A Well-Planned Thanksgiving: How I Organize Thanksgiving Dinner

Pomegranate Citrus Relish by Cook Smarts
The first Thanksgiving dinner I cooked wasn’t actually on Thanksgiving but some random day in the winter of 2003 my senior year of college. It was my turn to cook dinner for our co-op of 50 housemates, and I was determined to cook my first Thanksgiving meal!

It was basic but had all the classics: turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, and pumpkin pie. I got home from class in the morning and spent the rest of the day prepping and cooking in our industrial-sized kitchen. Minus a few moments of panic (because who cooks dinner for 50 completely relaxed?), dinner went very well. No burnt or undercooked turkey was served, and it gave birth to a tradition of “Friendsgiving” dinners (Thanksgiving-themed dinners for friends not actually on Thanksgiving).

Cooking these types of large dinners early on in my life got me in the habit of spreadsheeting cooking schedules. This habit came in very handy when I started a small catering business in my mid-twenties. When you have multiple dishes, multiple chefs, and limited kitchen resources (like 1 oven for 5 dishes that all need to be baked or roasted), you learn to plan ahead to make sure everything that needs to get done actually gets done.

As I was planning out this year’s menu and schedule for Thanksgiving dinner, I thought I’d share with you how I organize Thanksgiving. I confess, it’s a bit crazy (or maybe I’m a bit crazy) but this type of planning has made cooking these huge feasts so much more manageable.

What I like to do is start from dinnertime and work backwards from there. An average turkey can take 4 hours to cook and you want to rest it for at least 30 minutes. Working backwards from say a 5:00 PM dinner, you want that turkey in the oven no later than 12:30 pm. I like to do it by dish, but you can also do it by person, so everyone knows their tasks. I will have a team of 5 sous chefs this Thanksgiving and they are going to have a busy day with me in the kitchen.

I use an Excel-based organizer that allows me to enter dinner start time, menu, diners (and their diet restrictions), helpers, and the location of your meal. I’ve designed it so that it’ll even count up all the different types of dishes I’m serving so I can decide if I don’t have enough or too much of anything easily. Yes, I am a huge nerd!

If you want to download it for yourself too, go here and enter your email. You’ll be signed up for my awesome newsletter and the organizer will be immediately sent to you as well.

Even if you don’t go through the process of meticulously planning every step of the meal (I wouldn’t blame you – extreme planning is not for everyone), definitely jot down your menu and diners as a memento of this fun day using my Thanksgiving Organizer or not. We know that who you shared this meal with is the most important part of Thanksgiving, regardless of how you got there.

I wish you all a wonderful Thanksgiving next week! Please do report back on what you’re making in the comments below.

PS: Don’t forget to enter our Thanksgiving giveaway! Click on the image below for details.

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