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How To Cook A Classic Thanksgiving Dinner – A Step By Step Guide

This year your Thanksgiving Dinner may look way different than what you have experienced in the past.

You may be used to heading to a large family gathering and bringing a single side dish.

Thanksgiving dinner
This may be your first year making a complete Thanksgiving Dinner from start to finish. Follow the tips below to make the process easy so that you can enjoy the company of your family.

Or you may be the one that is responsible to prepare the turkey every year, but have never had to worry about saving space to cook side dishes in your own kitchen.

Whatever the case may be, this year you may be responsible for making the entire Thanksgiving dinner from start to finish.

That is why we decided to share how we prepare our classic holiday meal. Our hope is that we can help decrease the stress and chaos on such a special day.

And who knows, maybe new family traditions will blossom this year!

How To Prepare A Classic Thanksgiving Dinner

The first thing that we need to do is clarify is that this is our version of a classic holiday meal.

sweet potatoes
Although at our large family gatherings we have more side dishes to choose from, this year we will be having a classic Thanksgiving dinner.

We understand that demographically, you may have your own traditional recipes that are served at the dinner table on Thanksgiving.

However, this article is to serve as a guide on how to complete the meal from start to finish.

Therefore, please feel free to substitute your favorite recipes to make your Thanksgiving the way that you and your family will love!

The Turkey

If you haven’t already purchased your turkey, please consider to do so as soon as possible. This is especially true if you are getting a frozen bird.

frozen turkeys
Be sure to purchase your frozen turkey early this year if at all possible. With many more people cooking Thanksgiving dinner at home, the grocery stores may have less of a selection to choose from. (editorial credit: ZikG /

More people are going to have to cook their Thanksgiving dinner at home this year. And the frozen turkeys are dwindling quickly at several grocery stores.

Of course, before you purchase it, be sure that you have room to store it in the freezer.

The size of the turkey that you will need is based on the number of guests that will be at your dinner table. As a general rule of thumb, plan for 1 1/4 pounds of turkey per person.

A Week Before Thanksgiving

Now that you have your turkey, it is time to plan out the rest of your menu.

If you are sticking to a classic Thanksgiving dinner the side dishes would likely consist of mashed potatoes, corn, and dressing.

We have always had mashed potatoes on our Thanksgiving menu. However, you may prefer sweet potatoes or Scalloped potatoes. The choice is up to you!

Then there are dinner rolls, turkey gravy, cranberry sauce, and of course, pumpkin pie!

So plan your menu, order your groceries, and pick them up the week before the big day!

4 Days Before Thanksgiving

Now that you have your menu and groceries it is time to put the cooking timeline together.

4 days before the big feast, place the frozen turkey into the refrigerator to thaw.

If you have never purchased a frozen turkey before, you will be shocked at how long it takes for it to thaw out. And the safest method of thawing is to place it in the refrigerator.

Two Days Before Thanksgiving

Now that your Thanksgiving dinner is just 2 days away, it is time to start preparing the recipes that you can make ahead.

No matter what type of pie that you choose to make, be sure to do it a couple of days before Thanksgiving to save you time on the actual holiday.

You can make your pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, and even your dinner rolls on this day.

Just be sure to refrigerate the pie and cranberry sauce until you are ready to serve.

As for the dinner rolls, making them ahead of time will ensure that you have enough space and time to cook your turkey in the oven.

Simply bake them and then store in an air-tight container. Then you can reheat them after your remove the turkey from the oven.

homemade dinner rolls
There is nothing like Homemade Sweet Dinner Rolls. And best of all, they can be made in advance of your dinner.

We love to serve either our Sweet Dinner Rolls and Parker Rolls Recipe on Thanksgiving. However, you could even buy store-bought rolls to make it even easier on yourself if you prefer.

The Day Before

The countdown is on! Tomorrow is your Thanksgiving dinner and it is time to get the final touches prepared.

The first thing that you want to do is to tear your bread (or cornbread) into cubes and allow them to dry out overnight.

See our full instructions on how to make our Homemade Dressing recipe.

bread cubes
My parents used this stainless steel bowl for Thanksgiving every year. I now carry on the tradition and use it to make this Slow Cooker Dressing recipe.

Of course, if you use dried bread cubes instead of fresh bread, you can skip this step.

Brine Your Turkey

However, the most important thing that you can do the day before your Thanksgiving dinner is to brine your turkey!

You will be amazed at the difference that this will make in the quality of your roasted turkey. It will produce the best, moist and juicy turkey that you have ever had!

Although there are several recipes out there for brining liquid, we use a simple and easy to make brine recipe.

Thanksgiving dinner brine
The best thing that you can do to make sure that your turkey is nice and moist is to brine it overnight.

Depending on the size of your turkey and the container that you will use for brining, the amount of your liquid will vary.

For every gallon of water, mix in 1 cup of salt, and 1/4 cup sugar. Dissolve in a large stock pot and let cool. For our 13 pound turkey, we needed 2 1/2 gallons of liquid.

Then add 1 lemon that is cut in wedges, 2 bay leaves and a tablespoon of peppercorns to the liquid.

Remove the neck and giblets from the turkey and set aside for the gravy. Then submerge the turkey in the liquid.

If you turkey begins to float, use a dish or pan and place it on top of the turkey so that it remains entirely in the water.

Refrigerate the turkey in the brine overnight.

Now kick back, relax and be sure to get a good night’s rest! You have a big day tomorrow, but you already are ahead of the game!

Thanksgiving Day

The best part about today is that you are going to have plenty of time to enjoy the company of your family.

butter the turkey
After the turkey rests you can prepare it however you desire. We prefer to rub butter directly under the skin before we roast it.

The first task of the day is to remove the turkey from the brine. Be sure to rinse the turkey under cold water to remove the salty water that is on the outer surface of the bird.

Then pat it dry and let it sit on a large rimmed baking sheet so that it can air dry for up to 4 hours.

Next, it is time to transition your bread crumbs into your Thanksgiving Dressing. We always cook it in a programmable 6 quart slow cooker.

This not only saves space in your oven, it turns out perfect every time. See our favorite Slow Cooker Dressing Recipe.

Now that the turkey has been sitting out, pat it dry and proceed to preparing the main star of your Thanksgiving dinner with this delicious Roasted Turkey Recipe.

peeled potatoes
While you wait for the turkey to dry off, peel your potatoes and then dice and place in a pot of cold water.

While the turkey is in the oven, it is time to peel the potatoes. Let the peeled and diced potatoes soak in cold water until about an hour before dinner time.

Then turn the stove on medium-high and let the potatoes boil until fork tender. See the Secrets To Making Light & Fluffy Mashed Potatoes.

While the potatoes are boiling, prepare your corn. Whether you use canned or frozen corn, boil right before you are ready to take the turkey out of the oven.

Check the Temperature of the Turkey

Speaking of the turkey, an hour before the recommended cooking time is up, place a digital food thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh.

When the temperature reads 162°F remove the turkey from the oven. Loosely tent with foil and as it rests, it will continue to cook and get to the recommended internal temperature of 165°F.

internal temperature of turkey
The best way to make sure that the turkey is cooked is with a digital thermometer.

Decrease the oven temperature to 225°F and place your rolls in the oven on a baking sheet.

You can also cover and place the mashed potatoes in the oven as well. This will help them keep warm until the turkey is ready to carve.

Plus, this will give you more stove top space to remove the pan drippings and make the Turkey Gravy.

Now you are ready to slice the turkey and serve your Thanksgiving Dinner!


Mary and Jim

Jim and Mary Competti have been writing gardening, DIY and recipe articles and books for over 15 years from their 46 acre Ohio farm. The two are frequent speakers on all things gardening and love to travel in their spare time.

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