Avoid the stress and enjoy the Thanksgiving feast more this year by employing these smart make-ahead strategies for prepping turkey, sides, and more.

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Whether you're hosting Thanksgiving this year and doing all the cooking yourself or you're a guest tasked with bringing a savory side dish or seasonal dessert, there can be quite a bit of stress involved with preparing food for this annual feast. There's not much you can do about the high expectations placed upon that old family recipe for pumpkin pie, but there are plenty of other ways you can set yourself up for success when it comes to Thanksgiving meal prep.

Ahead, find our favorite make-ahead strategies for the turkey, the sides, and the sweets. And if you're still gathering recipes, be sure to check out our collection of make-ahead holiday dishes for more inspiration.

prepped ingredients in plastic tubs
Credit: Marcus Nilsson

Turkey

The Week Before: Clean out the fridge, thaw the turkey, and prepare the brine.

Give your refrigerator a reset with a deep-clean before the week of feasting begins. As an added bonus, you'll also get a handle on your condiment inventory and you'll make some room for the bird and the beverages.

Once the fridge is clean, it's time to thaw the bird. If your turkey is frozen solid, place it on a rimmed baking sheet and set it on the bottom shelf to get it thawing—allow one full day for every four pounds of turkey being thawed. Lastly, take a few minutes to put together the brine for the turkey—you'll thank yourself later.

The Day Before: Brine the bird.

It's the day before the feast and with the ball already rolling on the sides and sweets, you'll likely be elbows deep in sweet potato peels and eternally grateful that you have the brine ready to go. Whether you go fancy with this aromatic wet brine, or try this easy dry-brine, get your thawed turkey brining and let the salt and spices work their magic for the next 24 hours.

The Day Of: Take the chill off.

It's time to transition the turkey from the refrigerator to the counter for an hour or two to take the chill off and dry the skin a little—this will result in a crispier skin and a more evenly cooked bird. And whether it's your first or fiftieth time cooking a turkey, don't miss our expert guide for roasting the best turkey ever.

Olive-Oil Mashed Potatoes with Garlic and Sage
Credit: Marcus Nilsson

Sides

The Week Before: Make your lists and head to the store.

Start writing out your shopping lists, prep duties, and equipment needs so you'll have a day or two to amend anything that's not quite right. To strike that balance between being prepared and the produce staying fresh, plan to shop up four days ahead of Thanksgiving. Store more delicate produce like lettuce and green beans in specialty produce bags to get them to taste as fresh as the day they were picked.

Three Days to Go: Start your vegetable prep and make any dips, relishes, and dressings.

This is when you can start to get as much vegetable prep done ahead of time. Chop up the mirepoix for the Test Kitchen's Favorite Stuffing recipe, trim and blanch the green beans for the casserole, and simmer the grains for that new salad you'll be trying this year. While it is best to make the mashed potatoes as close to mealtime as possible, the spuds can be peeled and cut up to two days in advance; just make sure you store them submerged in water—that's the secret to keeping them from turning brown.

Once the vegetables are set, turn your attention to any dips, relishes, and dressings you plan to serve. They only get better after spending a couple of days in the fridge, where they'll chill and meld flavors, so getting a jump start on these recipes is a no-brainer. Now is the time to pickle vegetables for the relish tray, whip up some cold dips, and crank out any salad dressings. If time allows, take a look at your recipes and chip away at any other tiny tasks, such as toasting nuts, frizzling shallots, or chopping herbs.

The Day Of: Add the final flourishes.

This is when it's best to assemble your prepped components into their final form. For example, if you were able to prep the individual components for this gourmet green bean casserole a few days ahead of time—like the mushroom sauce and frizzled shallots—then it'll be a snap to pull the family favorite together for the big day.

decorative tile double-crust apple pie

Desserts

Several Weeks Before: Prepare your doughs.

If you really want to get ahead, you can make and freeze discs of pie dough up to a whole month before you need them. In charge of the rolls this year? These buttery Parker House Rolls can be prepped and frozen up to three months in advance.

Three Days to Go: Prep any no-bake dessert recipes.

Check out these no-bake dessert recipes and choose something that won't require oven space. When dessert can be made ahead of time, you'll have one less thing to worry about as guests are arriving.

The Day Before: Get rolling.

Take the pie doughs out of the freezer in the morning and roll them into pie shells later that day. You can blind bake the crusts a day or two before filling and baking them into the pie of your choice.

 

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