Our Expert Thanksgiving Timeline

Entertain, Holidays, Learn, Thanksgiving, Tips & Techniques

Williams-Sonoma Thanksgiving 2015

To pull off the perfect Thanksgiving feast, you need a plan. Culinary expert Natasha Gandhi-Rue has hosted many a holiday dinner, and has the Thanksgiving timeline down to a science. Here, she shares all of her expert tips.


After hosting the holiday for the last decade, I think it’s fair to say I’ve become a pro at preparing the Thanksgiving dinner. When my family’s Thanksgiving feast accrued more than 15 adults, I knew I had to use my culinary expertise to plan this holiday like a general approaching a battle, or perhaps more fitting, like a restaurant chef approaching a Saturday night dinner crowd! Here are my plan-ahead tips that make this special day completely stress-free in my house.

An Expert’s Thanksgiving Timeline



Use a calendar and write in what you are going to do when.  It makes it easier to stay on task.

  • Create your guest list. Get an idea of how many people are going to come, just so you can start figuring out the quantity you need.
  • Order your turkey. This way I don’t have to panic and worry about finding the right size and the type of turkey I want (pre-brined, organic, smoked, etc.) the week of.
  • Make your pie doughMake your pie dough. If you make pie dough using a stand mixer or food processor, it comes together in minutes, and you can enjoy delicious homemade crust for your Thanksgiving pies without having to stress the week of Thanksgiving. I find the best way to store the dough is to form individual pie discs, vacuum seal each in its own bag and freeze. Then you simply to defrost in the fridge overnight. And I always make a few extra discs of dough for making turkey pot pie with our leftovers!
  • Go through linens and serving pieces. Make sure you have everything you need. I also send all my linens to be cleaned and pressed, if they haven’t been already. And I always have pressed a “fancy” apron to put on once my guests start arriving and it’s time to take off the stained grungy one! I make a list of serving pieces I need to buy. I like to buy them a few weeks before Thanksgiving, mainly to help spread the cost from the big week but also to make sure I get the pieces I want instead of what is left.



  • Make a huge pot of turkey stock. By now you can go to the butcher and buy an abundance of turkey necks and wings and make a delicious homemade turkey stock to use for the big day. After my stock is done and cooled, I divide it into one-quart containers and freeze. This way it’s ready for stuffing, side dishes and turkey soup—I also use it to make my gravy (yes, ahead of time!).
  • Make and freeze your gravyMake and freeze your gravy. I can’t handle the stress of making gravy while the turkey is resting and everyone is hovering, hungry for the meal. So I deglaze my roasting pan that I used to roast the necks and wings for stock with sherry or white wine and make an amazing, silky turkey gravy. My family doesn’t like bits of anything in their gravy, so I strain it through a fine-mesh strainer. Once it’s cooled, off it goes into the freezer in quart size containers. The greatest challenge I have is knowing how much gravy is enough, because frankly, you can never seem to have enough. It’s consumed on Thanksgiving and in leftovers—whether sandwiches or pot pie—so I always keep a few jars of Williams-Sonoma Turkey Gravy Base on hand when I am running low.
  • Buy your nonperishable items. This includes serving pieces, place setting decorations, candle holders, platters, etc.



  • Clean house. I hate to say it, but sadly it has to be done! If you’re lucky, you’ve splurged and scheduled a cleaning service to come early this week and take care of the task.
  • Take out all your dishes. Begin to run your dishes and wine glasses through the dishwasher. When they come out, I set them on linen dishcloths or flour sack cloths (something that won’t leave lint) and then place another towel over them.
  • Pull out your cookware. That means your roasting pan, carving board, carving knife (make sure it’s sharp!), and any specialty pieces of cookware you do not use daily. Have them washed and ready for cooking.
  • Write your whole menu down on paper with notes. Note if a guest is bringing something, what drinks you are serving, etc.
  • Copy recipes. If you need to refer to recipes, make photocopies of them so your originals stay clean.
  • Create a grocery list. I like to organize mine by categories: produce, dairy, meats, bakery and more. I know the layout of my grocery store well, so I list my categories according to how I walk the store. You won’t believe the time this saves you; you’ll never go back to meandering down aisles!
  • Set up a schedule. I create a spreadsheet for my menu based on timing. This way I know what is going in the oven, what’s being reheated and even when to set the bread machine for fresh bread. Here is a quick example:



  • Make your brineDo your grocery shopping. When you get home, organize the groceries in your fridge.
  • Make your brine. If you’re brining your turkey, you need to make your brine early enough so it can chill completely before you immerse your turkey.
  • Remove all your frozen prep items and place in the refrigerator. This includes pie crusts, turkey stock and gravy.
  • Chill wine. Place the wine you’re serving in the refrigerator, or if you’re out of room and live somewhere cold, in the garage or on the back deck.



This is the day I try to request off from work, because it’s my big prep day. If you have to work, order pizza for dinner that night and start chopping!

  • Chop and dice your ingredients. Have lots of airtight bags available for holding all your diced veggies. Don’t forget your chopped herbs for garnishes. Most herbs may be placed in airtight containers lined with a damp paper towel in the refrigerator.
  • Sauté stuffing ingredients. I cook the celery, onions, sausage, etc., and once cooled, I place the combination in a labeled airtight bag in the refrigerator. The next day it only takes me a few minutes to put my stuffing together and into the oven for baking.
  • Finish making your pies. I use my homemade, previously frozen pie crusts.
  • Prepare any vegetables or side dishes you can. I have a beautiful assortment of serving pieces that can go straight from the fridge into the oven, so I prep and place dishes in the serving piece, wrap tightly in foil, label and store in the refrigerator.
  • Set up the buffet table. I leave nothing to chance or to the judgment of my husband, so I place sticky notes with what food goes in what serving piece. Yes, the gravy boat has a post it that says “gravy” on it!
  • Set the dining table. My last task is setting my table complete with floral arrangement, candles, and whatever else I have envisioned this year. This is my favorite task and a nice way to wind down the day. It’s usually done after dinner, while enjoying a glass of wine that helps me get a much needed good night of sleep before ovens are preheated, pots of water begin to boil, and our celebration begins!

Set up the buffet table

Get Thanksgiving recipes, tips, tricks, and supplies at our Thanksgiving Headquarters

90 comments about “Our Expert Thanksgiving Timeline

    1. Natasha Gandhi-Rue

      You’re welcome – have a great Thanksgiving! And make sure you have a great roasting pan with thermometer to have the most perfect turkey.

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  4. *Stacey

    This is amazing. I am putting this at the beginning of my Thanksgiving Prep Binder. Thank you so much! I needed this.

  5. Jessica

    Wow, I have made my gravy the night before for years, never thought about weeks before…..love it!!!

  6. Jen

    This is the first time I have read this sort of article and must say that Natasha makes me feel infinitely better about my OCD spreadsheet (last Thanksgiving my brother-in-law laughed hysterically and my sister-in-law who cooks blind folded rolled her eyes). Planning is the best way to pull off a crazy amount of preparation. The tips offered go above and beyond. Thank you.

    1. Maureen

      I may have been guilty of “cooking blindfolded” and incredibly stressed. Now my Excel spreadsheet and lists have made this a happy holiday. I even have a friend who asked for them. I hope your family members said thank you.

    2. Natasha Gandhi-Rue

      You’re very welcome! Being prepared for Thanksgiving makes it so much more enjoyable for the cook!

    3. Nancy

      This is the 4th year I have used a spread sheet. It helps me know everything is under control, especially when you have multiple sides due to dietary needs. This article has helped me spread preparation across the week, instead of the morning. I made pumpkin puree last Friday. Pie will be made this Wednesday.
      One year one side was still on the stove, I think it was the corn. I probably need an ‘on the table’ column
      I never thought of the post-its in the dish. It would save wondering where the bowl went. Thank you!!!

  7. Terri

    Thank you for “The Plan.” This is fantastic and making the gravy weeks ahead is brilliant. Down South we like our Giblet Gravy, I’ll let you know how it goes!

    1. Natasha Gandhi-Rue

      Sounds delicious – we love Giblet gravy … actually I haven’t met a gravy I didn’t love! Have a great Thanksgiving!

  8. Delia

    Thanks so much! This is fantastic. My husband will be happy to have a calm wife at Thanksgiving this year 🙂

  9. Teresa Threet

    I love you all. Please send me everything for a perfect Thanksgiving. My mom passed and there is no way I can step into her shoe of decades, but I can do a lot for my family of 11. Im just scared out of my mind!

    1. Natasha Gandhi-Rue

      All our Williams-Sonoma Stores offer complimentary Technique Classes to help you have a beautiful Thanksgiving – this weekend its all about having a delicious succulent turkey. Hope you can join us – you’ll learn a ton, get a great discount to shop and feel more prepared.

  10. Sherrie

    I always make my mashed potatoes the night before. I add cream cheese, butter and milk and put them into a large baking dish and refrigerate overnight. On Thanksgiving day, I simply take them out of the fridge, cover with foil and heat them in the oven. (I’m lucky I have 2 ovens) No peeling, boiling, etc. on such a busy day. Everyone raves about these potatoes. I have convinced other family members and friends to do this and they love it.

    1. Kathy

      So, I’m Irish and a bit of a potato snob (if there is such a thing). Making mashed potatoes early? No way, but I thought what the heck, I’ll try this pre-thanksgiving as, I could really use a break on the BIG DAY. I tweaked a bit, but oddly enough they were really good. I’m not crazy about cream cheese in my potatoes, but I folded in sautéed shallots put the whole mess in a casserole dish. Reheated the next day and strangely enough they didn’t have the “refrigerated” potato taste that I dislike so much.

      We’ll be doing the big taste test on Thursday.

      Thanks for the suggestion Sherrie! I’ll sit down and have a glass of wine during the time I would be ordinarily mashing the potatoes and that will be a welcome relief! Lol

      Natasha – I always have a detailed list, but I think u may have topped it! I’ll need to up my game and add a few of these to my list… As you know, it’s all about timing!

    2. Nancy

      My husband had made Thanksgiving for his immediate family before I came into his life. We have been married now 15 years. I let him do what he has done – he prepares the turkey, the roux for the gravy, peels and cooks the potatoes. While he carves the turkey, his brother mashes the potatoes (I set up a station for potato mashing). Everything them gets to the table warm. My sister-in-law always washes the dishes, someone wipes, and I put them away.

  11. Kim Ezman

    Thanks again for another great year of ideas for Thanksgiving and a time-line to help get through the weeks before the big day. My only problem is I have a house full of guests arriving on Wednesday night and need to feed them dinner and breakfast before my Thanksgiving meal. This weekend I will be making the waffles, I will be trying the Pumpkin Pie Waffles this year along with the brown sugar ones from last year, of course the blueberry ones too and will freeze on cookie sheets then put in plastic bags. This is my easy Thanksgiving morning breakfast since everyone is on different wake up schedules. Any ideas of how to keep them out of my kitchen when I need to get the turkey in the oven with all the fixings? There will be 7 children this year ranging from the age of 6 months to 6 years. I need to find something to keep the kids and parents occupied so I can have the kitchen to myself….I will also be enjoying that glass of wine too!

    1. Robert in Santa Fe

      Kim you just have to be tough! It’s up to you to tell them to get out of your kitchen! I have been through this and know. My wife does not cook so it’s up to me. Once you have given them breakfast, hopefully in another room, you have to declare the kitchen off limits except for those who are going to be of some help and stick to your guns. It is up to the other adults to deal with the kids not you. Your husband needs to step up and do his part in taking care of the guests. They are, after all, his guests as well as yours. Draw your boundaries, let everyone know what they are, and have a great time!!!

    2. Natasha Gandhi-Rue

      I love your breakfast plan. There have been years where I’ve had overnight guests – can you plan an activity that gets them all out of the house – like lunch and a movie? OR set up a dining room work station for the kids to make place mats and table decorating ideas so that they are participating and assign some of the more “helpful” grown-ups to be in charge of the kids and decorating 🙂

      Good luck and enjoy your time with your guests.

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  14. Helen

    I’m curious, should I use a flat rack or the v shaped rack when roasting my turkey? Is there a difference?

    1. Natasha Gandhi-Rue

      Both racks work really well – just make sure that your V-Rack can accommodate your turkey. A great roasting pan is a must in my opinion -I don’t worry so much about the rack. I want a roasting pan with low flared sides that can be used on the stove and in the oven 🙂

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  16. Carmen

    Wow, this is extreme organization at its best. Planning is key. Thank you for all of the great tips.

  17. Laura

    Wow I didn’t expect this much detail when asked what we would like to know for preparing for Thanksgiving or recipes. So my question was how to cook with one oven and not get so overwhelmed trying to cook all at once. You nailed it ! This is reallly going to help me this year.

    1. Natasha Gandhi-Rue

      Great – so happy this helps you! Have a great Thanksgiving!

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  19. Rita

    To keep guests out of kitchen, have them go for a treasure hunt with the kids. Chocolate turkeys, etc..to eat after meal of course. Maybe a bottle of wine for the adults…put on a documentary re pilgrims, history of early settlers.

    1. Margot

      The treasure hunt idea is great! Getting all the people out of the house in the morning is sooooo much easier than answering “Is there anything I can do to help?” fifty thousand times! We have a pretty small kitchen, so I hear you! If you don’t have time to organize a treasure hunt, how about sending EVERYBODY outside to throw a football or baseball around, or a game of freeze tag? Even if it’s cold out, fresh air is good for all, and heating up some apple cider (with rum or brandy for the grups) and passing it out outside only takes 10 minutes, and your family and friends will be talking about how much fun it was until 4th of July!
      Have a great holiday season and good luck!!

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  21. lemur

    Have your guests bring stuff. It’s a thousand times easier when you don’t have to worry about every dish, and instead you can focus on the turkey, and maybe a couple of other main dishes. Delegation has kept me sane – especially last year, when my boss at the time wouldn’t give me the day before off.

    Also, I’d add don’t worry too much about having a fancy/cute/brand new (fill-in-the-blank), especially if your budget is tight. Your usual serving dishes are fine. Your regular apron does the job. People aren’t necessarily going to notice how shiny and matchy things are, they’re going to notice how amazing the food is, how plentiful the wine is, and then proceed to eat/drink a lot and lounge around your living room for several hours afterwards.

    For the past three years, my husband and I have hosted in our apartment – folding tables, thrift store tablecloths, paper plates, cats underfoot. It’s crowded, and chaotic, but every year it’s a blast. I think Thanksgiving has become one of my favorite holidays!

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  31. rommy

    Thanks for this plan ahead list. I’ve been hosting Thanksgiving for the past two years, and I do everything few days in advance.

  32. Jennifer Essad

    I try to be prepared myself, I really appreciate this outline – thank you and I hope you and yours enjoy a wonderful holiday

  33. johanne

    This article surely will help me prepare for thanksgiving. Thanks for the detailed ideas you shared here. Thanksgiving won’t be complete without a turkey..

  34. Jeanne

    Yeah its not only me! I started my spreadsheet about 3 weeks ago. Color coded! I love THANKSGIVING!!

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  36. Dannie

    I may be hosting a meatless Thanksgiving but this is still super helpful. We’ve been prepping for the big day for several weeks now. Having a more detailed timeline is a big help for me. Thanks for sharing!

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    I would like to make my Turkey stock ahead of time as you suggested. Do you have recipe you can share?
    Thank you!

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    I am looking for someone who prepares the thanksgiving dinner do you do that?

  59. Ruth L Shepherd

    Thanks for this! I”m wondering . . .you noted that the day before you prepare side dishes and then just transfer them into the oven the day of. Would you share which ones you prepare the day before? Stuffing, green beans?

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