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Beat Holiday Stress With This Thanksgiving Checklist

Clean out the fridge, make dessert ahead, set your table early to create a relaxing celebration

spinner image Woman setting a table
WillSelarep/Getty Images

Getting prepared for the holidays may entail doing a deep clean, sifting through recipes, polishing silverware or assessing the spice rack.

And whether you’re looking forward to hosting just your immediate family this year or going all out with a larger gathering, there are plenty of things that need to be checked off on any holiday preparation list.

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Susan Moore, a retiree from Wicomico Church, Virginia, who plans to gather with extended family this year at her house, says she makes a “ridiculously detailed list of what has to be done, when,” to avoid becoming frazzled in the lead-up and on the big day. “That way, I’ve thought it all out when it’s calm and nobody’s there.”

Dan Pashman, host of The Sporkful food podcast, agrees that pacing yourself and meal planning are imperative for this festive season’s “return to normal.” ​

“It’s like we’re out of shape in a way, unaccustomed to the pace of normalcy. So I think the most important thing you can do this Thanksgiving is slow down a little and spend time with friends and family,” he says. “So don’t sweat the small stuff and don’t be afraid to ask for help.” ​

And if someone offers to bring a dish? “Give them more things to bring!” Pashman says. 

With that in mind, here are some tips to de-stress some of your holiday meal planning.

Pre-cook and prepare food ahead of time

For those of us without industrial kitchens at home, making the most of a four-burner stovetop and single oven must be factored into meal preparation. The more you can get ready in advance of the big day, the more smoothly things will go.

“Anything you can control, you should try to,” says Ken Rubin, chief culinary officer at professional online culinary school Rouxbe. “But remember that food is really about joy and bringing people together. … It shouldn’t be something that creates that sense of stress bearing down on you.”​

Soups and even gravy (using turkey parts) can easily be prepared the day before Thanksgiving and other big holiday meals, then livened up with freshly cut garnishes and toppings the day of. Plan to make vegetable or meat stocks for your recipes in advance, Rubin says, freezing them and making sure to take them out in time to thaw.​

“You can precook potatoes too,” Rubin says. “And then, day of, do the mashing and assembly.” The same thing goes for chopping vegetables for roasting or for your stuffing, as well as preparing salad dressings and the like.​

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If you’re planning to serve a cheese tray, either for nibbles while everyone is cooking together or as part of the main event, accompaniments like quick pickles, vinegared onions and balsamic figs add a special homemade touch and can be made well in advance.​

And don’t forget the cranberry sauce. “It’s the easiest thing in the world to make, and you can do it a week ahead,” says Moore, who spikes hers with horseradish for some kick.​

Opt for dishes served at different temperatures

Delegating dishes is a tactic Moore uses to her advantage when the meal is at her home. She asks family members to bring foods that are already cooked and can be served at room temperature so they won’t require her to relinquish precious oven space.​

“If you can parcel out dishes that don’t need the stove or oven, it simplifies your life and makes everything go better,” she says. “I always delegate supervision to an obliging aunt, friend or, as a last resort, husband.”

For foods that need to stay cold when they arrive at your house, have an extra cooler stocked with ice packs outside to save on refrigerator real estate.

Having a range of dishes that can be served at varying temperatures leaves the main chef space to focus on the critical timing of things that need to be served piping hot, Rubin says.

Mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables, perhaps brought along by your invitees, are very forgiving, he says, and can be reheated while your turkey is resting.

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Take stock of dishes and storage 

Whether or not you’re bringing out the good china and silver, it’s useful to inventory things like place settings and platters, as well as storage containers for leftovers, in advance — if only to make sure you’re not rushing around to find that missing soup urn while the piecrust is burning in the oven.​ 

Two or three days before a group meal, Rubin says he’ll use sticky notes to label serving dishes with what will eventually go in them, just to be sure he has everything he needs.​ 

“You may want to wash the serving dishes all again the day before if they’re sitting out on a sideboard,” he says, “so the sticky notes are really more of a reminder that you have all the necessary serving stuff.”

Get your fridge, pantry and oven in order

A tidy and clean kitchen — behind appliances and pantry doors, too — is one that's ready to work for you.

"For people who ordinarily don't plan and have a lot of meal activity, having your fridge cleaned out is certainly a good idea,” Rubin says. “Consider cleaning out pantry items [in advance] so you don't go reaching for the cinnamon only to realize that jar has been empty for three months."

Running the self-clean cycle on your oven to remove lingering memories of meals past is another good idea.

Streamlining tasks in advance will allow you more time to enjoy yourself on the big day. And that’s what holiday meals are all about.

spinner image Thanksgiving shopping list with cranberries, apples and nuts
Studio-Annika/Getty Images

A Thanksgiving To-Do List

Two weeks out: Create your guest list and make note of any allergies or food requirements. If you're planning to serve a specialty turkey or cut of meat that needs to be ordered from a butcher, now's the time to do that, too (if you haven't done it already).

Ten days to a week out: Start solidifying the menu and finalizing with guests whether they plan to bring a dish. You can also prepare accompaniments for cheese trays (pickled items, spiced nuts, etc.) as well as stocks a week or more in advance. Inventory serving dishes and polish silverware, if you’re going that route. And while you’re at it, sharpen your carving and prep knives too.

One day out: By now you’ve likely done most of your shopping for the meal, but double-check to make sure you’re stocked up on last-minute items you might need extras of (fresh herbs for garnishes always run out quicker than you’d think). Many desserts can be prepared in advance, including pastry dough and pies, which can easily be reheated on the big day. Also, think about setting the table a day ahead to perfect your tablescape and check off another task.​​

spinner image Thanksgiving shopping list with cranberries, apples and nuts
Studio-Annika/Getty Images

A Thanksgiving To-Do List

Two weeks out: Create your guest list and make note of any allergies or food requirements. If you're planning to serve a specialty turkey or cut of meat that needs to be ordered from a butcher, now's the time to do that, too (if you haven't done it already).

Ten days to a week out: Start solidifying the menu and finalizing with guests whether they plan to bring a dish. You can also prepare accompaniments for cheese trays (pickled items, spiced nuts, etc.) as well as stocks a week or more in advance. Inventory serving dishes and polish silverware, if you’re going that route. And while you’re at it, sharpen your carving and prep knives too.

One day out: By now you’ve likely done most of your shopping for the meal, but double-check to make sure you’re stocked up on last-minute items you might need extras of (fresh herbs for garnishes always run out quicker than you’d think). Many desserts can be prepared in advance, including pastry dough and pies, which can easily be reheated on the big day. Also, think about setting the table a day ahead to perfect your tablescape and check off another task.​​

Terry Ward is a contributing writer who covers food, drink and travel. Her work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Washington Post and on CNN.

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