A complete Work-Ahead Holiday Dinner Meal Plan for delivering a classic turkey dinner. Complete with printable shopping list and game plan.
If you’re surfing cooking websites, you will have no doubt noticed that the holidays are just around the corner.
You may be wondering how you’ll deliver a great Thanksgiving or Christmas Dinner and remain sane. Don’t worry. I’ve got your back.
The work-ahead holiday dinner meal plan: breakdown by dish
(All of my holiday dinner recipes are linked below and at the end of the post.)
The first holiday dinner that I made from start to finish was to rescue my future husband, Phil, who was facing imminent Thanksgiving Dinner Hell.
Phil was having his family over along with his three kids.
He had never done Thanksgiving by himself, and didn’t know where to start.
I couldn’t say “no” to those gorgeous, sad puppy eyes when he asked me for help.
“How many are coming?” I asked.
Phil sweetly replied, “EIGHTEEN.”
When I recovered from shock, we convened a strategy session to map out our must-haves.
I had to have my buttery-mashed-potato-calorie-explosion fix, and Phil needed his Mom’s stuffing.
We both agreed that cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, gravy, and some sort of pie were essential.
And, of course, there’s the turkey…
I adapted my favorite Ultimate Classic Roast Turkey from one that I found from Martha Stewart.
It involves covering the turkey, mummy-like, in cheesecloth that has been soaked in a mixture of wine and butter.
What’s not to like about THAT?
You repeatedly baste with the butter mixture and pan drippings during the roast.
This keeps the turkey from drying out on the outside, while the stuffing keeps the bird juicy on the inside.
You take off the cheesecloth during the final part of the roast.
The turkey browns up beautifully before you pull it from the oven.
I have since taken to nestling herbs—sage, rosemary, and thyme—into the cheesecloth, which really takes the flavor over the top.
I put our turkey in the oven around 11 am.
It’s ready to come out by around 4 pm.
I have to say, it really does come out perfect and succulent EVERY time, with just about the least amount of fuss of any turkey recipe I’ve ever tried.
This will be my sixth year using this recipe—and I make turkey at least twice a year.
What size turkey do I need?
The general recommendation is 1.5 lbs. of turkey per person (that allows for leftovers!)
How long should I thaw my turkey?
One of the saddest sights (I see it EVERY year) is a poor, lost soul shopping for frozen turkeys THE DAY BEFORE THE HOLIDAY.
Most sites recommend 1 day of hanging out in the fridge per 5 pounds of bird, so a 20-lb turkey will take 4 days to thaw—plan accordingly!
On the day of your dinner, plan an extra ~2.5 hours so you can unwrap and rinse the turkey, then let it sit at room temperature.
How long does it take to roast a turkey?
This varies significantly depending on the size of the bird, anywhere from 3–5 hours.
The rule-of-thumb is 20 minutes per pound. But there are a few reasons that this doesn’t quite work for this recipe: one, we do a 30-minute roast at higher temperature, and two, the bird is stuffed.
I take a “it’s done when it’s done” approach by using temperature probes in either the breast or thigh and in the center of the stuffing.
The stuffing breast and should reach 165ºF; thighs should reach 180ºF.
Keep in mind, too, that the turkey needs to rest at least ½ hour before carving.
That’s potentially a total of 7–8 hours (again, depending on the size of your bird), so plan accordingly.
Phil’s mom passed away several years ago. She was survived by her husband and six sons, a few of whom usually join us on Turkey Day.
Her memory lives on, in part, through this stuffing’s presence each year on the Thanksgiving Dinner table.
As such, her sausage stuffing recipe is absolutely SACRED and MUST NOT be altered in ANY WAY.
(One of these days, I might sneak some dried cranberries in there. What will they do? FIRE ME?!)
The stuffing IS really very yummy…
How far ahead can I make the stuffing?
I generally brown the sausage and saute the vegetables the night before I plan to roast the turkey.
Then I finish the stuffing that morning.
You can do everything except baking the stuffing up to 2 days in advance.
Be sure to let the stuffing sit a room temperature with the turkey before you stuff the cavity.
Also, be very careful not to cross-contaminate.
I always set aside enough stuffing to loosely fill the cavity.
Everything else goes into a baking dish for later.
Although I have a safe method to ensure that any Salmonella that might be present would be killed, realize that some people won’t eat the stuffing from the cavity no matter what.
So don’t mix the two!
THE CRANBERRY SAUCE
There is no excuse for canned cranberry sauce.
I remember this abomination from my childhood: everyone would cut a slice from the can-shaped blob and put it on their plate.
It was vile then, and it’s vile now.
This orange-ginger-spiced cranberry sauce will make you wonder why you ever ate store-bought cranberry sauce.
How far in advance can I make cranberry sauce?
I make the sauce 3 days in advance.
Then, I press some plastic down against the surface of the sauce and keep it in the refrigerator.
I’ve never tried freezing it, but I don’t generally like the consistency of dishes thickened with cornstarch after freezing.
Gravy is a can of worms, a scary beast in-and-of itself, but it’s really not that hard.
Have you ever had a dinner guest show up with a jar of gravy? Just ew.
When you try my easy, rich turkey gravy recipe, you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.
Holiday dinners at the Frank house requires gallons of gravy.
I learned this the hard way from one of Phil’s brothers, who is (in)famous for the amount of food he can blithely put away—and then go back for more.
And then have THREE helpings of dessert. I learned that he likes to eat gravy like soup, with the turkey and side dishes floating inside.
I exaggerate, but not by much.
For this reason, I have a strategy for making extra turkey drippings.
I probably have about half a gallon of gravy by the time it’s all said and done. (And I keep some in reserve so that we can have it with our leftovers.)
I highly recommend this strategy so that you have extra drippings and juices on hand just in case.
Can I make the gravy ahead of time?
You could, but part of what makes this gravy so great is that it starts with the rendered turkey fat and pan drippings from your bird.
You also make a stock from the neck and giblets.
To do it in advance, you’d need to roast some turkey thighs for extra fat and drippings.
I prefer to make the gravy as the very last step in my meal plan, while the turkey rests.
THE GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE
Green bean casserole is to Thanksgiving Dinner what fruitcake is to Christmas.
Like fruitcake, it can be good…but it can also be really, really bad.
And believe me, I’ve experienced LOTS of badness. Concentrated cream-of-mushroom soup and canned green beans are almost certainly involved.
I’ve found that homemade cream-of-mushroom soup and fresh green beans are a must. (The soup is so delicious that it could be eaten on its own!)
But homemade fried onions are too fussy for true green bean casserole aficionados: French’s fried onions, which I mix with buttery breadcrumbs, are the required topping (no, I received no kickbacks for this!).
This green bean casserole recipe is a standout!
Can you make green bean casserole ahead of time?
YES! After all, this is “Make-Ahead Green Bean Casserole!”
I usually make it 3 days in advance and refrigerate.
But if you freeze the casserole, it can be up to a month in advance!
THE MASHED POTATOES
I use Yukon gold potatoes for this very simple mashed potato recipe.
Simplicity is best for mashed potatoes.
To me, the only topping for mashed potatoes in this meal is the fabulous turkey gravy.
So why mess them up with horseradish, cheese, or anything else that might clash?
I pre-soak the potatoes in lots of water to take out some of the starch that can otherwise make the potatoes too gummy.
Guess what that means? Yep: you can peel the potatoes the day before!
Take them out of the fridge, drain them, and boil until soft.
Then drain again.
Thanksgiving (or Christmas) Dinner is just once a year.
Because of this, I choose not to take the low-calorie route: salt and pepper, plenty of butter, and milk go into the strained potatoes (I also sometimes use broth, heavy cream, sour cream, or any combination thereof).
When should I make the mashed potatoes for my turkey dinner?
I start boiling the water when the turkey is almost done (e.g., 10 minutes away).
Then I boil and mash the potatoes while the turkey rests.
Before I leave you with that game plan…
Although I don’t include them in the shopping list and game plan below, you could serve Creamy Curried Acorn Squash Soup or Ginger-Turmeric Butternut Squash Soup as an appetizer. It’s fun to portion the soup out into shot glasses and serve “soup shots”.
If you’re cooking for two or a smaller crowd of 4–6, Herbed Roast Duck is a beautiful alternative to turkey. Or, you might consider substituting the turkey and stuffing with One-Pot Cornish Game Hens with Mushroom-Barley Pilaf. It’s a crazy-easy meal to make, and would be a nice departure from the traditional Thanksgiving or Christmas Dinner.
If you need inspiration for eating up all your delicious leftovers, be sure to check out my post on Using Up Leftovers!
And now, we’ve reached the part where I try to help you make a coherent, easy-to-follow, work-ahead holiday dinner meal plan. This strategy is all you need to pull off your holiday gathering like a pro. I call it a “lower-stress” strategy because, let’s face it: there’s always some stress associated with delivering a fantastic Thanksgiving (or Christmas) Dinner for a crowd. It’s practically tradition. Enjoy, and—best of luck!!
Some final notes for our work-ahead holiday dinner meal plan
Here are a few final, important considerations before we get into strategizing our work-ahead holiday dinner meal plan.
To execute this work-ahead holiday dinner, be sure to carefully read not only the guide and shopping list, but also the recipes.
You may have to make adjustments based on your kitchen equipment and size, baking dishes, etc. For example, if you don’t have a toaster oven, you’ll need to make extra drippings for gravy the day beforehand.
I am linking my work-ahead holiday dinner meal plan up with #CookBlogShare, which Cat of Curly’s Cooking is guest-hosting this week, and #BrillBlogPosts, hosted by Honest Mum. Check it out for a great variety of lifestyle-oriented posts!
Note: these were originally created for Thanksgiving Dinner, but they are obviously adaptable to any holiday or special-occasion dinner. For the strategy guide, begin 4 days before your event (e.g., Sunday is Day 1, Monday Day 2, and so on. Thursday is the day of your event).
Work-Ahead Holiday Dinner Meal Plan: the Recipes
Perfect Meal-Prep Creamy Mashed Potatoes: great for busy weeknights or big events where you want to work ahead as much as possible. Peeling and pre-soaking ahead of time removes a lot of the hands-on work from go-time.
Ultimate Classic Roast Turkey: this turkey turns out perfectly juicy every time thanks to a wine-and-butter-soaked cheesecloth that keeps the turkey from drying out for most of the roasting time.
Orange-Ginger-Spice Cranberry Sauce: this will make you wonder why you ever ate store-bought. A fantastic condiment for Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey and more! It’s easy to make a few days in advance and keep in the refrigerator until your big event.
Make-Ahead Green Bean Casserole: made with fresh green beans and a homemade cream-of-mushroom soup that is delicious enough to be eaten on its own.
Easy Sausage Stuffing: a vintage recipe that has been a fixture on the Thanksgiving/Christmas Day table for decades. Perfect for any festive occasion involving turkey, duck, or Cornish game hens.
Easy, Rich Turkey Gravy: a low-fuss, no-frills, lower-stress method for delivering fantastic gravy for a crowd on Thanksgiving or Christmas. It starts with a flavorful turkey stock and delicious pan drippings from your roasted turkey.
Need a recipe for a smaller Holiday Dinner?
If you’re planning a holiday dinner for two, check out my One-Pot Cornish Game Hens with Mushroom-Barley Pilaf. It’s an extra-special meal that’s done in ~1.5 hours—with easy cleanup afterwards! With some additional sides, you can stretch this meal to serve up to 6.
Herbed Roast Duck is perfect for smaller holiday dinner parties. Perfumed with herbs and served with a tangy, aromatics-infused sauce.
One-Pan Meyer Lemon Chicken and Rice is a perfect holiday meal for a small group. Serve with a few sides and you’re good to go! Plus, clean-up is a breeze.
Roast Rack of Lamb-Potato Traybake: Roast Rack of Lamb-Potato Traybake is a super-easy, delicious holiday meal for 2, but easily scalable to as many as 8.
Using up Leftovers: a roundup of my favorite recipes and strategies for using up holiday leftovers. These recipes will make your family AND your pocketbook happy!