Thanksgiving Basics–Start Early, Finish Late! (Getting Organized)

above:  Our son Sean with his smoked turkey a couple of years ago. No gravy joy here, but lots of luscious, scrumptious eating. Buy gravy or make it ahead using roasted wings, etc.

Talking Turkey:  When you buy your turkey, look at the ingredients list on the wrapper. If it says anything other than just TURKEY, you may want to check out another brand. 

                   Halloween Fun Food from Genius Kitchen

As Maria (a la “Sound of Music”) would say, “Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.” And we all know we can trust her, right?  My theory is that if you start early with a few basics, you can enjoy Thanksgiving from now until the leftovers are long in your tummy or stored safely in the freezer for busy December nights.

Thanksgiving is my very favorite holiday of the year and I want it to be yours, too. I like it to last for days and it should when you consider how long it takes to prepare and make.

Let’s focus on no stress, no gritted teeth, no worry about how perfect anything has to be, including the gravy (buy it, make it ahead, or get someone else to make it). See my mismatched tablecloths below? All my damask napkins are probably 50 years old–they’re either my mom’s  (she died in ’85)  or from thrift stores. My silverware is my aunt’s from the ’50s. Extra chairs bought at COSTCO for $15 each.  Still too much?  Buy Chinet plates and Vanity Fair napkins, which are sturdier than the holiday paper goods sold at the grocery. Getting together is what it’s all about.

If you’d like detailed information about food right away, click on one of the links below. Otherwise, scroll down to THANKSGIVING STARTS NOW: PLANNING BASICS… or to the very bottom for a list of my favorite Thanksgiving cookbooks.

More Time’s favorite Thanksgiving Starters, Soups and Sides–make ahead or last minute.

More Time’s favorite Thanksgiving baking recipes–make ahead or last minute

How long will any food (anytime) last? (Still Tasty Dot Com is my go-to.)

More Time’s Turkey Soup from Leftovers

More Time’s Turkey Pot Pie from Leftovers

More Time’s Gluten Free and Vegan Thanksgiving Menu with Recipes

New York Time’s Vegetarian Thanksgiving

Williams-Sonoma Dairy-Free Thanksgiving 

More Time’s Cooking Thanksgiving for Two–An Intimate View

Slow Cooker Ham

Slow Cooker Thanksgiving Dishes–Slow Cooker or Pressure Cooking Dot Com

Cooking for 50–Food Quantity Chart  (Chef Menus)

How to Roast a Turkey–THE SPRUCE

Butterball Turkey Website

Butterball Turkey Hotline — Talk-Line at [number], or text— 1-844-877-3456

Carving the Turkey

Better Cooking with Convection (Convection oven basics from FINE COOKING)

How Long to Cook a Turkey per Pound — No Matter the Method

Best Thanksgiving Centerpieces via Pinterest

Have a FRIENDSGIVING and raise money for No Kid Hungry

Bon Appetit’s 36-Hour Thanksgiving Grocery List

 Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.

~Robert Burns


  1. Figure out your guest list first as your menu will depend on this– and INVITE THEM. Ask them to bring something –or not. They’re all wondering whether or not you’re cooking. Put their minds at ease. Does someone keep saying, “I don’t know”?  Just include them in your count anyway and let it go.
  2. Decide on your menu, dinner style, and choose your recipes. Consider what you’re doing with your leftovers or if you’re feeding houseguests the rest of the time. Turkey and ham? Part vegan?  All Gluten-free? Small, elegant planned-out dinner party or big buffet style with anything anyone wants to bring? Old favorites should have their place, but do think of a new dish each year. Anyone staying over? Think Wednesday-Sunday, then, including breakfasts for each day and my turkey soup on Saturday. A lasagna in the freezer is worth its weight in gold come the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Not cooking? Order the meal from Harry and David’s or send it to Grandma’s. Call Whole Foods for the whole shebang.
  3. Write two time schedules for Thanksgiving:  The first is for what days you’re shopping, cleaning, etc., and the second is for when you’re cooking what. Making casseroles or pumpkin bread ahead of time to store in the freezer?  Do include thawing frozen turkey:  a 12 pounder, which will feed 8, will take 3 days in refrigerator or 7 hours in often-changed cold water.
  4. Do the big household chores way ahead. Get your carpets cleaned yesterday. Paint that small dirty wall in the foyer. (Skip larger painting projects; it’s too late.) Buy the new tv and have it installed before Turkey Day–I mean the meal before the big games. Clean your fridge thoroughly. Clear OUT your freezer. Floors need refinishing? Wait until next summer and be ready for Thanksgiving a year from now. Clean your oven now. If you wait until later, it may die as you clean it without hope of quick replacement. Having worked in an appliance store, I promise this is true.  Do check your oven temperature, too, which means buying an oven thermometer if you don’t have one. If it’s way off, call the repair shop; if it’s close, you’ll know to adjust the temperature as indicated.
  5. GROCERY LISTS–At least two! Do a comprehensive and basic shopping sometime early in November. Before going, check on staples like flour, sugar, salt, pepper, spices, coffee, tea, cocoa, as well as on your favorite cleaning supplies. Include new jars or boxes of items like baking soda, baking powder, ginger, cinnamon, rubbed sage, and thyme; toss the old ones. Butter should be on sale. Buy bunches and freeze. Odd ingredients needed for any must-have recipes? Search for and buy them now, if possible. When you’re done with this list, check the recipes you’ve chosen and make your list for the week before Thanksgiving AND for Thanksgiving week. Martha Stewart’s Basic Thanksgiving Shopping List.
  6. OTHER SHOPPING LIST: Make a thorough inventory of cooking equipment, dishes, serving pieces, silverware, glasses, tablecloth, and napkins to see if anything needs to be replaced or updated. (Gravy separator? Whisk? Baster? Roasting pan? New hand-held mixer?) How about fresh, stylish sheets or towels for overnight guests? Order/buy/wash now. Need a new tv? See #4. Disposable storage containers are a life-safer for leftovers and sending food home with guests; buy a slew of them.  Warehouse stores should be stocking boxes of inexpensive stemless wine glasses, which are good for everything from water to brandy to apple juice . Otherwise, a big bag of throw-away plastic on-the-rocks glasses could be the ticket.  This is also a wonderful time to buy on-sale large sets of dishes if you need them anyway. By the way, in about two weeks, everything in all stores turns to CHRISTMAS.  If you need fall-ish ribbons, fake pumpkins, faux leaves–now’s the time to grab them! Did I mention candles? Buy a new peeler. No arguments. That’s my favorite Thanksgiving recommendation. Make a notch or somehow mark the old one so you know which one it is. That way, you have two at a time and someone can help peel all those root vegetables. Next year, when you buy your NEXT new peeler, you’ll know which one to throw out. I like OXO peelers as they’re kind to hard-working or old hands.  A new instant read thermometer isn’t a bad idea, either. They seem to give out with no notice.
  7. LIQUOR/WINE/BEER LIST. Make the list and go to the liquor store one day soon. Hide everything or lock it in the trunk of your car. Don’t forget sparkling water, sparkling juice, or soda for kids or non-drinkers. My simple drink suggestions are these:  a. buy only American wines and b. choose one red (Pinot Noir from Oregon) and one white (Riesling–not too sweet-Washington or New York), as well as a great local fall beer. If you want a sparkler to start, buy New Mexican Gruet.  If you want to serve only one wine, you might choose a Pacific Northwest rosé, which pairs mysteriously well with poultry.  More complicated instructions for wine here.
  8. MAKE AHEAD WHAT CAN BE MADE WAY AHEAD.  Put it in your cleared-out freezer. See the above links for food if you’re looking for ideas.
  9. PLAN YOUR MUSIC, MOVIES, and other entertainment.  Need movies for little kids? Old folks? Organize that ahead. Sometimes it’s easiest to just order a few DVDs from  How about coloring books, crayons, or board games?  Jigsaw puzzles could keep a variety of ages entertained while you sweat over the dinner.

Free printable coloring pages here. 

Thanksgiving Movies on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon

10 Movies You Forgot Were About Thanksgiving here.

Over the River & Through the Woods


Begin with music. I have a post about it:

Thanksgiving Music:  Wednesday – Sunday

Too lazy? Just go to youtube and search around for Thanksgiving lists.  Or maybe put a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving on a loop. No Christmas music allowed. Even after dinner. Not until Sunday when Advent begins if you follow such traditions.



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There are so many wonderful Thanksgiving cookbooks, but here are a few of my old and new favorites — in no special order.  I also have added, at the bottom of this section, links for some books I haven’t bought, but that look scrumptious and worth checking out. If you don’t have a very basic, all-purpose cookbook such as HOW TO COOK EVERYTHING by Mark Bittman or JOY OF COOKING, BETTER  HOMES AND GARDENS, etc., then that must be your first purchase.  You need something in which you can look up anything. Go to the bookstore and look at a few; buy the one that appeals the most to you.  After that, order a special holiday book or keep your eyes out at the used book or thrift store for these or other Thanksgiving specials.

Thanksgiving 101 by Rick Rodgers  The book by the cookbook expert. Also wrote Christmas 101.  Includes basics like Turkey 101 or Pan Gravy 101, but also features a variety of desserts, fun sides, good leftover recipes, as well the stories we like to hear.

The Thanksgiving Table and The New Thanksgiving Table by Diane Morgan.  Fun and beautifully illustrated books by another long-time expert, who also wrote The Christmas Table and Gifts Cooks Love.  Adored the first and feel the same about the second, which highlights regional holiday favorites like “Jack Daniels’ Whiskey and Brown Sugar Crusted Ham” and “Honey and Chipotle Glazed Sweet Potato Spears with Lime.” Diane Morgan’s Thanksgiving for a Crowd on

Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well  by Sam Sifton, the food editor of the New York Times. A bit smaller book without the big glossy photographs of some holiday tomes, this is not only a useful reference tool, but is a happy read as it’s very personally written. Basics are covered perfectly well, but we also get to tune in to some homey pages like, “Apple Pizza” and “Turkey a la King.”  Need directions for a proper turkey sandwich? This is your book.

Giving Thanks:  Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie by Kathleen Curtin, Sandra L. Oliver, and PLIMOTH PLANTATION.  An excellent gift for families or anyone interested in the holiday from its historical perspective, Giving Thanks shares the story of the holiday from the famous living history museum, complete with myriad illustrations, and favorite dishes from all over the United States.

Williams-Sonoma Thanksgiving   Written by the late Michael McLaughlin, a well-known and respected food writer, this book is chock full of the stunning color photographs we expect from Williams-Sonoma. Unlike some of their other books, this one is well-balanced and, while focusing on the basics, includes recipes you can totally trust.  WS has published a newer Thanksgiving book, as well.

Friendsgiving by Alexandra Shytsman of The New Baguette dot com food blog.  This entertaining little cookbook, new for 2017, is about just what the title says, Friendsgiving,   a no-family holiday–or anytime–meal that skips politics and family squabbles and focuses on fun for those too far way to get to mom’s table.  Choose from small, but artful menus such as The Classic (traditional turkey-type stuff), Cuban Fiesta, Southern Feast, or Modern (vegan/gf) and enjoy eating together just exactly as your group desires.

Quick Breads by Howard Early and Glenda Morris. These well-known teachers from THE BALTIMORE SCHOOL have the knack for writing recipes that turn out tastily beauteous every. single. time.  Want yeast bread look and flavor without yeast?  Bake here.  Fun for holiday breakfasts or for a basic bread for the holiday dinner, I’ll give away that my favorite recipe in the book is Cherry-Chocolate Bread. 20 years old and this tiny little book is still giving pleasure.

Art of the Pie: A Practical Guide to Homemade Crusts, Fillings, and Life by Kate McDermott; photographs by Andrew Scrivani. I’ve been baking pies for 45 years, but love learning anew with this entrancing 2016 book by pie maven Kate McDermott. To gild the lily, photographer Andrew Scrivani– my favorite food photographer ever–took the pics.

Don’t want to read quite so much about pie?  Buy the November, 2017 issue of SOUTHERN LIVING; it contains a stunningly full article on southern pie-making by well-known cookbook author Nancie McDermott, “Lost Pies of the South” and might fill the bill!

Baking:  From my Home to Yours  by Dorie Greenspan.  Not a Thanksgiving book per se, but a readable, doable complete, stand-alone baking book for which you’ll be thankful should you want to bake anything from biscuits to yeast breads to cheesecakes or pies for the holiday–or any other day. Keep this one on the kitchen shelf year-round.

Reader’s Lane List of Best New Thanksgiving Cookbooks of 2016

8 Cookbooks to Feast On When Prepping Your First Thanksgiving Dinner


And in case you still need help, please check out New York Times’ Food Thanksgiving Planning post. Just have Wednesday night and Thursday to pull this all together (as did I for many years), try FOOD52’s Guide for quick prep. These will take you from soup to nuts, but will also remind you to defrost that turkey!


Fire just down the street yesterday (below), started by freezing homeless. So scary. We are so short of shelter beds in Colorado Springs the people are camped out in fields. Something must change.

Be thankful,


11 thoughts on “Thanksgiving Basics–Start Early, Finish Late! (Getting Organized)

  1. Mary Poppins or Maria? I, too, love Thanksgiving the best. Family, good food, good friends, sharing the blessings we have received. Thanks for the good recipes and advice.

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