Thanksgiving is usually the biggest and most-challenging holiday of the year. Whether you are an old pro or a first-timer, having a large family gathering centered on food is a tall task. But it doesn’t have to be intimidating. PBS Food has created this Thanksgiving Planning Checklist to help you pull off a stress-free Turkey Day. You can download the checklist into a printable form below. We also have a Thanksgiving Menu Cheat Sheet that can keep your kitchen organized and efficient as you cook on Thanksgiving Day.
Our checklist is broken into categories by date, with the goal to space out the tasks throughout the month of November to keep you stress-free. Click the links below to skip to the appropriate time window:
By Three Weeks Out
Invite Your Guests
Be sure to set your guest invitation list no later than 3 weeks before Thanksgiving. Set an RSVP date at least 10 days before Thanksgiving.
Order Your Organic Turkey
Ordering a turkey from a local farm or through a CSA is a convenient way to get a delicious and healthy bird, and to support your local farming economy. But order early. Many farms will sell out long before Thanksgiving. To find out where you can order a turkey in your area, click here.
Set Your Budget
Before you even begin to plan a menu, make sure to set a reasonable budget that will comfortably accommodate your expected guests. Even if you are asking your guests to bring a side dish, dessert or other item, be sure to set aside a safety net in case any of your guests aren’t able to bring their dish. Setting limits now will prevent you from going overboard later.
Start Checking Your Local Grocery Ads
Many grocery stores will begin running specials on Thanksgiving-related products well before the holiday. Look for deals not only on non-perishable items, but also Halloween (pumpkin) decorations that could be re-purposed for Thanksgiving.
Plan Your Menu
Once you have established your budget and a rough number of guests, you can begin to craft the menu. Make sure that you pick a menu that will easily accommodate your guests (better too much than too little!) but will also fit in your kitchen. (Measure the oven to make sure the turkey fits!)
Pull Out Your Decorations
Be sure to pull out your Thanksgiving decorations, centerpieces and candles well before the holiday and check to make sure they are in good order. You don’t want to discover on Thanksgiving morning that your candles melted together in the attic over the Summer.
Purchase Any Additional Decorations
If you need to replace some worn-out decorations or add to your decor, be sure to do it early. You have more flexibility and can bargain shop if you order online, but you want to leave plenty of time to avoid paying for rush shipping.
By Two Weeks Out
Check Your Linens
We have a hard time remembering what we had for dinner last week, much less remembering if the table linens survived the holidays last year. So don’t wait until Thanksgiving morning, pull those linens out now and leave yourself time to replace anything that can’t be cleaned.
Plan Your Centerpiece and Table Decor
Your holiday centerpiece and table decor set the mood for your whole celebration. Spend some time now planning your tablescape so you don’t have to worry about it the day of. You’ll also have time to hit up the discount and dollar store for elements that can inexpensively complete your look.
Buy a Frozen Turkey
If you are planning to save some money by purchasing a frozen turkey, you should pick it up as early as possible. You want to leave plenty of time for the bird to defrost. You’ll need to plan for at least 24 hours for every 4 pounds.
Check Your Kitchen Supplies and Tools
Whether you are trying a new recipe or using old favorites, you should check all of your equipment in advance. Be sure to research any new recipes to make sure you aren’t missing a specific tool. The other advantage to checking everything early? You won’t be going crazy trying to find the springform pan during the craziness of Thanksgiving morning.
Finalize What Dishes Your Guests Will Bring
Make sure you have a complete list of any dishes that will be contributed by your guests. We’ll leave it to you to judge the reliability of your own friends and family, but we recommend having a few backup options on standby, just in case one of your guests doesn’t come through.
If Frying a Turkey, Check Your Fire Extinguisher
Thanksgiving is much less fun when the fire department visits. Enough said.
By One Week Out
Consider ordering your flowers for delivery a day or two before Thanksgiving. Not only will this save you a chore during Thanksgiving week, you will be able to ensure you get whatever flowers and arrangements you like, as opposed to whatever is left on Thanksgiving.
Its probably the least enjoyable task to prepare for any holiday. (Suggestion: Turn it into a game or competition for your kids.) We recommend doing it leisurely with a glass of wine over a night or two the week before Thanksgiving, as opposed to fitting it in to the stress of Thanksgiving week.
By now, you should have a menu planned, a list of the dishes your guests will bring and a sense of your budget. Its time to buy the wine. Make sure to have plenty of red and white wines available for your guests. And don’t forget about your dessert wine or apertifs.
Plan Activities for Children
Thanksgiving goes much more smoothly when the children in the house aren’t spending it in your kitchen. PBS Parents offers a ton of activities that will be fun and educational for the kids, and will keep them occupied so you can focus on dinner.
Check Your Seating
Its easily forgotten, but make sure you have enough seating for all of your guests. If you need additional seats, either ask your guests to bring folding chairs, or see if you can borrow from a neighbor.
Finalize Shopping Plan
Create a detailed shopping plan in advance of your weekend shopping. Make sure you know which items you will buy at which store on which days. Create your detailed plan now and avoid last-minute trips on Thanksgiving morning for that item you forgot. (But as we all know, it will probably happen regardless.)
Shop For Non-perishables
The hard work begins the weekend before Thanksgiving. The biggest task? The dreaded trip to your supermarket for non-perishables. Hopefully, you have found time to take care of at least some this shopping earlier in the month. But be prepared for the crowds, they will be almost unavoidable at this point, even during off-hours.
Prep Anything That Can Be Frozen
Begin prepping any menu items that can be made and frozen. You’ll appreciate the opportunity to prep these items leisurely.
Clean The House
The weekend before Thanksgiving is the perfect time to thoroughly clean your house for entertaining. If you take care of the deep cleaning now, you will only need to tidy up a bit next week. (Unless of course you have small children, in which case you probably basically clean the house every single day.)
Get Ready for Children
If you don’t have children of your own, but are expecting them for the holiday, be sure to set up an area of the house specifically for them. Set out any games, DVDs or other activities. If you are expecting toddlers, be sure to remove any fragile or dangerous items that are within reach of tiny hands.
Visit Your Farmer’s Market
If your local farmer’s market is still running, you can swing by to pick up perishable items you need. Unfortunately, many markets have scaled back or closed by late November, so be prepared to visit your grocery store for some perishable items.
If you need to move furniture to accommodate your guests, do it over the weekend, before your thorough cleaning. Invite a friend or neighbor over to help if you need it.
Finish Prepping Linens
Make sure any cleaning or ironing is finished by the end of the weekend. Fold your napkins and put your tablecloths out, if possible.
Tidy Up Your Home’s Entrance
Make a great first impression with your guests — spend some time outside cleaning up the outside entrance and walkway to your home. Cleaning out any fallen leaves or debris and putting out some Fall flowers will make your guests feel welcome before they’ve entered the front door. Also, be sure to check to make sure you have adequate parking for your guests. Give a heads up to your neighbors if you expect your guests to park in front of their homes.
Make Your Pies
Pies are the last dish to actually go in the oven, but they can be the first to be prepped. Prep your pies on Monday, bake them on Wednesday and warm them on Thursday. Some prefer to bake an apple pie during dinner, but really you just need to warm it.
Begin Defrosting Your Turkey
Depending on the size of your frozen turkey, you might need to start defrosting it on Monday. The rule of thumb is 24 hours for every 4 pounds.
Set Your Final Cooking Schedule
Go over your final cooking plan for Thursday. You can use our printable Thanksgiving Menu Cheat Sheet to keep your kitchen calm on Thanksgiving morning. We’d recommending affixing it to your fridge or a cabinet to keep it handy while you prepare the big meal.
Finish all of your decorating on Monday. You’ve got plenty to do over the next couple days — hanging wreaths or putting out candles should be the last of your worries.
Perishable Shopping Trip
Make your trip to buy perishable items and any items you couldn’t get at the farmer’s market. Consider going during off-hours to avoid crowds. We prefer a Tuesday shopping trip to Wednesday trip. You should have a better selection, lesser crowds and you still have an extra if you get home and realize you forgot something.
Buy Fresh Flowers
Pick up fresh flowers for your home and table, if you didn’t have them delivered.
Tuesday evening makes a great time to chop your vegetables. Throw them in bags and save yourself some time on Thursday.
Make the Cranberry Sauce
Your cranberry sauce will actually taste much better if you make it ahead of time and let it sit in your fridge for a couple days.
This is your final chance to tidy up before the big day. Run the vacuum, spot check your tabletops and counters one last time and check the windows and mirrors for any big smudges. Make room in your front hall closet for guest coats.
Put Clean Towels In Your Guest Bathroom
Make sure your guest bathroom is fully stocked with soap, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, candles, and, of course, fresh towels.
Set the Table
Wednesday evening is the perfect time to set your table. Have fun, be creative and take your time. An elegant table will impress your guests and will improve the look of any holiday photos.
Chill White Wines
Throw any white wines into the fridge to ensure they are properly chilled. (We’d recommend a temperature check at least once on Wednesday evening!)