How to Survive Thanksgiving: Easy Thanksgiving Menu Planning

Thanksgiving Menu Planning: Stress-Free Holidays for Beginners @

Hosting Thanksgiving is stressful. Like, super stressful. Thanksgiving menu planning doesn’t have to be.

I hosted my first Thanksgiving way back 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).

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

Thanksgiving Menu Planning

Plan the Food

Start with the most important – what food do you like and/or do you want to serve?

If you’re stuck, there are lots of great places you can look for ideas, such as:

  • Your own traditions – think back to your childhood
  • Flip through your favourite magazines or look on their websites (Country Living has extensive Thanksgiving lists and Canadian Living is full of great ideas)
  • Look through some cookbooks – try your local library if you don’t have any that work
  • Ask family members or friends what they like
  • Search on Google and/or Pinterest

I start with a list of broad categories of dishes and work from there. You can add or remove from this list as needed, or create your own with your own favourite Thanksgiving meal ideas:

  1. Appetizers: dips, something to dip with (I love a savoury cracker), hors d’oeuvres, perhaps a soup
  2. A main dish! For us, that traditionally meant turkey or ham, though lately Mom been making an amazing beef roast.
  3. Stuffing/dressing
  4. Potato dish (mashed for me)
  5. Sweet potato dish (candied for me)
  6. Apple dish
  7. Corn dish
  8. Carrot dish
  9. Green vegetable dish
  10. Cranberry sauce (for me, if it’s not shaped like a can, it’s not the right cranberry sauce, but I know that’s a controversial opinion)
  11. Pumpkin dish (probably dessert but maybe something savoury)
  12. Bread: rolls, buns, cornbread, etc.
  13. Dessert: pie is my favourite
  14. Beverages: wine, beer, non-alcoholic (plus coffee/tea for after)

That looks like a lot of food – and it is! Scale back if you don’t have a lot of people coming, or if you don’t have a lot of time, or if you just want to go easy on yourself. It’s better to do a few dishes really well than a bunch of dishes only okay.

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.

Make sure to check your recipes very carefully:

  • Are they actually feasible?
  • Do you have the skills required to complete the dishes?
  • Have you done those specific techniques before?
  • Do you have the required equipment?

Choose Easier Dishes to Reduce Stress

  • Find as many make-ahead dishes as possible. The less you have to do actually on the day, the better. Desserts tend to be the best make-ahead option.
  • Look for dishes that don’t require actual cooking. Any recipe that only requires some prep and maybe some refrigeration is a winner in my books.
  • Make sure at least one or two of your dishes can be done in the slow cooker. Not only does that mean you can pace yourself out a bit when it comes time to cook, but you also get things away from the stove and oven. You’ll already be filling those up with enough things – cook things literally anywhere else if possible. Stove-top griddles, air fryers, and other such appliances are fantastic options, too.
An image of a table with fall decor and Thanksgiving foods, with a person slicing pumpkin pie

Create a Timeline

If you’ve got a good idea of what dishes you want to make, then it’s time to start thinking about when and how it’s going to all get done.

Go over all of your recipes again and start planning out how your day is going to work. Make sure you are fully aware of just what each dish requires and make a game plan.

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 it can be cooked (or chilled if it’s a make-ahead meal, meaning your prep timeline may start several days before Thanksgiving);
  2. Oven: what you need to bake/broil (including temperatures, another thing that has to be carefully coordinated) and for how long;
  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, like the slow cooker, as I mentioned above.

Mom also has this great printable Countdown to Thanksgiving Checklist that may help you keep everything organized!

Thanksgiving Menu Planning: Stress-Free Holidays for Beginners @

Think About Decor & Serving

My huge rookie mistake: I didn’t consider what I was using or where everything was going to actually go.

You even need to account for basic things like plates and utensils. 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.

Mom taught me a great trick to get everything ready beforehand: as you’re menu planning, start pulling out the serving dishes, platters, etc. and put them where you want them to go on the day. Then, get little bits of paper and label each item to show what food goes with it.

If you are the crafty type, everyone appreciates handmade decorations. Simple things like garlands, place settings and centerpieces can really amp up classiness of the meal. Just make sure they’re done well in advance in case something goes wrong.

Overall, though, keep the decor simple and don’t overdo it.

Everything should be decorated no later than the day before (if possible – I understand that kids and pets sometimes play a factor in your party prep). Lastly, don’t forget to make sure all of your dishes, utensils, and platters are clean and ready to go!

An image with fall decorations and a sign that reads "thankful & blessed."


I hope these steps make your Thanksgiving menu planning as easy and stress-free as possible. Now all that’s left to do is cook and host, but with this planning hopefully that should be a breeze.

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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