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On your mark, get set, give thanks!

After last year’s pared-down celebrations, many of us are feeling eager to pull out all the stops on Thanksgiving 2021. Bring on all things Turkey Day: The turkey trots! The soups! The stuffings! The pies! Uncle Ed’s political diatribes we didn’t have to hear last year! (OK, maybe not all things…)

That said, it’s understandable if you’re feeling a bit rusty on your hosting skills. Jumping back into not just socializing but having an entire group of people at your home may seem like a prescription for stress, not celebration.

Wanna get back into T-Day hosting shape? A scheduled, step-by-step strategy is your best bet. That’s why we’ve broken down the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving into small, easy-to-tackle tasks that’ll turn you into the host with the most.

So grab your baster and lace up those apron strings. You’ve got the eye of the tiger turkey.

To start week one, a word of encouragement: Thanksgiving is still almost 4 weeks away. You’ve got plenty of time to plan a celebration that’ll go down in the books as memorable AF (in a good way, not a remember-that-time-the-turkey-caught-on-fire way).

Week one of your Turkey Day training plan is all about setting high level goals.

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Set a budget

You definitely won’t be giving thanks after a lavish dinner that puts you in the red right before Christmas. So consider: How much makes sense to shell out, all told, for the big day? You may prefer to come up with an overall figure or work it out per person. From there, it’s helpful to subdivide your total into categories, like food, drinks, and decor.

If your budget is on the smaller side, that’s OK — maybe it just means you provide the turkey and a place to gather, while your guests pitch in with everything else.

Thanksgiving on a budget: 5 ways to cut costs

  • Spices can be pricey and can add up when you’re buying a dozen different ones to flavor all your dishes. Check the bulk bins at your local health-food store. Or ask a friend if you can snag 1/4 teaspoon of their ground cloves so you don’t have to splurge on a whole bottle. Maybe even do a spice swap!
  • If you’re cooking for a small squad, you don’t need to invest in a whole turkey. Try a turkey breast, which is every bit as delicious but easier on your wallet.
  • When it comes to table decor, walk outside and forage for leaves, greenery, pine cones, and other things you can snag for free to create a festive table. Fresh herbs make great accents, too — if you’ve got leftover rosemary or sage, place a sprig on each plate.
  • Tap into free printables online to create place cards, menus, and more.
  • Instead of spending a bundle on fresh flower arrangements that will wilt in a week, invest in dried flowers that you can reuse year after year.
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Make a guest list

Is this a family affair? A Friendsgiving? A mix of the two? For many of us, the pandemic year was a chance to reflect on who we really want to spend time with… and who we don’t. So, unless you’ve been handed an obligatory premade list (thanks, Mom), give some thought to who you’d genuinely like to see at the celebration.

Meanwhile, there’s the question of how many people you actually have space for. Inviting everyone from your Meemaw to your mail carrier is a nice gesture, but if it means they’ll be sitting in a dark corner with a plate balanced on their lap, it’s time to cull the guest list.

Choose a theme

No, a theme isn’t strictly necessary (and Thanksgiving is basically a theme in itself). But crafting your decor and even your menu around a common thread adds a signature touch. This fall holiday encompasses tons of elements you could easily pull out as a theme: autumn leaves, pumpkins, or cornucopias, perhaps?

If you’d like to put an even more meaningful spin on things, embrace your personal cultural heritage with a (fill-in-the-culture)-themed Thanksgiving. Or choose a single color, a travel destination, or a favorite fall activity as the essence of the party.

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Plan a menu

There’s no denying that Thanksgiving is all about the food — so what are you gonna serve? First up, settle the question of whether you’re providing the turkey (or another main course if you’re not a meat eater or would just rather do something different).

From there, determine additional dinner essentials. At the bare minimum, you’ll likely want a starch, a vegetable, and a dessert — but there are no hard-and-fast rules about what “counts” as Thanksgiving fare. (You can use your theme as a guide for which menu items should make an appearance.)

Finally, once you’ve made a basic road map, decide who’s bringing what. Is Aunt Carol famous for her cornbread stuffing? Let her go for it! Know one of your friends can’t cook their way out of a paper bag? Put ’em on wine duty.

Send invitations

Week one is just about a wrap! Now that you’ve taken care of basic business, it’s time to invite some actual people. Depending on your style (and the relationships you have with your guests), this can, of course, be as simple as a text, phone call, or email.

Where to find digital invitations

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On the other hand, who doesn’t like getting real mail? For a more formal touch, send out paper invitations that correspond to your theme. And don’t forget to include what you’d like each person to bring. Thanksgiving is the one time you can feel free to be a little bossy about food assignments.

Welcome to week two! This week you’ll be staying the course, crossing off a few more basic tasks on your Thanksgiving prep list.

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Lock in your menu

Now’s the time — as politely as possible — to channel your inner fussbudget. Follow up decisively with anyone who got lost in the text thread or never answered your email. Will they and their brussels sprout salad be joining you? Getting a yes (or reassigning if you get a no) will allow you to firm up your menu.

Shop for nonperishables

We’ve all been there: Grocery shopping with the zombie hordes on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, wondering why, for the love of pumpkin pie, we didn’t do this weeks ago. Well, here you are, 2 weeks ahead! Take advantage of the lead time by making a grocery trip for nonperishables now (before all the crispy fried onions are gone).

Plan and purchase your decor

Last week you landed on a theme for your festivities. Did you choose fall colors? Glitter and gold? The Mandalorian? (No judgment — we give thanks for Baby Yoda too.) Now, give your chosen theme some legs by planning out your decor.

If your decorating budget is tight, focus funds on your tablescape. The table is, after all, where everyone will be spending most of their time on the big day. Or, if you’ve got a little more financial wiggle room, create a welcoming display at your doorway, decorate a bar cart, or disperse pops of color throughout your living space.

Just as with grocery shopping, it’s smart to do decor shopping early. This week, visit your local craft store to load up on supplies (or simplify things even more by placing an online order).

Cooking and serving gear checklist

Is your kitchen outfitted for Thanksgiving success? Use this checklist to be sure.

Cooking equipmentServing gear
roasting panlarge, sturdy platter for turkey
meat thermometerother platters and serving bowls
kitchen twinepie dishes
pots and panspie servers
potato masherserving spoons
cutting boardgravy boat
measuring cups and spoonssilverware
kitchen knivesplates
whiskglasses (including wine glasses)
can openercontainers for leftovers

T-minus 1 week till Thanksgiving! You’re on track to nail a low stress holiday, so don’t stop now. This week you’ll be narrowing your focus to the finer details of the big day.

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Make a cooking game plan

Queue up your action-jam playlist and synchronize your watches! Week three is the time to make a plan for Thanksgiving cooking.

If you’re just providing turkey, you won’t have much to strategize, but those who will be supplying sides, desserts, and more will need a play-by-play to ensure everything gets on the table more or less simultaneously.

Take stock of each dish you plan to make. Can some be cooked or baked ahead of time? Awesome. Make a note on your calendar of when you plan to prep. Likewise, smaller steps like chopping veggies or mixing up pie fillings can help you shortcut your way to a less harried Thanksgiving.

As for prep work that has to happen on Turkey Day, create a stepwise plan for when you’ll complete each task. (Go ahead and nerd out with a spreadsheet or time management app!) You’ll feel a whole lot better heading into the day with some solid organization.

Turkey tips: To thaw… or not to thaw?

The pressure to make a flawless turkey is one of THE most stressful parts of Thanksgiving. But it doesn’t have to be! Here are some quick pointers on thawing times to set you up for success…along with cooking times if you choose not to thaw at all.

  • Thawing time varies depending on weight and whether you thaw in the fridge or in cold water. This thawing calculator — courtesy of the fine folks at Butterball — does all the figuring for you.
  • If you’re cooking a frozen turkey, allow for estimated cooking times as follows (note that these are approximate, so you still need to be diligent about checking your bird):
    • 8–12 pounds = 4 hours
    • 12–14 pounds = 4.5–5.5 hours
    • 14–18 pounds = 6–6.5 hours
    • 18–20 pounds = 6.5–7 hours
    • 20+ pounds = 7+ hours
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Do a tablescape run-through

OK, so you hit Michaels and assembled the goods for a stunning tablescape. Now for the fun part: putting it all together. This week, take time to run through the final draft of your decorative setup. Snap a quick photo so you can re-create it exactly next Thursday.

Oh, and pro tip: Consider place cards that designate where each guest will sit, especially if you know certain people might not make the friendliest dinner companions. (You’ll thank us later.)

Favorite places to score table decor

  • Etsy (for linen napkins, wreaths, and more)
  • Amazon (for candles and inexpensive extra tableware)
  • World Market (for candles, cloth napkins, and seasonal accents)
  • JOANN (for crafty DIY accents)
  • Michaels (for DIY everything)
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Pre-delegate and remind guests what to bring

You may believe that no self-respecting host ever answers the question “What can I do to help?” with anything but “I’ve got it covered!” But on Thanksgiving, your kitchen is firing on all cylinders, and there’s no shame in letting others pitch in.

In fact, you can get ahead of the game (and make things go even more smoothly) by assigning a few Turkey Day jobs this week. Reach out to some of your more reliable guests to delegate tasks you know will need doing. A friend who used to bartend can play mixologist, and your strong-armed cousin can slice the turkey. If you have a partner, a spouse, or kids, now’s the time to set expectations for help with them too.

It also doesn’t hurt to shoot out a few texts reminding everyone of your address, the time dinner’s starting, and what they’re bringing.

Come up with games and talking point ideas

Don’t underestimate the power of a great game to get the party started. While diving into a lively game of Twister post-feast is probably not a stellar idea, other board games offer good wholesome fun both before and after dinner. Be sure to pull out some of your favorites this week or gather a few word games that everyone can play.

Even during dinner, you can stimulate the conversation — and steer it away from touchy topics — by coming up with preset discussion starters.

Try writing down open-ended questions or conversation prompts and placing one under each guest’s dinner plate or tucked into their napkin. Invite family members to share favorite memories from their childhood, embarrassing moments, or worst vacation stories.

You’re almost there! Your slow and steady efforts culminate this week with just a few finishing touches. Pretty soon you’ll be sitting back (with a glass of chardonnay, perhaps?) and giving thanks for the fruits of your labor.

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Spread out your chores

You know you’ll be busy cooking on Thanksgiving Day — do you really want to be dusting shelves and cleaning toilets too? Save yourself some headache by spreading out housecleaning and other chores early in the week.

If you have kids or pets, your house may not look absolutely immaculate by the time Thursday rolls around, but it should be close enough.

Shop for food

Yes, you’ll probably have to face the zombie hordes for a wee bit of grocery shopping this week (sorry!). Fresh ingredients really do have to be purchased just a few days in advance. Even so, if you can swing it, shopping at odd hours (like early in the morning or later in the evening) can make the experience a bit less harrowing.

Prep your make-ahead dishes

That make-ahead pumpkin pie you made note of last week? Git ’er done! The days leading up to Thanksgiving are prime time for prepping any food items that can hang out in your fridge for the duration.

Get your decor on

Similarly, use your time wisely in the early days of week four by making some decorating magic. Hang the leafy wreaths, put the pumpkins out on the stoop, and fire up the glue gun for those DIY gourd candle holders you spotted on Pinterest. Then, the night before Thanksgiving, don’t forget to lay the scene by setting up your tablescape.

Tackle the plan on the big day

It’s (finally) time to talk turkey! On Thanksgiving Day, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is simply to follow the steps you outlined for yourself in week three.

And don’t forget one very important (but often neglected) must-do: Before carving the turkey, carve out a bit of time for yourself with a leisurely walk, a soak in the tub, or even a meditation session. If you’ve had a chilled-out day, you’ll be a much chiller host.

The ultimate turkey prep checklist, from brine to carving

Turning a frozen turkey into a juicy main dish may take work, but it’s totally doable, even for cooking newbies. Follow these steps:

  1. Thaw the turkey in the refrigerator. The USDA recommends 24 hours of thawing for every 4–5 pounds.
  2. Once it’s thawed, brine that baby! (Check out our guide to brining here.) Brining should be done 12–24 hours prior to cooking.
  3. Cook the turkey using your favorite method — smoking, roasting, and spatchcocking are all fair game. Just make sure the meat reaches an internal temperature of 165°F.
  4. Let the meat rest for at least 15 minutes (but longer resting, like 30+ minutes, is even better).
  5. Carve: Start by removing the leg and thigh on one side, and then slice off the breast and wing on the same side. Repeat on the other side. Set the carcass aside and cut up the meat as desired.
  6. Serve on a large serving platter.