Your Guide to Cooking Your First Thanksgiving Dinner

This year, lots of you are cooking Thanksgiving for the first time. Here’s your essential guide for success.

  1. : Laura

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.

A Week to 10 Days Before (November 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, and 22)

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 23)

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

Two Days Before (November 24)

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 25)

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 26)

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 a great dinner 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.

Roasting Pan

Regardless of whether you’ll be making an old-fashioned behemoth turkey, a smaller bird such as chicken, or even just poultry parts, you’ll need a roasting pan. A good roasting pan will hold you in good stead the whole year for holiday hams, spring lambs, prime ribs, weeknight roasts–you name it. You’ll want a sizable pan with high sides to keep all those delicious pan drippings where they belong. The pan should have sturdy handles that are wide enough to allow plenty of room for cushy oven mitts to slip through. And make sure the pan comes with a roasting rack. It raises the meat off the bottom so hot air can circulate, creating even cooking. Last, don’t even think about getting one of those flimsy disposable foil pans from the supermarket, or you might find your bird sliding across the floor, leaving a fat slick you know your mother-in-law’s sure to find.

All Clad Turkey Fork Set

Turkey Fork Set

Once that turkey is perfectly roasted, you don’t want it acting more like a greased pig as you try to lift it. A set of turkey forks allows you to easily and securely cradle the bird while you transfer it to a cutting board to rest. You can also use one of the forks to hold the bird in place while carving. And don’t put these away after the holidays. They work year-round with any hunk o’meat you cook.

Wüsthof Ikon Two-Piece Prep Set on a white background.

Carving Knife and Chef’s Knife

Speaking of carving, you want a great carving knife. They’re long and slender, making them a bit flexible, which is ideal for slicing every last bit of breast and thigh from the bird. Don’t even think of using a chef’s knife. It’s too much of a bullish workhorse for this more delicate work. Save your chef’s knife for chopping, dicing, slicing, mincing, of vegetables, herbs, and some meats like ham or bacon.

Bellemain Stainless Steel Potato Ricer Set

Potato Ricer

Yes, yes, we know. You can make serviceable mashed potatoes without a ricer. But between us, they’ll never be as silken and velvety as those that come out of a potato ricer. Fact. We each love ours. It’s indestructible. (David’s been using his for almost 30 years.) And don’t think this tool is a slacker. It can puree cauliflower, broccoli, turnips, and carrots; make homemade baby food; and squeeze cooked greens or grated potatoes to remove excess water. Tip: Resist the lure of a food processor, as it can blitz through a pile of cooked spuds in no time, you’ll end up with gummy, gloppy potatoes.

A set of two baking sheets and a wire mesh rack.

Rimmed Baking Sheets

This seems like a no-brainer, but the last thing you want on the Holiest of Foodie Holy Days is to come up short. These rimmed baking sheets are useful for baking dinner rolls and cookies (or warming the store-bought kind because, let’s face it, sometime you need to cut a corner or two), roasting vegetables, holding a butterflied bird, or even wrapping it in foil and placing it on the bottom oven rack to save yourself from scrubbing spillover drips and splatters after everyone’s left.

Casserole Dishes

Casserole dishes are as indispensable as rimmed baking sheets. Basically, pretty much everything except the turkey is roasted and/or served in a casserole dish on Thanksgiving. So having a few on hand for green bean casserole, potato gratin, mashed potatoes, puréed sweet potatoes. A little decorating advice, choose white and they’ll go with every centerpiece and design idea you come up with over the years.

Glass Pie Plate Set of 2

Glass Pie Plates

Whether dessert is classic pumpkin pie, sweet potato pie, or a killer spiced maple pecan pie, you’ll need a pie plate. But not just any pie plate. A glass pie plate. Why, you ask? First, glass is a superb conductor of heat, so your pie will bake more evenly. But more important, glass allows you to see just how brown the bottom crust is—or isn’t. There’s nothing worse than a pasty, pale bottom crust that causes the pie to slump on your plate. Tip: If you find the bottom crust isn’t browning sufficiently, place the plate on the floor of the oven for the rest of its baking time. Works like a dream.
A black ThermoPro instant read thermometer.

Electronic Meat Thermometer

So, everything is running like clockwork. You’ve read every chart on the Internet about exactly how long to roast your beautifully basted turkey. You’ve juggled thing so your side dishes are done at the same time the bird comes out of the oven. And you’ve carried it aloft to the table…only to discover it’s undercooked, and everyone has to wait an extra hour for dinner, munching on the dwindling hors d’oeuvre platter. (Confession: Yup, it happened to me.) An instant read thermometer features a fast thermocouple probe that will let you quickly check the turkey (or chicken or pork roast or ham) in multiple spots without letting all the heat out of your oven. It makes sure your bird is perfectly cooked and safe to serve. Which short circuits any heaving sighs and rolling of the eyes from your mother-in-law, who you wished would’ve slipped on that grease slick.

The front and back of an extra large dial oven thermometer.

Oven Thermometer

An oven thermometer can make sure that your oven is blasting at the proper temperature. I have four. Excessive? Not really. I hang two from the top rack and two from the bottom rack to make sure I know if there are any cold or hot spots in my oven. The only way you’ll get a properly cooked bird in the correct amount of time is to have a properly heated oven.

Fat Separator and Measuring Cup shown with water and oil in it.

Fat Separator

It sounds like some medieval contraption for separating a bird from its padding, doesn’t it? It’s actually an ingenious tool I use every time I make gravy for turkey, chicken, roast beef, ham, and lamb. You simply pour the juices and fat that collected in the bottom of your roasting pan into the separator. Then let it all sit for a few minutes while the fat, which is lighter than the cooking juices, floats to the top. A spout in the bottom allows you to pour out just the juices while leaving the fat behind.

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. : 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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