The thing about Thanksgiving is that we all feel the need for the meal to be perfect. It has to contain every single dish your family has loved for generations made exactly the way Great Aunt Sally made it. Even if nobody really likes her marshmallow, chocolate chip, and canned fruit cocktail “salad.” And that desire for absolute perfection, alongside tradition and, if you’re very, very brave, innovation, make it the most stressful meal a home cook will ever make. As if the holidays aren’t already stressful enough.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. People who cook for a living are as stressed out about that particular meal as you are. And the single reason? Timing. None of the traditional dishes is that hard on its own. But attempting to get everything to the table, piping hot, at the EXACT SAME MOMENT tries, as the saying goes, the patience of a saint.
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But it doesn’t have to be this way! Here are 6 classic Thanksgiving side dishes that you can prepare (or do most of the work on) in advance, making those final hours so much easier.
One week ahead: gravy
Gravy is, for some reason, the bane of most folks' existence, and it needn’t be. In fact, it can be a make-ahead star. A week before Turkey Day, buy some packages of turkey parts—wings and necks, for example—along with some ground dark turkey meat. Make turkey stock from these parts, De-fat it (but save the fat). Thicken the stock with a roux made of flour and butter (or fat from the stock making). Don’t season too much because, on the day, you’re going to add pan drippings from the turkey. Meanwhile, though, all of the hard work is done.
Thanksgiving Day finish: Just reheat and add some drippings. And don’t worry about lumps. If they happen, pour the gravy through a strainer. (Don’t worry, we have ALL done it!)
One week ahead: fresh cranberry sauce
This is a no brainer. Prepare your favorite fresh cranberry sauce recipe and refrigerate.
Thanksgving Day finish: Spoon into a pretty dish handed down from Great Aunt Sally and take to table!
Two days ahead: dressing/stuffing
Whether you call it dressing or stuffing, here’s the deal: You can easily prepare this classic side dish in advance. Two days before, chop your celery, onions, and any other vegetable your recipe requires. Cook them down in an obscene amount of butter and then store them in the fridge. Cube your bread, and brown/dry it in a low oven. The next day, combine these ingredients and everything else, and put it in whatever pan you’re using, cover it with foil, and refrigerate.
Thanksgiving Day finish: All you need to do on the day is cook it once the turkey is out of the oven and resting. (And although many of us grew up eating stuffing cooked in the bird; this approach makes cooking the turkey properly just about impossible. That said, pouring some pan drippings on the dressing is a great flavor hack.)
Two days ahead: most vegetables
Prep your side veggies, then blanch them in boiling water, shock them in ice water, and store in the fridge. Voila!
Thanksgiving Day finish: Pull from the fridge and just reheat in butter or oil and seasonings when the bird comes out of the oven.
One day ahead: pies
Thanksgiving Day finish: You’re finished! And pies shouldn’t be served hot anyway!
One day ahead: mashed potatoes
This may be the ultimate day-before shortcut: Cook and rice potatoes on Wednesday, then let them cool and refrigerate.
Thanksgiving Day finish: Put your already cooked and riced potatoes in a pan over low heat on the stove, and add HOT milk, cream, or melted butter. Easy finish!
One day ahead: Polish the silver and set the table
This may sound crazy, but not having to think about those two things will make Turkey Day a LOT easier. I realize you won’t be able to use your dining room table the night before, but I think the person doing all of this cooking deserves a rest, so take-out in the family room, it is!
Thanksgiving Day finish: Accepting compliments on how gorgeous the table is.
Thanksgiving sanity saver: Rethink the bird
This isn’t a make-ahead tip, but it will save your sanity more than anything: Consider foregoing the Norman Rockwell whole-turkey presentation and opt for cooking turkey breasts and legs instead. Since it’s almost impossible to roast a whole bird so that every piece is perfectly cooked at the same moment, this is a lot simpler (and fool proof!) way to get your parts done just right. Plus, if you know your family is primarily team white meat or dark meat, you can plan for that with no squabbling over the last drumstick. And I believe a platter piled high with turkey is just as impressive as the whole bird!
One last bit of advice
I know this may be hard to embrace, but this day is all about love and friendship and thanks. Be gentle and kind to yourself. If something burns, think of it as a good story to add to the thousands of other stories the group tells every year. The point is not perfection but being together around the table.