How to Plan Thanksgiving {and Stay Sane}

thanksgiving planner square smallI know we haven’t even quite hit Halloween yet, but Thanksgiving will be here before we know it! Growing up, Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday. I was quite a bit younger than my brother and sisters, so they had moved out and moved on by the time I got to middle school and high school, but, because it was less of a juggle with their in-laws, they would almost always come home for Thanksgiving. It was like all the fun and festivity of Christmas minus the stress.

Now that I’m an adult, I realize that planning Thanksgiving isn’t exactly stress-free, but, coming up on our seventh Thanksgiving far from family, we’ve tried a lot of different Thanksgivings, ranging from super traditional to theme parks to just about everything in between, so I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned along the way with you guys.


It’s not a terrible idea to start planning a month (or more) before Thanksgiving. Who do you want to invite? Where are you going to sit? What are you going to eat? Are you sticking  with traditional recipes or do you want to try something new?

  • Print out or photocopy the recipes you want to use and keep them together in a folder so they’ll be easily accessible while you’re cooking and you won’t have to keep pulling cookbooks out or looking things up on your computer.
  • Make a super-organized shopping list. I’m not super great about this for regular grocery shopping, but for huge meals like this, it’s a must. Have a list for warehouse stores like Costco or Sam’s Club, your regular grocery store, and any local markets, bakeries, or restaurants you might be using. Organize your list by category–produce, meats, canned goods, baking aisle items, etc. That way, you can get in and out as quickly as possible (and save money along the way.)
  • Try to get all your shopping done by the Sunday before Thanksgiving (aside from highly perishable items.) There’s nothing worse for your holiday nerves than trying to find a parking spot and then waiting in line for 30 minutes just to buy a pint of whipping cream.
  • Make as much as you can ahead of time. If your eating area is out of the way, you could set your table now (three guesses how long that would last at my house with three little kids). And yeah, you can’t make the turkey three days before, but you can cook or prep many things and have them ready to go into the oven before the big day. Salad dressings, green bean casserole (minus the crunchy onions), stuffing, and sweet potato casserole can all be made a few days ahead of time and rolls and pies can be made the day before.


There are no rules saying you have to have a giant roasted turkey at an immaculately decorated table with everyone wearing their Sunday best, especially if that just adds stress to your life. Three years ago, we had Greek food at Disney World. Six years ago, we brined one bird and fried another one and ate dinner at card tables with other families that found themselves in Louisiana with no family nearby. The year that Thanksgiving was just weeks after my son’s accident, I just couldn’t deal with a turkey, so had a glazed ham and funeral potatoes. Not feeling the turkey? Just go for a meal your family feels is special-occasion-worthy–lasagna? Fondue? Gumbo? Go for it! Growing up, we had turkey sandwiches on the beach, a store-bought Thanksgiving in a hospital room when my brother was super sick, and an impromptu meal of 7-11 hot dogs when we got stuck in a blizzard. They were all memorable and amazing in their own ways, so don’t feel like you need to go all out if it isn’t working for one reason or another.

Thanksgiving planning tips

I’m terrible about this. I’m kind of a micromanager when it comes to food. But if you have kids who are big enough to help (or even make a dish themselves) or guests who offer to bring a pie or a salad or rolls or whatever, LET THEM. Not trying to be bossy or anything.

thanksgiving planning tips

In college, I worked for a bakery/sandwich shop and we would always order their pies, cheesecakes, and rolls for Thanksgiving dinner. They were just as good (sometimes better, let’s face it) than homemade, minus the mess and stress.

Along those lines, you may be dying to pull out your grandmother’s china and set the table with your fanciest linens. Or you may be dying a tiny bit inside at the thought of all the extra dishes and cloth napkins that you’ll want to burn when dinner is over. Whatever your style, do what works for you. And if you can’t quite commit one way or another, you can totally wrap disposable knives, forks, and spoons in paper napkins, but use the fancy dishes. And for a fun, kid-friendly, washing machine-free table cover, try putting plates on white or kraft butcher paper and give guests crayons to write what they’re thankful for (or just to doodle!)

thanksgiving planning tipsInvite college students, single people or families that are far from family, or other people who might feel lonely during Thanksgiving to join you for Thanksgiving dinner. They may not take you up on it, but they’ll appreciate the invitation either way. Take slices of pie to people working at gas stations, fire stations, police stations, or hospitals. Help at a homeless shelter, church, or community organization that might be feeding the hungry. There are countless big and small ways to help those who might need an extra boost during the holiday season.

To help make your planning a little easier for the big day, I’ve made a Thanksgiving planning printable. You might not use every little thing, but hopefully at least some of the things will help make the big day a little less crazy! Click here or click the image below to download it!

Our Best Bites Thanksgiving Planner

We’re thrilled to be partnering with The J.M. Smucker Company this year to help feed people who don’t have enough to eat this Thanksgiving. On November 2, there will be coupons for Crisco and Pillsbury products in newspapers throughout the country. For every coupon redeemed, the J.M. Smucker Company will donate the equivalent of three meals to Feeding America, up to six million meals with a minimum donation of 4.5 million meals. every $1 helps provide 10 meals secured by Feeding America on behalf of local member food banks (so $1=10 meals) It couldn’t be easier, right? #EveryMealMatters


woman in denim shirt holding a salad bowl
Meet The Author

Sara Wells

Sara Wells co-founded Our Best Bites in 2008. She is the author of three Bestselling Cook Books, Best Bites: 150 Family Favorite RecipesSavoring the Seasons with Our Best Bites, and 400 Calories or Less from Our Best Bites. Sara’s work has been featured in many local and national news outlets and publications such as Parenting MagazineBetter Homes & GardensFine CookingThe Rachel Ray Show and the New York Times.

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Questions & Reviews

  1. Thanks for the tips! I’ve been looking for good ways to transport pies – containers, etc. Any suggestions? I’m always worried there’s going to be pie all over the car.

  2. Thank you! First time I am hosting THanksgiving with a turkey that I am actually cooking myself- with your recipe!

  3. I spent a semester in college studying in Mexico so I had thanksgiving dinner at Chilis in Cancun. I had chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and gravy and then a brownie and ice cream for dessert. I hadn’t had American food in a couple of months and it was SO good!

  4. Great ideas. And thanks for the printable. I always feel more organized if my list is cute.

  5. This is a great tutorial. We are moving across the country 10 days before Thanksgiving this year. I don’t know yet whether we’ll still be in a hotel or if we’ll get into our temporary housing before Thanksgiving. I have’t figured out at all how we are going to do Thanksgiving, but I love some of your non-traditional ideas. Maybe we’ll go with one of those and have turkey a few weeks later after we are a little more settled.

  6. That was very nice. I like to be organized and you seem to have hit upon all the necessary hints . . . thank you so much!

  7. Thank you so much! This is my first year doing a “big” Thanksgiving- our family of six, my boss & her family of 5 (including her mother) and now, my mother-in-law. Those printables will be super, super helpful.

  8. Here’s my tip that I find a huge time saver in regards to the Thanksgiving turkey. First of all, if you don’t need to do a big reveal of the turkey at the table, you can totally do it ahead of time! What I do is get a turkey and cook it the weekend before when I have the time and space for it. Then I carve it, put everything in bags, and then place everything–even the gravy–in the freezer. I just put in the fridge a day or two before, then pop it in the oven to warm up on the day of. It helps to drizzle some of the juices over the turkey before putting it in the freezer so it stays moist.

    One last thing–I’ve also have taken a turkey and carved it before baking so that it cooks much faster. By that, I mean cut off the wings, thighs and legs and breasts, leaving the bone in for the dark meat pieces before baking. It’s a bit of work to wrestle with but so worth the effort when everything is done in an hour or two!

  9. Last year, Thanksgiving was the last week of my maternity leave and I was an emotional wreck. (And I’m already a reluctant hostess for house guests!) I started cooking the Saturday before–toss rolls in the freezer and then warm them in the toaster oven the day of. I bought a precooked turkey breast from the deli and had most of the sides in foil pans in the fridge, ready to be reheated. Prepping and cleanup were a breeze on the day of!

  10. What a great idea! I really love party planning and cooking/baking so Thanksgiving is sort of a cinch for me but I understand how it can be 100% daunting for those that don’t love it like me. This is a super awesome tool for them!

  11. Love your point about giving back. My favorite Thanksgivings growing up (and even now) are those when we hosted international students from the local university.

    Also, another tip, I would shop for my mom for the last minute Thanksgiving things when I was in high school. I grocery shopped for her on and off, so I had a good feel for how she shopped. I learned SO much through those experiences and it gave her time to do prep at home.