Your Last-Minute Thanksgiving Survival Guide

We’re in the final countdown to Turkey Day and, because I know you probably need it, I’ve put together a list of last-minute Thanksgiving tips. Give it a read and make sure everything’s set for the big day!



The Table

Set the table ahead of time. If you don’t have matching china, no sweat. You can create a beautiful eclectic look by mixing and matching dinnerware, glassware, and stemware. Try to stick to a cohesive color palette, and maintain a few consistent elements (matching napkins, for example) to keep things looking polished.

Get scrappy with your table decor. Got a bag of frozen cranberries? Fill the base of candle jars for an easy, decorative touch. Have a pine tree in your backyard? Snip a few branches and arrange down the center of the table. You get the idea. You can even make placemats or a whole tablecloth out of brown craft paper, and let guests scribble down what they’re thankful for over the course of the meal.

Decide where guests are sitting, and make place cards. I’m generally pro-assigned seating when it comes to Thanksgiving. It’s just comforting knowing that family feuds won’t erupt, and conversation will (hopefully) flow feely throughout the meal. Place cards don’t have to be fancy, but they are something you can have fun with. Try writing guests’ names on fall leaves, or for a more adult crowd, making homemade labels and tying to airplane shots of Wild Turkey Bourbon.

Autumn setting with candles

The Mood

Light some candles. Tea lights and even white pillar candles are very inexpensive, and just placing these throughout the house can add a warm glow and a cozy touch.

Turn on the tunes. Here are some great Thanksgiving playlists.

Play a game. My family will forever be playing our classic salad bowl game, which contains elements of both Catch Phrase and charades, and offers enormous entertainment potential largely based on the amount of wine the group has consumed. This site also has a number of family-friendly, Thanksgiving-themed games.


The Drinks

Keep ’em cold. Remember to put cold drinks in the refrigerator (or outside if it’s cold enough) the night before the big event.

Stock a bar cart. Go easy on yourself and let your guests prepare their own drinks. Set up a bar cart with as many of the essentials as possible: bourbon, cointreau or triple sec, gin, rum, tequila, scotch, dry and sweet vermouth, and vodka. Make sure you have wine and beer available, too, as well as nonalcoholic options.

Mull wine. Add red wine and mulling spices to a crockpot, set to low, and forget about it. Bonus: your house will smell amazing.


The Food

Finish planning and shopping. Hopefully you have your menu planned by now. If you’re still doing grocery runs, make sure these essentials are on your list: butter, stock, fresh herbs, garlic, whipped cream, ice, and booze.

Take inventory. Pick out serving dishes and utensils for each dish, and label with sticky notes. Make sure you’re not forgetting anything, and that you have the right dishes for each menu item.

Dedicate Wednesday to cooking. Look through your recipes and figure out everything that can be done ahead of time, then do all those things! Check out the nifty timeline at the bottom of this post for help.

Recruit helpers! There’s no shame in putting your hubby and kids to work as long as they’re getting a fantastic Thanksgiving meal out of it!

Keep your apps simple. No one is going to hate on a well crafted charcuterie board or cheese plate.

Consider the casserole. Casseroles can be made entirely ahead of time, then popped in the oven once the turkey comes out for reheating. Rescue gluey potatoes or overcooked veggies by spreading in a casserole dish with some cream, topping with parmesan cheese or breadcrumbs, and crisping under the broiler.

Remember, it doesn’t all have to be homemade. No one is going to care if you use a store-bought pie crust or start with boxed stuffing.

Utilize your grill. If you’re running low on oven space, fire up the grill and use as a second oven or stovetop. Just please, make sure it remains outside the house.

Keep food warm. Pre-heat your serving dishes, utilize your slow cooker for things like mashed potatoes or dressing, and reheat sliced turkey in the oven with a ladleful of warm stock.

Serve dinner family-style or set up a buffet. Individual plating is just not realistic for Thanksgiving, and doesn’t fit spirit of the holiday in my opinion.


FATQs – Frequently Asked [Turkey] Questions

How early can I buy it? A frozen turkey can be purchased up to a year in advance. A fresh one should be picked up no more than two days before the big event.

How much do I buy? One pound per person, or a pound and a half per person if you’re counting on having leftovers

How do I defrost it? Allow one day for every four pounds of turkey (a 12-pound turkey will take three days to defrost, for example). Place the turkey on a large rimmed platter or in a bowl, and thaw in the refrigerator. It will defrost faster if you remove the neck and giblets from the cavity as soon as possible (you may need to defrost it for at least a day first before you can do this). Do not thaw your turkey at room temperature.

What if I need to cook two turkeys? Rather than roasting two separate birds, roast one (and use it as your centerpiece), while simultaneously roasting a tray of turkey parts on a separate rack underneath. (Here’s a recipe). The parts will cook up nice and quick, and are easy to carve.

How long do I cook it?

Size of turkey Approximate cook time at 350 degrees
9 to 11 pounds 2½ hours
12 to 14 pounds 3 hours
15 to 17 pounds 3½ hours
18 to 20 pounds 4 hours
21 to 23 pounds 4½ hours
24+ pounds 5+ hours

How do I know when it’s done? When the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees.

Your Last Minute Thanksgiving Timeline

Use this timeline, courtesy of The Kitchn, to make sure everything gets prepped, cooked, and served on time:

Thanksgiving TimelineTake a deep breath; I have complete confidence in you! Remember, Thanksgiving is all about being grateful for the blessings in our lives. Even if you burn your casserole, forget the whipped cream, or drop some mashed potatoes on the floor, remember how much you did pull off, and most importantly, enjoy the company of the loved ones around you (who probably don’t care whether or not you burnt the casserole).


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