I can officially say that this year’s meal was the biggest single meal I have ever cooked on my own with no help or contribution from others. It seems that I have built up to this gradually over the decades, first starting off by bringing a couple of dishes to lunch at my mother’s house, then cooking at home combined with some pre-prepared dishes from the grocery store. After growing a bit tired of those pre-prepared dishes and realizing that just a bit more effort upfront could save us from that mediocrity, I opted to give this a try. There were just six of us for lunch, so it was a manageable number to prepare a meal for on my own.
Below is my schedule for Thanksgiving week this year, along with a few progress pictures when I had time to take them, as well as a few from a couple of years ago. Just having this list saved me, I think. I am blessed to now have a double oven, a smaller counter-top convection oven, a roasting oven, a large crock pot, a large griddle and a large microwave at my disposal, so keep this in mind as I share how I handled the meal preparations. (I am particularly thankful for the new double oven this year!) I use the crock pot, roasting oven, convection oven and griddle as needed to help keep food warm before and during our meal, in addition to items that are left on the stove for serving. I am a stickler for keeping food properly warm for both taste and safety reasons. We improvise where we must to keep food warm, not only before the meal, but during the meal and afterward until we are ready to store the leftovers. I also use a food processor for most of the finer vegetable chopping chores, which saves a lot of time.
FYI – I use Alton Brown’s Roast Turkey recipe which can be found here.
Here is my prep schedule.
Sunday (or earlier!)
- Review recipes and finalize menu and shopping list. Do this earlier than Sunday, if possible, too.
- Buy all groceries. It’s imperative to me to avoid crowds and long, long lines at the grocery store on Tuesday and Wednesday. No sense wasting time unnecessarily in this cooking project.
- Place the frozen 14 lb. Turkey on rimmed pan and move it from the freezer to the refrigerator to thaw on Sunday.
- Make Honeycrisp Apple Cranberry Sauce. Refrigerate.
- Make pie crusts (2) and freeze them.
- Bake cornbread for the dressing and let it sit out, covered with a clean kitchen towel. This can be made even further in advance, as it will just have more time to dry out on its own, a necessary step to make good dressing.
- Brown sausage for the dressing and store in the refrigerator.
- Saute onion and celery for the dressing and store in the refrigerator.
- Make vegetable broth and turkey brine (includes the vegetable broth). Store the brine for 2-3 days in the refrigerator.
- Thaw pie crusts if made ahead of time and frozen.
- Make Pumpkin Pie and Lemon Chess Pie, along with homemade pie crusts if not made ahead of time, and refrigerate after they have cooled. The homemade crust is so much better than any of the pre-prepared ones.
- Make Fudge. My family loves the microwave fudge best of all actually, and it is quick and easy. I make this in keeping with a tradition that my mother started years ago to get a little head start on some Christmas treats, and everyone takes home a few pieces at the end of the day.
- Make Marinated Pea Salad, as it is best after it sits a day or two in the refrigerator. This is an absolute must at every holiday meal we serve and has been for years, along with my mom’s mac and cheese, which is made on Thanksgiving morning.
- Make Creamy Pea Salad. Yes, we like two different pea salads with our meal. Actually, some family members like one and some like the other. If your family would prefer something else, a tossed salad could also be prepared on this day. Just dice the individual ingredients, store them separately, then combine them tomorrow just before serving the meal.
- Make and bake Squash Casserole or Green Bean Casserole. I opted for a good yellow squash casserole this time.
- Make and bake Creamy Mashed Potatoes. This is the recipe from The Pioneer Woman. It has cream cheese in it. Yes, we needed a few more calories in this meal.
- Make Deviled Eggs. Homemade deviled eggs are so much better than the ones we buy from the deli at the grocery store, and they are so easy to make.
- If needed, crumble cornbread for the dressing and bake in a 250 degree oven for 1 1/2 – 2 hours, stirring every 10-15 minutes until crumbs are very dry. Leave the crumbs out again, covered with the towel. (If the cornbread is already dry, this step can be skipped.)
- Set table with everything except dishes, silverware and glassware. I like to keep the table decor simple, leaving room for condiments without crowding the table.
- Brew a large jug of tea and refrigerate in a sealed container.
- Just before bedtime, put Turkey in the iced brine mixture and keep in refrigerator overnight (8 – 12 hours), making sure that all of the Turkey is covered in the brine mixture.
Thursday, Thanksgiving Day
- Set frozen Yeast Rolls out to rise 5 – 6 hours before lunch. (I used Rhodes Rolls to save time and not sacrifice quality this year. They really are good rolls with a great homemade taste. I recommend baking a batch or two before the big day to test the rising time in your own kitchen, and I also recommend keeping them away from any cool drafts while they are rising. I put ours in the laundry room and shut the door.)
- Remove Turkey from brine mixture, rinse well with cold water and discard brine. Place aeromatics in the center of the bird for baking.
- 4 hours before lunch, place uncovered Turkey in to bake (bottom oven), starting at 500 degrees for the first 30 minutes, then reduce heat, per recipe instructions. Will cook for 2 – 3 hours, depending on size, when started at 500 degrees.
- Begin reheating other dishes in top oven, smaller convection oven and roasting oven.
- Let Turkey stand for a few minutes prior to carving. Save the pan drippings, as it makes the best gravy ever!
- Make Turkey gravy from the pan drippings (strain out any vegetables), adding flour, water and a little milk. No additional salt is needed. Keep warm on the stove.
- Make Creamy Mac and Cheese using Velveeta, butter and whole milk.
- Combine Dressing ingredients and bake until just brown on top and done in the center.
- Saute Portobello or Crimini Mushrooms in butter, using the same skillet as the Turkey Gravy.
- Finish setting the table.
- Bake rolls just prior to mealtime, using both top and bottom ovens if needed.
- Set butter out to soften 15 minutes before mealtime. This makes it easier to spread on the rolls.
- As food is warmed, place it in or on an appropriate device to keep it properly warm until mealtime.
- Gather the family and say a heartfelt prayer of Thanksgiving for so many people and blessings in our lives. This is what it’s all about anyway! Make lunch a laid-back time and don’t rush. Turn off the TV and put on some nice dinner music instead. Football can wait an hour or so. After going to all this effort to put a spectacular meal on the table, no one should fuss about turning off the TV for a bit. Savor all of the wonderful homemade goodness and ask for volunteers to do the dishes for you.
- After dinner, just before everyone is ready for pie, whip the cream so that it can be served fresh, adding sugar to taste. Fresh whipped cream is so much better than the stuff out of the freezer case at the store.
As far as I’m concerned, this was the best Thanksgiving meal ever for me. I proved to myself that I could actually do it on my own, and all of the food was so tasty and good! Everyone just loved it, too, and that made me very happy indeed. Having this schedule helped to keep me on track in my preparations, and it also kept my stress level down in the process, knowing that I had a workable plan to get it all done in time, while not loading too much up on any single day in the process.
I hope this helps you in your future preparations, too. Bringing a bit of planning to this project just makes all the difference in the world. 😉
And the leftovers are truly wonderful!