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A guide to making Thanksgiving dinner for the first time

Try not to sweat any mistakes you make while cooking Thanksgiving dinner

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Cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the first time can be a stressful experience, but there are ways you can prepare to make it go seamlessly.

Cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the first time can be a stressful experience, but there are ways you can prepare to make it go seamlessly.

Pro Church Media/Unsplash

Cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the first time can be a stressful experience, but there are ways you can prepare to make it go seamlessly.

Preparing ahead of time and enlisting help can make it so cooking dinner is an enjoyable activity rather than a difficult task. It’s also an opportunity to have fun.

Do you have a dish that you have a special familial or cultural connection to that you’d like to incorporate? Go ahead. Are you always wishing that there were more vegetable options at the table? Now is your time to shine.

How to do Thanksgiving for the first time

As Thanksgiving is coming up on Nov. 23, here’s a guide to cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the first time.

1. Start with a clean house

Cooking dinner while rushing around trying to clean your house is stressful. Instead of trying to do both at the same time, ask your family members to do a deep clean of your home with you the week of Thanksgiving. Dividing up tasks like cleaning the bathroom, wiping down the counters, sweeping, vacuuming and more among your family members can help the cleaning part to go more quickly. You may have to straighten up your home on the big day, but at least it’ll be clean.

2. Plan your menu and shop ahead of time

A typical Thanksgiving dinner consists of turkey, gravy, rolls, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, glazed carrots, green beans and pumpkin pie with whipped cream. There are other items commonly found of Thanksgiving tables like candied yams, sweet potato casserole, green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, pecan pie, chocolate cream pie, cornbread, apple pie, fried apples, cornbread dressing and Brussels sprouts.

One of the beautiful things about hosting is you get to decide what the dinner will be like.

If your dining companions have dietary restrictions, you can plan your meal around them (just make sure to check whether not those restrictions will require you purchasing food from a specific place rather than making it, as some food restrictions don’t allow for cross-contamination). So, if you have a lot of vegetarian guests, you can choose to make turkey breast instead of a whole turkey for the guests who aren’t vegetarian and you could make something like a greens and cheese stuffed Cinderella pumpkin for the main dish.

In any case, to make a good dinner, you’ll want to plan out your menu and write down all your ingredients. Shop your pantry to make sure you have the necessary spices, oils, butters and other staple items you’ll need for cooking.

If you can, try to avoid the day-before and day-of Thanksgiving rush shopping. Pick up your turkey as early as you can (remember you can always freeze it and defrost it — see the USDA’s instructions on that).

Also, don’t be afraid of using store-bought items if that’ll make cooking more manageable for you.

Say you decide you really want to tackle the turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing and green bean casserole, but making bread and desserts isn’t really your thing. You could pick it up at the store instead.

Chances are your guests will offer to bring something to dinner: You can always ask them to bring one of the items that isn’t in your wheelhouse. They want to help you and this will alleviate some of the stress that comes along with cooking on the big day.

3. Make sure you have all the necessary kitchen gadgets

A meat thermometer and some way to mash potatoes can help make your day a lot easier. Check to make sure you have all the necessary devices ahead of time.

Did you ever replace that one can opener that wasn’t working well? Are your knives sharpened? Take inventory of what you’ll need and make sure that you have it ahead of time, so you’re not rushed on the big day.

4. Don’t do it all on one day (if you can)

Thanksgiving dinner doesn’t need to all be cooked on one day. Sometimes with work and family life, cooking it all on one day will be a necessity, but if you can cook ahead of time, it may help you reduce your stress on the big day.

Ahead of the big day, here are some suggestions of what you can do:

  • Brine your turkey.
  • Make an herb butter for the turkey.
  • Prepare the cranberry sauce (if you’re making it homemade).
  • Bake all your pies and/or cakes the day before.
  • Assemble the stuffing in advance and then cook on the big day.
  • Prepare the rolls for baking and freeze them.
  • Set your table the night before.

Here’s an idea of how you can spread out your Thanksgiving cooking and preparation across the week.


  • Make a list of everything you will be cooking.
  • Check your pantry to see what you have.
  • See if you have all the kitchen tools you’ll need (enough pots and pans, too).
  • Go grocery shopping.


  • Clean your house and kitchen.
  • Mix up the dough for the rolls and either freeze or refrigerate it (see The Kitchn for more tips on this).


  • Prepare the desserts.
  • While the desserts are baking, assemble the stuffing and then refrigerate.
  • Brine the turkey.
  • Set your table.


  • Begin to roast the turkey.
  • Make all your side dishes while the turkey is roasting.
  • Whip up some fresh cream for whipped cream.
  • Warm up your rolls or bake your rolls.
  • Get everything served up.

Another tip: You will likely have a lot of leftovers. As part of the clean-up process, make a system of packing up leftovers, so that you’re not rushed as the day comes to an end. Don’t be afraid to ask for help in the clean-up process. It’s a lot to clean!

5. Roll with what happens on the big day

So you’ve prepared your game plan and are cooking when all of a sudden, you mistakenly put a ton of sugar instead of salt into your potatoes. Or your turkey doesn’t come out quite as you hoped. Try your best not to sweat it.

Your guests are at your home because they love you and your family, not because they’re expecting the best dinner they’ve ever eaten. Find creative ways to rehabilitate what doesn’t go well. If your turkey turns out try, spray it with a mix of butter and turkey stock (or chicken or vegetable stock). If your pumpkin cheesecake cracks, use whipped cream to cover it.

Whatever the mistake is, even if it means not serving the dish, don’t worry about it. The Thanksgiving dinner can still be a positive gathering about gratitude and love.