My Thanksgiving menu doesn't vary much year-to-year, mainly because most of the dishes I make are unique to the holiday.  These dishes have become family favorites and are as much Thanksgiving fixtures as the old turkey-shaped gravy boat.

Like most Thanksgiving cooks, I like to make a variety of dishes. While each dish is uncomplicated, it takes more time to prepare 2 vegetable dishes than it does to merely make a double batch of one vegetable dish.  This makes planning and advance cooking imperative.  Below is a suggested menu for Thanksgiving dinner and make-ahead ideas for each dish.  Even if you only start cooking the day before Thanksgiving, some advance preparation will make your holiday a bit more enjoyable.

Thanksgiving Dinner Menu

Roast Turkey

Gravy for Turkey

Stuffing for Turkey or Stuffing Muffins

Sweet Potatoes with Maple Glaze

Potato Gratin

Green Beans with Almonds or Shredded Kale Salad

Cranberry Relish

Pumpkin Cake with Caramel Icing or Chocolate Sheet Cake

Upside Down Apple Pie with Vanilla Ice Cream

 

Make-Ahead Ideas

The key to a not-so-crazy Thanksgiving dinner is advance preparation.  I like to make as many dishes as possible days ahead and either keep them in the refrigerator or freeze them.  I used to worry that the food wouldn't taste quite as good if it had been previously frozen, but now I find that the less I have to cook on the holiday, the better everything tastes and the more fun it is for all.  Here are a few suggestions on what you can do in the days leading up to Thanksgiving to avoid the turkey day rush.

Turkey:

If you buy a frozen bird, make sure you give it plenty of time to thaw.  A 12 to 14 pound turkey can take 3 days to thaw in the refrigerator, which is the best and safest way to thaw meat.  Turkeys cook faster if they are at room temperature (this takes about 40 minutes) when they go in the oven and if they are cooked unstuffed.

Gravy for Turkey:

I make my turkey gravy in advance using a good quality chicken stock.  It freezes well for up to 3 months.  On the big day once the bird has roasted, I skim the fat from the juices in the roasting pan and then add some of the juices to the gravy while I'm reheating it.  This adds a nice turkey flavor and creates a little extra gravy to go around.  If you like to brine your turkey, the juices left after roasting are typically too salty to be used in the gravy.

Stuffing Muffins / Stuffing for Turkey:

Homemade stuffing is one of my favorite side dishes, but there are a lot of ingredients that require chopping.  You can either chop and saute all ingredients a day ahead and then mix everything together and bake the stuffing on the day of, or make the entire recipe of stuffing muffins (including baking them) and freeze them.  Once thawed, they take only a few minutes in a 350 or 375F oven to reheat.

Maple Glazed Sweet Potatoes / Potato Gratin:

Both Maple Glazed Sweet Potatoes and the classic Potato Gratin taste better if they are assembled a day ahead.  Do everything except the baking and keep the dish in the refrigerator.  Bring it to room temperature before baking so it will cook more quickly.

Green Beans with Almonds:

If using fresh green beans, blanch them 2 days ahead by placing then in boiling water for 2 to 4 minutes (depending on how much crunch you like in your beans) and then cooling them quickly under cold running water.  Keep them in the refrigerator and then reheat the beans with the almonds and shallots just prior to serving.  The almonds can also be sauteed in butter well in advance.  Cook a large batch and keep them in your freezer - most everything tastes better with almonds cooked in butter!

Shredded Kale Salad:

The kale salad is actually better if it sits in the refrigerator for a few hours.  You can chop the kale and other ingredients and make the dressing a day ahead.  Toss everything together in the morning and let the dressing soften and sweeten the kale.  No last minute salad prep!

Cranberry Relish:

Like many sauces and relishes, this one tastes better after a couple of days in the refrigerator.  You'll need to strain the relish prior to serving because it will give off a lot of juice, but the flavor will be strong, sweet and very cranberry.

Pumpkin Cake with Caramel Frosting:

The entire cake can be made up to 3 days ahead and kept in the refrigerator.  Alternatively, bake the cake, cool it and freeze it in the pan.  A day or two before you want to serve it, defrost the cake and make the caramel frosting to pour over the top.  After the cake is frosted, it needs to chill in the refrigerator for about an hour prior to cutting.

Chocolate Sheet Cake:

Make the cake the day before the event and let it sit at room temperature, covered well with plastic wrap.

Upside Down Apple Pie:

You really need to make this the day you want to serve it, however you can assemble the pie and keep it in the refrigerator for several hours before serving.