How To: Host the Ultimate Thanksgiving

{image via}

Today is your lucky day!  After cooking Thanksgiving in Virginia every year since 2013, I feel like I’ve really gotten in the hang of it.  Now I’m going to share my master list and game plan to cook a feast and still do practically nothing on Thanksgiving Day.  Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of all—it’s the lead up to the Christmas season, there’s lots of decadent food that we can’t justify cooking the rest of the year, and hopefully everyone is in a good mood!  I decorate for Christmas really early (like on Halloween Day).  I don’t really do Halloween decorations, just fall and Christmas.  I put up fall stuff on September 1, and Christmas goes up on November 1, so it’s 2 months of each, and then back to the minimalist style I prefer the rest of the year. 

Since JD was originally going to deploy, I actually bought a bunch more decorations for this year so he could enjoy them before he left.  He’s not going now, but I really love having so much stuff up.  And most of it I actually got at Goodwill!  People tend to really pare down their holiday stuff as they become empty nesters or (sadly) get divorced, as that happens way too often.  But tons of it ends up in the aisles of Goodwill for pennies on the dollar, half of it still brand new in the box.  I’ll take some pictures and post them before long, that is, if I remember. 

slow cooker creamed corn

I actually meant to write this post weeks ago but didn’t get around to it.  My goal with Thanksgiving is to first, decide what to make.  I like to have a variety of colors:  a green vegetable, something orange, potatoes, corn, stuffing…a little of it all.  I’ve settled on a menu that hasn’t changed much in 2 years, except for the stuffing.  I have made some really luxurious ones, like this oyster stuffing, this creamy mushroom stuffing, and this artichoke stuffing (my personal fave).  But no one in the house likes artichokes except for me.  The oyster stuffing was more trouble than it was worth, and the mushroom stuffing was soooo rich, and I already have a foolproof mushroom appetizer, and I feel like that’s too much mushrooms (never thought I’d say that, but…).  Also I only do a turkey breast.  It ends up being more than enough meat.  I usually only eat about 2-3 ounces of turkey because I’m alllll about the sides!

spicy cashews

I like to eat around 4 so no one has to get up early and sit by the oven at 5 a.m.  To keep everyone’s hunger at bay till then, I set out a few no-make appetizers like crackers, raw veggies, and hummus along with some spicy cashews that are out of this world and really easy to make. 

So I decided on a menu.  First I’m going to list all the menu items, most of which I have written my own recipe for to keep it more convenient.  Next I’m compiling a master grocery list.  After that, I divide the grocery list into 2 parts:  stuff I get on November 1 and stuff I get the Monday before Thanksgiving (this year it’s November 21).  The reason I divide things is because much of it you can get ahead of time, things like spices, most dairy products, any frozen products, and the turkey itself.  Also some things I don’t necessarily list to purchase, but you may need to make sure you’re stocked up—this includes things like sugar, salt, olive oil, and flour.  I’ll notate those items since I’d think most people brave enough to host Thanksgiving are also likely to have these pantry items. 

slow cooker cranberry sauce

Finally I’ll set up a game plan of what exactly you can do ahead of time, and how far ahead you can do it!  On Thanksgiving Day, you can relax, watch the game or parade, and stay close enough to the oven to rotate all your dishes in and out.  You’ll barely be doing any actual cooking on Thursday.  The only things I don’t make from scratch are the Pillsbury Crescent Rolls and vanilla bean ice cream.  My kids specifically ask for Crescent Rolls, and I always loved them as a kid, too.  To me, it’s not worth making rolls.  I actually love powdered brown gravy mix, and I always serve that with my meatloaf, but when you have pan drippings from a juicy turkey, it’s so easy to make a gravy from scratch, and so good. 


Here’s the official menu:

  1. Spicy Cashews: a great appetizer to set up with crudité and hummus before the feast
  2. Slow Cooker Cranberry Sauce: so easy that you’ll never buy the can again
  3. Sausage Stuffed Mushrooms: this is, by far, my favorite recipe. The recipe I have

    sausage stuffed mushrooms
  4. makes 16 because that’s a respectable number.  However, I always double it because JD and I are obsessed with these, and I only make them once a year.  If you get sick of them after a few days, they actually freeze really well and can be reheated easily.
  5. Crescent Rolls (store-bought): There’s no explanation needed except I get 3 cans for about 7 people…we love them!
  6. Roast Turkey Breast:I like to do Ina’s version.  Instead of chopping all the herbs, I put everything in a food processor.  It’s so much faster.  If you’re on a tighter budget or just not feeling it, buy a small jar of poultry seasoning, and use it instead of the fresh herbs.
  7. Herb and Apple Bread Pudding: This creates a simple back drop to the rest of the flavors.  This recipe calls for Gruyere cheese.  You can substitute Emmental if you want.  Or you can use a blend of 50/50 swiss and parmesan.  If you want to try the other types of stuffing I’ve made, here’s the mushroom one, here’s the artichoke one, and here’s the oyster one.
  8. Goat Cheese Mashed Potatoes:This is my basic recipe for mashed potatoes, but with an 8 ounce log of softened goat cheese mixed in.  I got the idea from Damaris Phillips.
  9. Pan Gravy: I’ll provide a method at the bottom because I don’t use a recipe and
    mashed potatoes

    I’ve never written one for it.  But it’s so easy.

  10. Slow Cooker Creamed Corn: Here’s the recipe from my site.  It makes a lot, but people love it.  And you can always half it.
  11. Roasted Brussels Sprouts: I don’t have a recipe for this, but I’ll write the method below, as well.  It’s super easy and can be easy done with broccoli or green beans instead.  Brussels are just my favorite.
  12. Winter Squash Soufflé: This soufflé is a spin on this recipe.  Instead of peeling, steaming, and pureeing carrots, I’m using precooked squash.  Birdseye makes a precooked, pureed version that is perfect as a substitute.  It takes a lot of prep time
    carrot or winter squash souffle 

    out because all you have to do is thaw the squash and mix in everything else before baking.  Like I mentioned in the blog for the carrots, Thanksgiving needs something orange, right?  Whether it be sweet potatoes, carrots, or squash, you gotta have something.  This is a decadent sweet side dish that is sort of reminiscent of sweet potato casserole, but a little bit fancier (cuz it’s a soufflé!)

  13. Apple Cranberry Cake:The recipe I use for this is a Pear Cranberry version, but
    apple or pear cranberry spice cake

    you can substitute apples for pears in equal amounts.  I cook a version with ricotta, but you can use the same amount of sour cream if you like.  Also you can use apple pie spice, a blend of cinnamon and nutmeg, or gingerbread spice for this.  They’re all similar blends, and if you already have one of hand, use it instead of buying a new jar.

  14. Fresh Whipped Cream:You can always serve your dessert with store bought vanilla ice cream or store bought whipped cream.  But, with a day like Thanksgiving, why not make it extra special?  Everyone loves fresh whipped cream, and you can make it sweeter and more vanilla-y than a canned version, which I love.  I’ve always added about 2-3 times the powdered sugar because it’s my whipped cream, and I can do what I want!  I usually flavor with vanilla extract, too, but you can flavor it with any extract you want…pumpkin pie, almond, whatever.  Especially if you’re making something for dessert that has a liqueur in it,
    sweetened whipped cream

    like bread pudding, using a liqueur instead of extract is awesome!

Sounds like a lot, right?  Here’s the master shopping list, divided into 2 parts.  The first list is what you can buy up to 3 weeks in advance (stores run out of very basic items like butter when it gets close to Thursday.  Why wait?).  The second list is what I recommend you buy the Monday before Thanksgiving (because stores don’t get crazy until Tuesday).

List For November 1

Pantry Staples and Spices:  As I said before, most of you who are hosting Thanksgiving probably cook enough to have most of these items on hand.  I always like to just do a quick check, “Okay, got plenty of flour, check!”  Usually I buy flour (sugar, etc) when I open my last bag, and I buy spices when the current container has only 1-2 recipes worth left in the jar.  You’re probably good to go on this list, but just make sure!

  • Panko breadcrumbs (1 cup)
  • Olive oil (plenty!)
  • Baking powder
  • Flour (1-2 cups)
  • Kosher salt
  • Pepper
  • Smoked paprika
  • Chipotle powder
  • Cinnamon
  • Nutmeg
  • Gingerbread spice or apple pie spice
  • Dry Mustard (a few teaspoons)
  • Chicken base or bouillon (enough for 10-12 cups)
  • White sugar (3 cups)
  • Brown sugar
  • Powdered sugar
  • Pure vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste (at least 2-3 tablespoons)

Refrigerated and Dairy: With the exception of a few things like eggs and milk, you can buy dairy ahead of time.  I buy cheese in blocks because it tastes better, lasts longer, and it’s cheaper than pre-grated bags.  I would recommend freezing the sausage and bacon/pancetta until you start prepping.

  • Parmesan cheese block (1 pound)
  • Gruyere Cheese (8 ounces, see note with linked recipe above)
  • Ricotta cheese (1 small container)
  • Mascarpone Cheese (5 ounces or 10 ounces if you double the mushrooms)
  • Cream Cheese (8 ounces)
  • Sour Cream (1 pound, to be safe)
  • Heavy Cream (at least 2 quarts)
  • Unsalted Butter (2 pounds)
  • Crescent Rolls (3 cans)
  • Italian Sausage (12 ounces or 24 if you double the mushrooms)
  • Bacon or pancetta (3 ounces)

Frozen Items and Miscellaneous:  Of course these can be bought way ahead!  I let the turkey begin to defrost in the fridge the Saturday before Thanksgiving.  It can take a while because of the size, and it’s safest to defrost like this instead of on a counter or under running water.  Two of my recipes call for fortified wine (the mushrooms and the stuffing).  Fortified wine includes port, sherry, and Marsala, and I’m sure there are more I don’t know of.  As someone who’s not a connoisseur, I buy one type and use it for both.  When I did my initial shopping, the store didn’t carry sherry, which the stuffing called for.  The mushrooms say to use either sherry or Marsala.  So you know what?  I just bought Marsala and am calling it a day.  They both give a similar finish to cooked dishes, and I use fortified wine so sparingly in normal cooking that I don’t feel the need to buy both.  Also, Ina’s turkey recipe calls for only ¾ cup of dry white wine, but I like to add extra to keep the turkey very juicy.  I prepare the turkey for cooking, and I cook it in one of those big turkey bags to keep the juices in.

  • Frozen corn (2 ½ pounds)
  • Frozen winter squash (2 pounds, or 3 Birdseye boxes)
  • Frozen turkey breast (6-7 pounds)
  • Marsala or sherry (1 750 ml bottle is plenty)
  • White wine (2 cups)
  • Cashews (20 ounces)

That’s it for the November 1st shopping.  Let’s move onto the shopping to be done the Monday before Thanksgiving (which is November 21 this year).

List for the Monday before Thanksgiving

Produce:  Of course all produce should be bought as close to the day as possible.  Even stuff like potatoes and onions will just taste better if they’re fresh.  I always buy yellow onions because I think they’re the most versatile.  For the celery, just get a whole stalk –use the heart (the innermost tender pieces) for a fresh veggie snack platter, and use the outer, tough pieces for cooking.  Most fresh herbs and even scallions (except parsley and cilantro, usually) come in prepackaged boxes where I live.  One package will be enough of each individual herb.

  • Russet or Yukon Gold Potatoes (3 pounds)
  • Celery (1 pound bag)
  • Onions (1 small bag)
  • Garlic (1 head)
  • Scallions (1 package or about 12-16 scallions)
  • Thyme (1 package)
  • Rosemary (1 package)
  • Sage (1 package)
  • Parsley (1 bunch)
  • Lemons (3)
  • Oranges (2)
  • Granny Smith Apples (6)
  • Cranberries (18 ounces, or 2 12-ounce bags will give you enough plus extra)
  • Giant Stuffer Mushrooms (16, or if you’re doubling it -32!)
  • Brussels Sprouts (24 ounces)

Miscellaneous:  This includes the dairy and random items that should be bought close to Thanksgiving Day.  However, I decided to buy the orange juice early—I just bought a frozen can and will make it as I make the cranberry sauce and let the kids have the rest.  If I buy a bottle of juice and don’t use it immediately, it will magically disappear within a day (hence why I buy frozen).  For the milk, just buy whatever kind you normally use.  We always keep a gallon of 2% around, so I’ll just buy it as usually and use what I need.  For eggs, you can actually buy these ahead of time, but our family eats so many eggs that there’s no point—they’ll be gone long before.  If your household doesn’t really use eggs, go ahead and buy them earlier if you want, but look for a long expiration date.  I also like to wait and buy my drinking wine close to the day of because I’m not the type who keeps wine around without drinking it.  I’ll get it the week of, and this year I plan to get some Sauvignon Blanc, Rosé, Cabernet, and possibly something bubbly.  A lot of stores give 10% off if you buy a case (6 bottles) at time, no matter if they’re the same brand or not.

  • Orange Juice (1/2 cup)
  • Goat Cheese (8 ounce log)
  • Milk (about 1-2 cups total)
  • Eggs (3 dozen)
  • Country Bread or Boule Bread (2 loaves)
  • Wine for drinking!

Pro-Tip:  Let’s talk about making sure you have enough dishes to cook and serve!  When I started cooking Thanksgiving, I was surviving off of hand-me-down casserole dishes and a rag-tag assortment of platters that I hated (but they were free).  First, you need basics, but beyond that, you can accumulate stuff as you need it.  I realized a few years ago that I can’t survive in the kitchen without 2 9×13 Pyrex casserole dishes.  Goodwill can come back into play here:  it’s a great place to get dishes and service pieces, especially kitschy ones!  I love old Corningware stuff, and it is usually $2-3.50 a piece at Goodwill.  You’ll also want a few platters, and I like to get white or clear because they’re nice, neutral backdrops.  I like different shapes, like a big oval one and maybe a long rectangular one.  Here’s a list of service pieces and/or tools you’ll need for each menu item.

Spiced Cashewssheet pan, mixing bowl, rubber spatula, plus a small dish for serving

Roast Turkey Breast:  Roasting pan (preferably one with a rack), turkey bag, plus a large platter for serving

Goat Cheese Mash:  Regular pot, mixer (hand or stand will work), plus large bowl for serving

Gravy:  Regular pan, gravy boat (I got mine at Goodwill for $2)

Cranberry Sauce:  Small slow cooker, small serving dish

Stuffing:  9×13 casserole dish (plus mixing bowls, cutting board, knife, etc)

Cream Corn:  Large slow cooker

Roasted Brusselssheet pan (plus cutting board, etc)

Stuffed Mushrooms:  Large sauté pan, several small casserole dish (or one large depending on how many you many)

Winter Squash Soufflé:  Mixing bowl, hand mixer, soufflé dish (or small casserole dish) for serving

Crescent Rolls:  Sheet pan, bread basket for serving

Apple Cranberry Cake:  Mixing bowl, sifter, knife and cutting board, pie pan

Fresh Whipped Cream:  Stand mixer OR mixing bowl and hand mixer

Now let’s get to the schedule!  This part can be the most stressful, but I like to start on Monday afternoon after getting all the fresh ingredients.  I do what I can Monday, and by Tuesday night, everything is pretty much done for you (except the gravy and Crescent Rolls, which really need to be made right before you eat).

SaturdayBefore Thanksgiving:

  • Begin to defrost turkey breast, Italian sausage, and bacon in the refrigerator.


  • Nothing!


  • Complete shopping.
  • Make cranberry sauce in its entirety. Transfer to serving dish, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and store in the fridge.
  • Prepare creamed corn. Add all the ingredients to the slow cooker, cover, and store in the fridge until Thursday morning.
  • Prepare turkey marinade. Chop all herbs (or pulse in a food processor), add garlic, olive oil, lemons, etc.  Store in an airtight container until Thursday.
  • Cut up and toast the bread for the stuffing. Let it dry and cool completely before storing in a Ziploc bag at room temperature until Wednesday (when you’ll prep the stuffing completely)
  • Put the frozen winter squash in the fridge to defrost.


  • Prepare mushrooms except for baking. Clean them, make the filling, and stuff the mushrooms.  Arrange them tightly in the dish with a little extra marsala wine on the bottom.  Cover tightly with plastic wrap, and store in the fridge until Thursday.
  • Prepare the soufflé completely except for baking (or sprinkling with powdered sugar). Add the soufflé to a greased dish, cover tightly with plastic wrap until Thursday.
  • Make the Apple Cranberry Cake in its entirety, including baking it. Allow to cool completely, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and store in the fridge until Thursday.
  • Prep the Brussels Sprouts by trimming off the base and cutting them in half. Store in an airtight container in the fridge until Thursday.


  • Make the Spicy Cashews. Allow to cool completely before storing in an airtight container at room temperature.
  • Prepare the stuffing by cooking all the veggies and bacon/pancetta. Do everything except for baking.  Mix everything together, add it to the casserole dish, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and store refrigerated until Thursday.  Actually letting this soak overnight makes the stuffing even better!
  • Chop, peel, and boil the potatoes. Drain, and store refrigerated in an airtight container until Thursday.
  • Start the whipped cream. Whip it about halfway.  After adding the sugar and vanilla, refrigerate the partially whipped cream in an airtight container until Thursday.


  • Take the following out of the fridge, and allow to come to room temperature: the apple cranberry cake, the turkey and marinade, the cooked and diced potatoes, the cream corn, the stuffing, the winter squash soufflé, and prepped mushrooms.  (Do NOT remove the Brussels, crescent rolls, cranberry sauce, or whipped cream)
  • Put out the cashews along with any other snacks (like fresh veggies and hummus, and maybe grapes).
  • Rub the turkey with your prepared marinade, put it in the bag, and bake it first.
  • As the turkey starts, put the corn into the slow cooker base, and let it start cooking.
  • After the turkey is done, bake the stuffing.
  • After the stuffing is done, bake the butternut soufflé.
  • After the winter squash soufflé is done, bake the mushrooms.
  • After the mushrooms are done, roast the Brussels Sprouts.
  • While the Brussels are roasting, finish the mashed potatoes with goat cheese.
  • After the Brussels are done, bake the Crescent rolls.
  • As the Crescent rolls are baking, make the gravy.
  • Serve!
  • When you’re ready for dessert, finish the whipped cream with a hand mixer until it’s a light, fluffy consistency.

Wow!  I feel like this is a world’s worth of knowledge and I don’t know how I stored it all for so long.  This guide is as much for me as it is for any of my 10 readers.  I know most people wouldn’t make my entire menu exactly, but it’s nice to have a guide.  And no matter what stuffing recipe you use, you can still prep it ahead as I described.  I feel like most Thanksgivings would include somewhat of an analogue for every dish I’m making, so you can really adapt the guide to your specific recipes and take it from there!

Finally I’m going to give you my methods for making the Roasted Brussels Sprouts and the Pan Gravy.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts (takes about 45 minutes)


Olive oil cooking Spray

24 ounces fresh Brussels Sprouts, trimmed and halved

2 teaspoons granulated garlic

Salt and Pepper to taste

Zest and juice of 1 lemon


  1. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Prepare and half sheet pan with olive oil cooking spray. Add the prepared Brussels sprouts, spray with more cooking spray, and sprinkle with the garlic, salt, and pepper.
  3. Roast for 35-40 minutes, turning once during the cooking.
  4. Remove from the oven, and sprinkle the lemon zest and juice over the Brussels. Serve hot.

Pan Gravy (takes about 15 minutes)


3 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 tablespoons flour

6 ounces white wine

3 cups pan drippings (if you don’t have 3 cups, make up the rest with chicken stock)


  1. Add the butter and flour to a small pot over medium low heat, and use a wooden spoon to cook the 2 together.
  2. Once the butter has begun to brown and the flour is completely dissolved into the butter, add the wine. Scrape the bottom of the pot to get any bits that may have stuck to the bottom.
  3. Add the pan drippings and any necessary stock. Whisk together, and bring to a boil for about 1 minute.
  4. Reduce to a simmer, and stir with the whisk until thickened. Pour into a gravy boat, and serve immediately!

There you have it!  My entire run-down to get you through the day easily and painlessly.  You’ll have almost everything done in advance, and you can enjoy the day with everyone.  Happy Thanksgiving!


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