkin pie. Help!

We’ve been there. Thankfully, we’ve got all the answers to troubleshooting pumpkin pie in Pumpkin Pie FAQs: The Expert Answers to All Your Pumpkin Pie Problems.

Add chopped turkey to bowl with vegetables for leftover turkey pot pie recipe
Nick Evans


What are some easy recipes that use leftovers?

For a delicious and easy leftovers meal, try these recipes:

Left with an abundance of mashed potatoes? Form them into patties mixed with egg and flour, then fry them in a skillet until brown on both sides. Or use up those leftover sweet potatoes to make waffles

How long do Thanksgiving leftovers last in the fridge?

Leftovers should last 3 to 4 days sealed in airtight containers (or Ziptop bags) inside the refrigerator, if they make it that long.