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The Daily Meal’s Guide to Thanksgiving

The Daily Meal’s Guide to Thanksgiving

Our thorough guide shares all you need to know for the most celebrated food holiday of the year


From casseroles to playlists, we've got you covered this year with our guide to Thanksgiving.

It’s that time of the year again — the leaves have turned, the clocks have moved back an hour, and everyone’s Halloween costumes have been stowed away until next year’s festivities. It’s Thanksgiving season and planning is already underway for much-loved holiday.

Because Thanksgiving centers on one thing — breaking bread — it’s only fitting that The Daily Meal would be here to provide you with every little tool you’ll need to make sure this year's Thanksgiving is a successful one. From menu guides to entertaining tips and recipes, we have everything you need to pull off the perfect Thanksgiving.

Can't decide which turkey to buy this year? We outline the basics of what you should consider when choosing a bird. Have you been tasked with creating a playlist this year? Our upcoming Thanksgiving Playlist guide from Entertain will help you create the perfect list of holiday melodies to accompany your meal. If you’re looking for something a little out of the box this year, our Fast-Food Thanksgiving menu will satiate your fast-food cravings while still upholding the traditions of the holiday, and our upcoming guide to 10 Unique Ways to Celebrate will give you inspiration for what new things you can do this year to make the holiday a memorable one. The tasty meals don’t just stop at Thanksgiving, either. Our Ultimate Leftover Thanksgiving Turkey Sandwich makes sure you treat your leftovers right this year, and our soon-to-come Day After Thanksgiving Brunch entertaining guide will help you keep the celebrations going all weekend long. Other content to look forward to is our Pumpkin Pie Taste-Off, the ultimate guide to cranberry sauce, and 10 different ways you can make your turkey this year.

Although the classic song tells us that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, everyone here at The Daily Meal agrees that no other holiday holds a candle to Thanksgiving. From menus to product guides and entertaining how-tos, we’ll make sure your Thanksgiving is done right, so check out our guide and keep coming back for more throughout the month.

Click here to see The Daily Meal's Guide to Thanksgiving

Anne Dolce is the Cook Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter @anniecdolce

Make your own all-vegan holiday menu on YouTube

It’s been three years since we have had the big bird at our Thanksgiving dinner. Or, for that matter, any animal or dairy product.

Being vegan is not an easy task most times of the year, but it’s especially challenging during Thanksgiving and the holiday season, given the breadth of tasty treats that make their way to celebratory spreads, office parties, and family get-togethers. From firsthand experience, I can attest to the fact it takes supreme willpower to say no to a candy-cane-studded chocolate cheesecake.

For vegans of all varieties (some hardcore folks avoid nuts, seeds, and oils), there are options to put the happy back in the holiday season, and thanks to YouTube, you can harvest recipes to build a complete menu, from soup to nuts (or beans).

How to Quickly Thaw a Turkey*

In the rush to check off your grocery list, plan your table settings and swing by the wine shop, you forgot to pull the turkey out of the freezer and defrost. It’s day of. Now what?!

We’re not sure this classifies as “quick,” but if you have at least 4 hours to spare (not including the amount of time it will take to cook the turkey), a speed thaw is possible.

The trick is to place the frozen turkey in a large receptacle of water, which you can keep at a consistent 65 F. (We suggest placing container directly under tap, with steady flow of water. For food safety reasons, water temperature should never exceed 70 F.) Then follow these direction. (Note: Time is based on an approximately 17-pound bird):

  1. After 20 minutes in the bath, pull turkey out of water and remove packaging. Refresh water and resubmerge.
  2. After 2 1/2 hours in the bath, you will notice that turkey becomes more pliable. At hour three, remove turkey from bath and remove neck and giblets from the cavity. Refresh water and resubmerge.
  3. Keep turkey in the bath until a digital meat thermometer inserted into breast meat and all the way to bone registers 28 F.
  4. Remove turkey from the bath, pat dry and season. See our Turkey Cooking Guide for ideas.

A Southern Casserole at a New York Thanksgiving

The coronavirus pandemic made it impossible to spend the holiday with her family down South. So, she decided to bring a little Southern comfort to her northern celebration.

Continue reading

Thanksgiving Countdown Planner

Hosting Thanksgiving dinner and not sure where to start? Relax — getting ready for the holiday is easy with our tips and recipes.

Related To:

Brined Herb-Crusted Turkey with Apple Cider Gravy Anne Burrell

1 Month Before: Finalize Guest List

If you’ve decided to host Thanksgiving this year, now is the time to finalize your guest list. Think about how many people you can accommodate at your table for a sit-down dinner or keep things more casual and invite more guests if you're serving buffet style. There's no need for formal invitations a phone call or email to friends and family is sufficient. This is the time to ask about dietary preferences and if your great-aunt makes an awesome stuffing that she’d like to bring. This will help you figure out your menu later on.

1 Month Before: Plan Your Menu

Pick your favorite turkey recipe today and then plan additional dishes around the bird. If you’re more a fan of side dishes, start with your favorite recipes and build from there. Think about family favorites and Thanksgiving classics to start, then add in a few new dishes. Be sure to also think about drink options and simple bites to serve as guests arrive.

3 Weeks Before: Get Your Gear

With plenty of time to hit the stores, now is the time to shop for tools you’ll need for the big day. Think about what you needed last year that you didn’t have or upgrade some of your current tools to help ease the cooking process.

3 Weeks Before: Create a Shopping List

With a little over 3 weeks to go, you can start to organize your shopping list. You should have a good idea by now of who will be coming, so take a look at each recipe and decide how much of each dish you’ll need. If guests are bringing dishes, make sure they’re in the loop about how many people are attending. If you’re cooking solo, pick easier, big-batch recipes to make the day less stressful. Once you go through each recipe, create a shopping list of all the ingredients you’ll need and compare it against the pantry items you already have on hand. Finalize the list so you can order hard-to-find ingredients online.

3 Weeks Before: Order a Turkey

With your menu set and guest list finalized, order your turkey. Assume 2 pounds per adult and 1 pound per child (to guarantee leftovers). If you’re ordering a specialty bird, those can sell out pretty early in November. If you’re getting a turkey from the supermarket, it always helps to be prepared and order ahead. If you're buying a frozen turkey, you have time — just don't wait until the last minute.

3 Weeks Before: Shop for Drinks

Wine and liquor keep well, so buy the items you need early. You probably won’t want to serve as bartender on the big day, so pick a signature drink that you can make a big batch of before guests arrive or set a bar with all of the basics and let guests help themselves. Plan on each guest drinking two drinks in the first hour, and one drink for every hour thereafter. You know your guests better than we do, so treat that as an estimate. It also wouldn’t hurt to have a nonalcoholic option on hand, like apple cider or sparkling water.

2 Weeks Before: Clean Out Your Freezer

Cooking and freezing as much as possible now will save you time on turkey day. Clean out your freezer to make room for everything you’ll be putting in.

2 Weeks Before: Make and Freeze Pie Dough, or an Entire Apple Pie

Make a few batches of pie dough now and freeze them wrap the disks tightly in plastic wrap and thaw in the refrigerator overnight before you’re ready to use them — most pies can be made the day before Thanksgiving. Ina’s showstopping apple pie can be fully prepared and frozen up to a month in advance. After assembling, put the entire pie — greased tin and all — into a loose-fitting plastic bag and seal tightly. Transfer it to the refrigerator the night before baking to thaw, and the next day you’ll have a fresh, juicy apple pie on your table in about an hour.

2 Weeks Before: Decide on Decor

Once you’ve decided whether you’re serving buffet style or a sit-down dinner, you can start to plan for your decor. Think about whether you’ll want to order flowers ahead of time or if you’ll create a nonperishable centerpiece.

2 Weeks Before: Freeze Homemade Stock

The key to a good gravy is homemade stock. You can buy turkey bones from your butcher, roast them and then simmer with aromatics before putting your stock in the freezer.

2 Weeks Before: Freeze Rolls

Pick a roll recipe that will freeze well — one that has a moist base of butter, buttermilk, pureed pumpkin or squash. On Thanksgiving Day take them out of the freezer in the morning and allow them to defrost at room temperature.

1 Week Before: Shop for Non-Perishables

Divide up your shopping list into perishables and nonperishables and get the latter out of the way now. Nonperishables include equipment, decor, paper goods and cleaning supplies – but could also include baking ingredients like flour, sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, canned pumpkin and cranberries. Wait until the day before Thanksgiving to buy fresh vegetables, seafood and bread. Take inventory of tableware, tablecloths and napkins in case you need to pick up anything extra, and make sure each recipe has a serving bowl or platter to be paired with.

1 Week Before: Prepare a Cooking Schedule and Create a Seating Plan

Being organized is the key to keeping stress at a minimum on turkey day. Review your recipes and create a day-by-day schedule for the week leading up to Thanksgiving as well as a day-of plan. Make place cards for your guests if you’ll be hosting a sit-down meal and figure out a seating plan.

1 Week Before: Freeze Soup

Vegetable soups can be easily frozen if they don't have cream or eggs, making them an excellent do-ahead appetizer. The warm curry flavor in Ina Garten's butternut squash soup will still be nicely preserved when you reheat just before serving.

1 Week Before: Plan Ahead for Leftovers

Make it easy on yourself (and guests) by having containers and bags at the ready. Leftovers will need to be wrapped up within a few hours of finishing your meal, so better to be prepared.

1 Week Before: Pick Up Your Turkey

If you’ve ordered a turkey, now is the time to pick it up so you can be prepped to defrost it. If you haven’t planned for your turkey yet, purchase a frozen bird today so it will be able to defrost properly in the fridge.

3 Days Before: Defrost Your Turkey and Buy Perishable Ingredients

Thawing a frozen turkey takes time and patience. The best way is to thaw the bird in the coldest area of the fridge with a pan underneath to catch any drips (not on the counter). If you plan on brining (a simple, hands-off way to infuse your turkey with flavor), Anne Burrell's recipe maximizes taste but minimizes prep with a no-cook apple cider brine. Now is also the time to brave the crowds and pick up any perishable items from the store.

2 Days Before: Make Cranberry Sauce, Pie Crusts and Pie

Try fresh cranberries instead of canned this year, and buy an extra bag when you're in the produce aisle they keep in your freezer for up to a year. Cranberry sauce can stay fresh in the fridge up to 2 weeks because of its high acidity, so make it now and refrigerate it in a jar or bowl covered in plastic wrap. If you didn’t freeze your pie crusts ahead of time, make them today and wrap the dough to store in the fridge. If you've prepped items and kept them in the freezer, take them out to defrost. This includes any pie crusts or stock you made in advance.

1 Day Before: Prepare Reheatable Side Dishes, Prep Ingredients, Bake Pies

Start to make sides that will reheat well, like casseroles or creamed onions. Prep garnishes, toppings, salad greens and stuffing ingredients. Cook soups and let cool before storing in the refrigerator if you didn’t freeze any options in advance. If your stuffing recipe calls for stale bread, cut the bread now and set the cubes on a baking sheet to dry out. You can go ahead and make your pies, especially Ree Drummond's Pecan Pie that needs to cool overnight for a natural do-ahead dessert.

Thanksgiving Day: Don’t Stress! Stick to a Day-Of Plan

Preheat your oven in the morning and get your turkey going. If you premade bread, let it defrost at room temperature. Put your wine or beer in the fridge to chill. While the turkey roasts, prepare your other side dishes since they can stand at room temperature for an hour or keep in the fridge. When the turkey is done, let it rest while you make the gravy, reheat side dishes and prep salads.

The Day After: Use Your Leftovers

You can store leftovers in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Try to reheat only what you'll be serving right then rather than reheating the entire portion. It's safe to heat it all up and then re-store what you don't use, but it’s not ideal. Soup is a great way to get every penny's worth from your bird — try one of our favorites.

1. Simple Roast Turkey

Melissa Clark’s recipe for simple roast turkey will not steer you wrong. So many readers say this is the best turkey they’ve ever made. If you want an organic, farm-raised bird, be sure to place your order a few weeks in advance, and invest in oven and meat thermometers. (Accurate oven temperature is one of the keys to success here.)

View our collections ofThanksgiving Turkey Recipes andThanksgiving Gravy Recipes, and ourHow to Cook Turkey guide,How to Make Gravy guide andHow to Carve a Turkey video.

Make a Shopping List

Making a shopping list will help you in two ways. It will remind you to look for the nutritious foods you should be eating, and it will make it easier to stick to your food budget. Be sure to include the items you need for your menus and any low-calorie basics you need to restock in your kitchen.

This sample shopping list (PDF, 108 KB) includes a variety of healthy foods for you to look for. You can make a blank copy of these pages to use when you shop, or use this list as a basis for making your own shopping list. Of course, you won’t need everything listed here every time you shop, but this will help you remember what you need to buy.

  • 2 slices 100% whole wheat bread
  • 2 ounces canned tuna
  • 2 teaspoons mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons chopped celery
  • 1 medium leaf lettuce
  • 1 cup cooked spaghetti
  • 1/4 cup spaghetti sauce
  • 1/4 cup diced tomatoes (canned, no salt added)
  • 3 medium meatballs
  • 1 tablespoon parmesan cheese
  • 1 cup mixed greens
  • 3 slices cucumber
  • 1/4 cup cubed avocado
  • 1/4 cup garbanzo beans (canned, low sodium)
  • 3 tablespoons shredded, reduced-fat cheddar cheese
  • 1 tablespoon ranch dressing

Fat-free strawberry yogurt (8 ounces)

Find more recipes at the USDA’s What’s Cooking website.

Shopper's Guide

To round out this list of epic meals, check out these quick grocery shopping tips. Put them to use next time you're on the hunt for fuel.

1. Prioritize Protein

The bulk of your money should be spent on purchasing the highest-quality protein possible for your budget. Look for labels with key words like these before purchasing: minimally processed, no added flavors, solution or coloring, grass-fed, pasture-raised, organic, and no added hormones.

2. Get Smart

Use phone applications like Fooducate (on iPhone or Android) to help determine which products to purchase while shopping. The app gives you recommendations based on a product's ingredients and rates it on a scale from A (highest) to F (lowest). You'll be surprised that many of the expensive "natural and organic" products have low ratings!

3. Find the Farm

Perform a Google search for a local famer's market in your area. Farmer's markets are great places to find quality produce at reasonable prices while simultaneously supporting local businesses. Win-win!

4. Double Up!

Live with fitness-minded roommates? Consider purchasing quality meats in bulk on a monthly basis and then freezing them. More often than not, bulk quantities mean significant cost savings.

If quality protein is on sale, and you have a few extra dollars, purchase and immediately freeze it. An extra stash of meat can come in handy at the end of the month when you're looking to stretch the dollar.

5. Collect Coupons

Before checking out at grocery stores, ask if there are any coupons or store discounts. Many times the cashier might know of store promotions that can be used.

For more meal prep ideas and to connect with others, follow me on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube at FitMenCook!

About the Author

Kevin Alexander

Kevin Alexander is a fitness enthusiast and creator of ''FitMenCook''. He is based in Dallas, TX.

What It Takes to Burn Off Thanksgiving Dinner

The Thanksgiving Dish-to-Exercise Breakdown

Apple Pie (1 slice), 411 calories = 5K Turkey Trot (35 min)

Pumpkin Pie (1 slice), 316 calories = Yoga (60 min)

Buttered Roll, 210 calories = Flag Football (20 min)

Sweet Potato Casserole (1/2 cup), 200 calories = Spinning (18 min)

Turkey Breast (6 oz), 195 calories = Ice Skating (50 min)

Egg Nog (1/2 cup), 190 calories = CrossFit (13 min)

Stuffing (1/2 cup), 180 calories = Stair Running (10 min)

Corn Bread (2 oz), 160 calories = Swimming (15 laps)

Red Wine (6 oz), 150 calories = Walking (35 min)

Mashed Potatoes (1/2 cup), 120 calories = Weight Training (35 min)

Green Bean Casserole (1/2 cup), 70 calories = Dancing (14 min)

Gravy (1/4 cup), 45 calories = 50 Burpees

Cranberry Sauce (1/4 cup), 37 calories = 60 Push-Ups

Some Turkey Day Perspective

Calorie counts got you down before Thanksgiving has even rolled around? Remember that this is a time to celebrate and give thanks, so don’t forget to keep things in perspective. (A little stuffing never hurt anybody!) Just keep your goals within sight, and your workout journal close by. Whether you’re down for an hour of dancing, a friendly push-up contest, or some flag football with the fam, there’s always a fun way to stay active and in control of your health and wellness.

Who Attended the First Thanksgiving?

At the first Thanksgiving, colonists were likely outnumbered more than two to one by their Native American guests. Winslow writes: “many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men.” The preceding winter had been a harsh one for the colonists. Seventy-eight percent of the women who had traveled on the Mayflower had perished that winter, leaving only around 50 colonists to attend the first Thanksgiving. According to eyewitness accounts, among the pilgrims, there were 22 men, just four women and over 25 children and teenagers.