Thanksgiving Menu Planning: Stress-Free Holidays for Beginners

Planning Thanksgiving is hard. Like, super stressful. I hosted my first Thanksgiving a couple years ago, when Mr Anderson and I were still engaged, and had all the in-laws over. Wanting to impress them, I planned this amazing menu with way too many intricate dishes. It was nuts. I was nuts. Since then, I’ve figured out a few ways to make Thanksgiving menu planning easier on myself (and the people who have to watch me losing my mind in a kitchen all day).

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Thanksgiving Menu Planning


There are some dishes I just can’t live without. In my mind, these are mostly fairly traditional must-haves. Obviously, there are lots of people who had way different traditions than I did growing up. And besides, not everyone wants “tradition”. So take this list with a grain of salt; add or remove dishes as necessary (or start from scratch).

  1. Appetizers: dips, something to dip with (I love a savoury cracker), hors d’oeuvres, perhaps a soup
  2. A main dish (typically turkey or ham in our household) & gravy!
  3. Stuffing/dressing
  4. Potato dish
  5. Sweet potato/yam dish
  6. Apple dish
  7. Pumpkin dish
  8. Corn dish
  9. Carrot dish
  10. Green vegetable dish
  11. Other vegetables
  12. Cranberry sauce
  13. Bread: rolls, buns, cornbread, etc.
  14. Dessert: pie is my favourite
  15. Beverages: wine, beer, non-alcoholic (plus coffee/tea for after)

I’ve also found a fantastic infographic that helps you figure out how much you need of each item based on the number of people attending.

Please make sure to check the recipes carefully: Are they actually feasible? Have you done those specific techniques before? Do you have the required equipment?

Thanksgiving Menu Planning: Stress-Free Holidays for Beginners @
My amazing Thanksgiving prep helper, Mr Anderson (who took off his shirt to avoid getting sweaty).


If you’ve got a good idea of what dishes you want to make, it’s a good idea to then make a timeline of when things will need to be done. It’s great to plan for as many things to be done ahead of time as possible. Make-aheads are a life-saver come Thanksgiving time.

Plan out starting a day or two (or even a week!) before hand. Desserts tend to be the best make-ahead option.

A second great tip is to have as many non-cooking dishes as possible. Any recipe that only requires some prep and maybe some refrigeration is a winner in my books.

Also make sure at least one or two of your dishes can be done in the slow cooker. Get things away from the stove and oven. You’ll already be filling those up with enough things – prepare things literally anywhere else if possible. Stove-top griddles and such are also amazing at this time of year.

Once you’ve figured out the days leading up to Thanksgiving as well as what can be cooked where, really pour over your recipes. Make sure you are fully aware of just how much work each dish requires. Use that information to make a game plan for the actual day-of. I tend to make four lists:

  1. Prep: when you need to be chopping, slicing, dicing, and doing whatever it is you need to before you send your dish into one of the other lists;
  2. Oven: what you need to bake/broil (including temperatures, another thing that has to be carefully coordinated);
  3. Stove: keep in mind how many elements your stove has and what kinds of pots or pans they will need (shockingly, you can’t plan to use two small saucepans at the same time if you only have one);
  4. Other: these are the dishes that can be cooked elsewhere, as I mentioned above.

Thanksgiving Menu Planning: Stress-Free Holidays for Beginners @

Decor & Serving

This was a huge rookie mistake on my part: I didn’t consider what I was using or where everything was going to actually go. I had plans for a swanky appetizer buffet in the living room, but didn’t consider where these dishes would be put out. I’d made all these amazing dishes for dinner, but didn’t think about serving trays.

Even just basic things like plates and utensils need to be accounted for. Don’t worry about the fancy things like charger plates and table runners until you know you can for sure seat and serve all the people you’ve invited.

If you are the crafty type, everyone appreciates handmade decorations. Simple things like garlands, place settings and centrepieces can really amp up classiness of the meal.


Is there anything else you think someone (especially a millennial newbie like myself) might overlook this holiday season? Share your tips and tricks in the comments.

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