Your Guide to Cooking Your First Thanksgiving Dinner

This year, a ton of you are cooking your big first Thanksgiving dinner. Here’s your essential guide for success. Everything from schedules, to menus, to table, to avoiding costly mistakes. 

: Laura

UPDATE

One thing to take into consideration this year is supply-chain issues. Thanksgiving is predicted to cost more and chances are it might be harder to shop for. (Fingers crossed it won’t be.) To be on the safe side, we’ve adjusted our calendar to make sure you get out there sooner and shop smarter.

First time hosting Thanksgiving? Even a small one? Fear not, pilgrim! We’ve compiled all our collective experience from over the decades to give you a guide to cooking your first Thanksgiving dinner.

It all starts with being organized and making a menu ahead of time. Once that’s decided, it sets everything else in motion: your shopping lists, the equipment you’ll need, and then the essential how-tos, techniques, and troubleshooting you need to avoid disasters and ensure a happy holiday.

Schedule

If we had to share just one thing that will make this year so much easier for you, just one simple piece of advice that will save heartache (and perhaps your relationship), it would be: Start preparing early. Trust us on this one. It will hold you in good stead for this year and each year when it comes to Thanksgiving. Here’s a handy calendar for the next couple of weeks. Click it to enlarge and print.

2021 Thanksgiving Calendar

A Week to 10 Days Before (November 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, and 21)

1. Finalize your menu.
2. Read through the recipes. Pull out the pots, pans, and serving dishes you’ll need and wash them. If you need something you don’t have, buy, beg, or borrow it now! Make certain you have everything you need from the store–including aluminum foil.
3. Take out any linens, placemats, silverware, glasses, decorations you want to use for the big day. [Editor’s Note:  If you don’t have fancy stuff, that’s perfectly fine. That’s not what this day is about.]
4. Don’t worry. You’ve got this. Watch a movie, go for a walk, or laugh on the phone or Zoom with a friend.

A Few Days Before (November 22)

4. Make any dishes that can be stashed in the fridge and served cold. Think cranberry sauce.

Two Days Before (November 23)

5. Cook any dishes that you can reheat or assemble later. We make our mashed potatoes, pan gravy, and dessert components (cake layers or pie crusts) a day or two ahead of time.

The Day Before (November 24)

6. Bake your desserts (or assemble any desserts that you baked the day before).
7. Create your mise en place. That’s nothing more than a fancy French word for getting your cooking tools and ingredients in place. We set up baking sheets with small dishes that will hold herbs, chunks of butter, broth, etc. so that everything is ready the next day and all we have to do is actually make the recipe.
8. Set the table. This is huge. Better yet, ask someone else to set the table for you. [Note from David: Lordy, lordy! I can’t tell you how many times The One and I have bickered on Thanksgiving while setting the table at the last moment as the food got cold in the kitchen.]

Thanksgiving Day (November 25)

9. Roast the turkey
10. Reheat any hot side dishes and cook those that need to be made at the last minute, such as green beans.
11. Sit down and enjoy your holiday!

Your no-fuss, foolproof first Thanksgiving dinner menu

Images of four first Thanksgiving dinner recipes -- roast turkey, pan gravy, pan-fried green beans, and maple pumpkin pie.

Whether this is your first Thanksgiving dinner or simply your first in a while, it’s tremendously helpful to have a little help. So we’ve compiled a traditional menu, geared especially for those who are a little nervous, that keeps things classic yet simple. Nothing ostentatious. Still oh so satiating. And remember, those of you who are new, you’ll want to be certain to save ample leftovers to cram together in this beauteous leftover turkey sandwich—arguably one of the best parts of Thanksgiving.

A leftover turkey cranberry sandwich on a white surface. : Jamie Prescott

Say Hello to Your Basic Cooking Set

The first step to making your first Thanksgiving dinner great is having the right equipment. We’re firm believers in using as few tools as possible, so here’s a list of what we consider the bare-bones must-haves. And before you object that these are just once-a-year tools, they’re the core of our kitchen arsenal and are items that we reach for often, if not weekly, throughout the year.

Essential How-Tos to Avoid Disasters

No matter what exactly is on your Thanksgiving menu, there are certain essential techniques and tricks that apply to all the usual suspects on any holiday table. We’ve made plenty of gaffes and goofs on Thanksgivings past that helped us come up with these foolproof strategies so that you don’t have to fall victim to the same disasters.

Turkey Labels

1. How to Buy a Thanksgiving Turkey
An illustration of a turkey encased in ice.
2. How to Thaw Your Frozen Turkey (Pronto!) If It’s Still an Ice Cube Thanksgiving Morning

3. How to Test Your Turkey for Doneness
An illustration of a cooked turkey with several thermometers in it and a frustrated cook.
4. How to Handle it if Your Turkey Isn’t Quite Done Yet When You’d Expected
An illustration of a woman attempting to catch a whole turkey as it falls to the ground.
5. How to Transfer the Turkey From the Pan to the Cutting Board Without…Oops!

A carved turkey on a wooden cutting board for your first Thanksgiving dinner : Eric Wolfinger

6. How to Carve a Turkey

Here’s wishing you a happy, delicious, and memorable (in the best possible way!) Thanksgiving from all of us at Leite’s Culinaria

HUNGRY FOR MORE?

Comments

  1. AMEN to the advanced prep. Without it a Thanksgiving feast is a formula for a nervous breakdown. With it you’re cool, you’re in charge, you’re just about guaranteed success.

    I’d add to the day-by-day a spreadsheet for T-day. On it you list each of the foods that needs oven time, the temps they require and the time they’ll take. That way you can bunch things and ensure they each get their needs met and you can plan what goes in, warms up and then moves to insulated storage.

    Don’t forget your microwave is an insulated box. So things heated and needing to sit — like your turkey — will rest there happily without losing their heat. But if your microwave is going to be busy, an insulated ice chest (or 2) does the same thing.

    And when you turn your oven off, at last!, those pies you were smart enough to do on Wednesday will warm up wonderfully in the leftover heat while you enjoy dinner and all the complements you’ve earned.

    1. Fantastic suggestions, Rainey! Thank you! These are all incredibly helpful, particularly to folks making their first T-day dinner.

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