Thanksgiving Game Plan, Timeline and Tips


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Introducing my ultimate Thanksgiving game plan. This essential timeline and day-by-day guide will tell you what to make when (and what to buy when), for a seamless, stress-free and enjoyable Thanksgiving day!

Plates of Thanksgiving recipes on a table.

The Ultimate Thanksgiving Game Plan & Timeline

Pulling off a flawless Thanksgiving dinner sure takes practice. Everything may seem effortless once it’s on the table, but there’s a lot of prep work behind the scenes. From designing the perfect menu to making sure your Thanksgiving sides dishes are heated in time, I’ve created a Thanksgiving game plan for you to tackle this season’s biggest feast like a pro. 

And whether you’re hosting something big or small this year, use this as a guideline to celebrate this nostalgic holiday – your way. So get your pen and paper ready, and let’s get planning.

1 Month Before: Plan Menu & Equipment

Once November 1st hits, the countdown begins. Get ahead of the game and start thinking about the big questions like “how many people are attending?” or “what the heck am I going to make this year?”

  • Create your guest list. To get a better idea of how much you need to prepare in terms of dishes and seating arrangements, list out who will be attending. 
  • Plan your Thanksgiving menu. First, check to see if any of your guests plan to bring any dishes. For the rest of the menu, grab some inspiration from my ultimate Thanksgiving menu that’s jam packed with tons appetizers, sides, and of course desserts.
  • Check your cooking equipment. Make sure you have a good roasting pan, enough serving dishes, and a reliable thermometer. Check out my favorite Thanksgiving cookware and tools.
  • Order your turkey. Head on over to my easy Thanksgiving turkey recipe for the full breakdown on how to choose and buy the right turkey, defrost it properly, and roast it perfectly on the big day.

1-2 Weeks Before: Declutter & Grocery Checklists

Thanksgiving is hands down one of the biggest grocery hauls. So it’s best to get your fridge cleaned out, pantry organized, and countertops decluttered.

  • Clean out your freezer and fridge. Prepare for your fridge and freezer to be overflowing with food. Take this time to toss away expired goods, group similar items together so they’re easy to locate, and organize items you’ll be using within the next week right in front for easy access. 
  • Buy your turkey. It’s best to purchase and store your turkey in the freezer 1-2 weeks in advance. Don’t wait until the last minute to grab your bird.
  • Make your grocery list and start shopping. Organize your list by sections (produce, dairy, dry goods, etc…) to make your shopping trip as efficient as possible.
  • Plan table decor. Make a checklist for linens, serving pieces, silverware, wine glasses, candles, or centerpiece floral ideas. 

4-5 Days Before: Cook Easy Essentials

Now that it’s the week of Thanksgiving, start knocking out a few easy essentials such as the gravy and cranberry sauce.

  • Make and freeze your gravy. Homemade turkey gravy can be made ahead if using turkey broth. Just freeze it until needed.
  • Make cranberry sauce. Fresh cranberry sauce beats the jarred stuff any day. So quickly whip this up in a pot and then store in a jar in the fridge.
  • Make your soup. If you plan to make a soup, whether it be a sweet potato or roasted butternut squash soup, make it ahead and freeze. It’s easy to reheat before serving. 

3 Days Before: Clean & Decorate

Since you’ll be cooking up a storm the next two days, getting ahead on cleaning and decorating will give you two less things to worry about.

  • Defrost your turkey. This is a must as you can’t cook frozen turkey! Transfer your turkey from the freezer to the fridge to thaw over several days.
  • Clean the house. Start cleaning and decluttering the house. Just a little tidying up will help make the big day stress-free.
  • Decorate the table. It’s time to bring out your holiday decorations! Start dressing your tabletop with decorative accessories such as candles and florals.

2 Days Before: It’s Baking Time

  • Make desserts. Recipes like my pumpkin cake, vegan cheesecake, paleo chocolate cake, or chocolate truffle tart can all be made in advance. Just store them in the fridge uncovered. And you can make the topping of my apple crisp ahead as well, to save time.
  • Chop ingredients. For any dishes that need chopping, now’s the time to prep it. These can be for casserole dishes, roasted vegetables or salad ingredients.
  • Set up the table. I know it may seem a bit early to do this. But trust me, it’ll save you lots of time within the next two days when you’re busy cooking up a storm. 

1 Day Before: Prep Make-Ahead Dishes

Thanksgiving Day: The Final Touches!

The big day is finally here! Wake up early, heat up your pre-made breakfast, and make a batch of coffee or soothing turmeric tea. The good news is there’s no need to panic – just follow the timeline below and take breaks when needed. You’ve got this!

  • Prep the turkey. Be sure to take your turkey out of the fridge first thing in the morning to let it come to room temperature. This will take about one hour.
  • Cook the turkey. Put the turkey in the oven and start prepping all the sides that are going in right after. Prep and toss your pre-diced vegetables on baking trays for roasting. Then pull out the casserole dishes and mashed sides from the fridge.
  • Take the turkey out and warm up sides and casseroles. Once the turkey is out and resting, start roasting your vegetables. Depending on your oven size, you can cook between 2-4 of these sides at a time.
  • Warm up the rest. Heat up the turkey gravy in a pot (add turkey drippings here), microwave the mashed sides, and pull out the cranberry sauce.
  • Carve the turkey. Follow my easy guide on how to carve a turkey. Then place the pieces on a large serving platter and set on the table.
  • Toss salad together. Toss all your salad ingredients together and drizzle with the premade vinaigrette.
  • Serve! Place the rest of the sides, appetizers, and salads onto the table surrounding the turkey and voila – your work here is done.

Thanksgiving is a day to relax, be grateful, and enjoy the food, and company of others. If you decide to wake up early the next day to take advantage of Black Friday sales, don’t forget about all the goodies on my holiday gift guide. Personally, I’m a big fan of shopping online in my pajamas – it’s the best. Enjoy!

Turkey gravy pouring over a plate of Thanksgiving food.

About the author

Lisa Bryan

Lisa is a bestselling cookbook author, recipe developer, and YouTuber (with over 2.5 million subscribers) living in sunny Southern California. She started Downshiftology in 2014, and is passionate about making healthy food with fresh, simple and seasonal ingredients.

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  1. Just a few comments I found helpful.
    When I needed them. if you’re going to order a Thanksgiving flower arrangement. Do the ordering a few weeks in Advance. Good forest fill up and have cut off dates. I always order fresh baked rolls from my local baker. The same applies for them.

  2. If you are re-heating already made sides in the oven, what is a good temperature? I plan to make green bean casserole and sweet potatoes ahead of time. Should you bring them out of the fridge a little before so they come to room temp and warm up faster?

  3. Hey Lisa!
    This is such a wonderful idea and a true life saver!
    Any chance that you are doing this for Christmas too?? I use so many of your recipes daily!

    1. Hi Carmen – I’m so happy you’re enjoying my recipes! I hadn’t thought about this for Christmas, but I’ll definitely ponder it. :)

  4. Lisa, thanks for doing this.  I’m following it and I’m so happy today.  I have everything ready but salad and the turkey.  I’m using your recipes too, several of them.  You’re a blessing!