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How to Pull Off the Perfect Thanksgiving

Updated October 27, 2017
Tackling your first Turkey Day but don’t know where to start? Betty breaks it down for you in this step-by-step timeline that takes you from planning the menu to dishing up dinner for your guests.

Thanksgiving may be the most anticipated meal of the whole year and for good reason — it’s a delicious feast we get to enjoy with loved ones. For the host though, the expectation of a perfect meal can lead to a lot of anxiety. But fear not! We have all the recipes you need to wow the crowd, as well as the clever cooking tips that save you time, money and stress.

Exhibit A: This handy two-week timeline, with step-by-step instructions for planning the meal, from shopping to make ahead tasks to carving the bird.

Now, let’s get started planning the perfect Thanksgiving!

2 WEEKS AHEAD: Formulate Your Game Plan


Confirm headcounts with your guests.

Make your menu. We recommend Betty’s Classic Thanksgiving Menu, which comes with a handy printable shopping list and includes the dishes below.

If you plan to serve wine, make your selections.

Pro Tip: If any guests have volunteered to bring a dish, don’t forget to take that into account when making your menu.

1 WEEK AHEAD: Plan Well to Avoid Panic Later


Buy your ingredients. Here’s that handy shopping list again.

Check to ensure you have the necessary equipment. If you’re following Betty’s Classic Thanksgiving Menu, the list of every tool you’ll need is below.

  • Shallow roasting pan, large enough to accommodate your turkey
  • Ovenproof meat thermometer
  • 4-quart Dutch oven
  • 3-quart casserole dish or glass baking dish
  • 2-quart casserole dish or glass baking dish 
  • 1 ½-quart casserole dish or glass baking dish
  • 10-inch skillet
  • 3-quart saucepan
  • Cookie sheet
  • 2 glass pie plates, 9-inches
  • Cooling rack
  • Mixing bowls, of various sizes
  • Liquid measuring cup
  • Solid measuring cups
  • Pastry blender or 2 kitchen knives
  • Potato Masher
  • Electric mixer
  • Wire whisk
  • Rolling pin
  • Aluminum foil
Pro Tips: Learn how to pick out a perfect turkey.

5 DAYS AHEAD: Take Care of That Turkey

remove foil for last two hours of turkey’s dry brining

If your turkey is frozen, allow ample time to thaw it in the fridge. Thawing time depends on the size of your turkey — a 20-24 pound bird will need up to five days to thaw. Use our thawing chart to determine how much time your bird will need.

Pro Tip: Are you reading this on Thanksgiving morning? Don’t panic, you can also thaw your turkey on the fly.

2 DAYS AHEAD: Brine Your Bird

Turkey being lowered into wet brine

If you want to brine your bird, you’ll need to begin prepping ahead, especially if you dry brine. Brining makes your turkey extra juicy and flavorful. 

  • To dry brine using our recipe for Lemon, Garlic & Herb Dry-Brined Turkey, you’ll need to begin prepping 52 hours ahead. 
  • To wet brine using our recipe for Brined Whole Turkey, you’ll need to begin prepping 12 hours and 30 minutes ahead. Note, you’ll also need a clean bucket or noncorrosive stockpot large enough to immerse your turkey in brine.
Pro Tip: Brining is a delicious way to cook a turkey but it is certainly not the only way. All the details about following our top-rated Roast Turkey recipe – also from Betty’s Classic Thanksgiving Menu – are laid out below.

1 DAY AHEAD: Prep Sides & Bake Pies


Prep your Velvet Mashed Potatoes: – Prepare the potatoes and spoon them into a greased 2-quart baking dish; store covered in the fridge.

Prep your Green Bean Casserole: Mix up the ingredients in a 1 ½-quart baking dish and store covered in the fridge.

Make your Classic Cranberry Sauce: Cooking cranberries doesn’t take much time at all. When they’re finished, pour them into your serving bowl, since they’ll set during the chilling process.

Prep your pies.

  • Bake your Pumpkin Pie: One of our favorite things about this custardy pie is that it’s served chilled and can be stored in the fridge for up to three days. Make it ahead, chill and then forget about it until dessert time.
  • Prep your Decadent Pecan Pie: Even if you want to serve this pie warm, you can still mostly make it ahead. Make the crust and pie filling — just leave out the nuts or else they’ll get soggy — and store both covered in the fridge.
  • Make your Homemade Whipped Cream: For an extra special touch, you can even make whipped cream ahead — as detailed here under “Expert Tips”— and freeze perfect-sized dollops. If you don’t get around to this step, don’t worry. It only takes a few minutes to make homemade whipped cream.

Set your table, so you can have fun decorating. If you want to really impress, you could make your own centerpiece.

Pro Tip: For more dishes you can make ahead, check out these recipes.


Turkey being salted for dry brine

The turkey is the star of your meal. Once it’s in the oven, you can work on the supporting dishes, but first you need to take care of your VIB (very important bird)! This timeline will help you take Thanksgiving dinner from oven to table without a hitch, so let’s get started.

First, remember that turkey is done when it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F. The time it takes to reach this temperature will depend on the size of the turkey.

Our timeline begins six hours before dinner, but you many not need the full six hours, so here’s how to customize the timeline to fit your needs and deliver dinner on schedule. 

  1. Determine how long your turkey will need to roast using our Poultry Roasting Timetable.
  2. Add one hour to the roasting time to account for prepping the turkey and allowing it to rest — about 30 minutes before and after roasting.
  3. Subtract the total turkey cook-time — roasting time plus one hour — from the time you want to serve the meal to determine when you need to start cooking.

For example, if you are cooking an 8-12 pound turkey, it will need 2.75-3 hours to roast, plus an additional 1 hour for prep and setting up. This means you should start the timeline 4 hours before dinnertime. Get it? Got it? Good!

6 Hours Ahead: It’s Turkey Time

Prep your Bread Stuffing, if you plan to cook it inside the bird.

Prep your Roast Turkey by removing the giblets, rinsing and drying the cavity. If you wish, cook up giblets on the stove to use for gravy.

Pro Tip: Before you heat your oven, figure out how you need to arrange the racks so your turkey can fit on top and still leave room to slide a few casseroles onto the rack below. If it’s not possible to fit anything other than your turkey in the oven, consider making some of your sides in your slow cooker.

5 Hours Ahead: Take on the Smaller Tasks


Mix up the dough for Cheese-Garlic Biscuits and put the dough in the fridge, so you can bake off the biscuits right before dinner and serve them hot.

Cook your Candied Sweet Potatoes, so all that’s left is glazing right before serving.

Wash greens and make a dressing, if you plan to serve a salad.

Put together a cheese plate, so your guests have something to nibble on when they arrive.

Pro Tip: Stow a metal mixing bowl in the freezer, if you plan to serve your pie with Homemade Whipped Cream on top.

2 Hours before: Take Care of Yourself

Get cleaned up and dressed for dinner, before it’s too late!

1 Hour Before: Bake Off the Casseroles

Green Bean Casserole

Pull your Velvet Mashed Potatoes out of the fridge and drizzle with 2-3 tablespoons of butter before putting them in a 350°F oven. They’ll need 40-45 minutes to heat through.

Pop your Green Bean Casserole into the oven, since it’s already at 350°F. Check the casserole after 20-25 minutes. Since it’ll be cold from the fridge, it may need extra time. You’ll know it’s done when it’s bubbling. Finally, don’t forget to add the onions during the last five minutes of baking.

Now’s the time to make Bread Stuffing, if you chose not to stuff your bird.

30 Minutes Before: You’re Almost There!

How to Cook Turkey

Remove the turkey from the oven and place it on a carving board or platter. Loosely cover with aluminum foil and let stand for 20 minutes; this will ensure your turkey is moist and perfect before you begin carving.

Pull any cold dishes out of the fridge, like salad or Classic Cranberry Sauce and give them any finishing touches needed.

Bake off your Cheese-Garlic Biscuits. This will be a breeze since you’ve got a hot oven and biscuit dough that’s ready to go. Just remember to set your timer!

Glaze the Classic Candied Sweet Potatoes on the stove.

20 Minutes Before: It’s All Gravy


Make our Foolproof Gravy with the fat and juices from your roasted turkey or giblets.

Start arranging your hot dishes on the table or buffet.

10 Minutes Before: Plate It Up


Carve the turkey and plate it.

Bake off your Decadent Pecan Pie now that the oven is finally free. Since you prepped the crust and filling ahead, this should take all of 5 minutes — just line the shell with nuts, pour in the filling and bake. Again, don’t forget to set a timer!

Set out your water pitcher and any other drinks you plan to serve.

Once everyone has brought their plate to the table, raise a toast to family, friends, delicious food and memories shared together. It’s time to feast!

Want to know the answers to everyone’s most frequently asked cooking questions? Find them in Betty’s Thanksgiving Cheat Sheet.