How to Plan What You're Making for Thanksgiving Dinner (2024)

For a lot of families, the Thanksgiving menu is dictated by tradition. Everyone comes to expect the same things each year, and breaking away from that form can be incredibly difficult. I know it was for my family: Growing up, my entire extended family gathered each year in Pittsburgh for a meal mostly cooked by my uncle, who almost single handedly cooked everything. We always (and I do mean always) had a smoked turkey, cornbread stuffing, and corn pudding cooked by my aunt. It wasn't until my grandmother passed away and my mom decided to host Thanksgiving at her own house in North Carolina, inviting a totally new group of people and leaving the food up to me, that we decided to shake things up.

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I was so excited to plan the menu that year, but I was quickly overwhelmed. If you were unaware... there are endless options for Thanksgiving dishes, and I found it difficult to know what was essential and what I could skip. What I came to is a piece of advice that I now turn back to every year: First, pick a theme; then, select dishes from a variety of predetermined categories. I decided on and continue to use my category structure in order to make sure I'm creating a balanced menu.

Step 1: Pick a theme.

It helps to have an organizing principle to guide your choices. The first year I cooked Thanksgiving, I went completely non-traditional, choosing recipes for each item that caught my attention and seemed like a fun departure from the more classic meal I had grown up eating. The next year, I did a Southern menu, complete with cornbread stuffing, macaroni and cheese, and sweet potato pie. You could opt for an Italian theme or go old-school New England – theme options range far and wide, but picking one will help you decide not just what to cook, but also which version of that dish to make.

A Traditional American Thanksgiving Dinner Menu

Step 2: Select your lineup from the following categories...

Show-Stopping Main Dishes

How to Plan What You're Making for Thanksgiving Dinner (1)

Ideas: whole turkey, turkey breast, braised turkey thighs, mushroom lasagna, whole stuffed squash
Choose: 1 dish

Obviously, the classic choice here is a roasted turkey, but you don't have to feel limited by that. You could do a whole turkey breast for a smaller crowd, or go off the beaten path with long-braised turkey legs and thighs. Southern Thanksgiving often involves a ham, which is always delicious. Vegetarians might want to go with roasting a whole squash, filled with mushrooms and bread and cheese, and then slice like a cake for that show-stopping moment. If you're cooking meat, aim to have about a pound and a half per person. (You'll end up with less because you have to account for the bones, don't worry.) If you're going vegetarian, aim for about 8 ounces of the main dish per person. In my book, gravy is an essential accompaniment to the main dish – plan to prepare a make-ahead gravy to take some pressure off. Consider using a mushroom stock in place of turkey stock if you're trying to keep it vegetarian or vegan.

Starchy Sides

How to Plan What You're Making for Thanksgiving Dinner (2)

Ideas: stuffing, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, potato gratin, corn casserole, rolls
Choose: 3-4 dishes

I think if we're all honest, we know that Thanksgiving is mostly about the starches. Mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, fresh-baked rolls – these are the true heroes of the meal, and there will be a lot of them on the table, which is totally fine. You're almost certainly going to have mashed potatoes and stuffing on the table, and from there you can make a personal choice about adding something like macaroni and cheese or Parker House rolls. Based on your theme (and what you want to eat), make a choice about how many of these dishes you want to have, and prioritize from there. For sides, I aim for about ¾ cup of each side dish for each person.

15 Best Easy Thanksgiving Side Dishes

Green Veggie Sides

How to Plan What You're Making for Thanksgiving Dinner (3)

Ideas: green bean casserole, Brussels sprouts, collards, broccoli, creamed spinach
Choose: 1-2 dishes

Cooked greens may not be the most glamorous dishes on the menu, but you need them. They bring more bitter flavors and will serve as a helpful foil to all the buttery richness that you're sure to have going on. Plus, sides like green beans and Brussels offer a fantastic opportunity for some textural variation on the table. Again, aim for about ¾ cup per person.

Our 15 Best Veggie Side Dishes for Thanksgiving Dinner

Bright and Fresh Sides

How to Plan What You're Making for Thanksgiving Dinner (4)

Ideas: kale salad, chicory salad, cranberry sauce, citrus salad
Choose: 1-2 dishes

Personally, I am a huge fan of canned cranberry sauce, but that's a conversation for another day. For those who prefer a fresh cranberry condiment, note that it's the traditional star of this category. It is the oft overlooked, yet incredibly necessary category of fresh, bracing dishes that you'll take a bite of to clear your palate before another mouthful of rich, buttery mashed potatoes. They're not the highlight of the Turkey Day table, but they're doing some serious heavy lifting. Flavors of lime, lemon, orange, cranberry, and even spiciness are welcome here. Tart and lively is the name of the game.

22 Simple Fall and Winter Salads

Yellow/Orange Sides

How to Plan What You're Making for Thanksgiving Dinner (5)

Ideas: sweet potato casserole, squash casserole, roasted squash, roasted carrots
Choose: 1-2 dishes

Harvest vibes, anyone? Okay, so, this color category of "veggie" isn't typically considered essential on the same scale as a "green vegetable" when you're planning a dinner menu, but the Thanksgiving menu plays by a different set of rules. On Thanksgiving, representation from this category is arguably non-negotiable. You can do an old-school sweet potato casserole topped with marshmallows, but the possibilities for savory orange-hued sides are endless. If you're not entirely sure, consider heading to your local farmer's market the weekend before Thanksgiving to see what types of squash and carrots are on offer, and let those inspire you.

Our 10 Best Sweet Potato Recipes Will Steal the Show This Holiday


How to Plan What You're Making for Thanksgiving Dinner (6)

Ideas: apple pie, pecan pie, pumpkin pie, cherry pie, pumpkin cake, cheesecake
Choose: As many as you want; there's no such thing as too much dessert!

When it comes to Thanksgiving, dessert isn't so much about making sure there's the right amount (we've been known to serve three pies for five people in my household), but more about making sure you get the opportunity to eat all of the seasonal desserts that don't seem to make it onto the table for other holidays. Dream big, plan ahead, and don't forget the vanilla ice cream.

Save Room for 20 of Our Most Popular Thanksgiving Desserts

How to Plan What You're Making for Thanksgiving Dinner (2024)


How much food should I make for Thanksgiving dinner? ›

Quantity planning for soups, sides, main courses, and desserts
EntreePer PersonCrowd of 25
Chicken, turkey, or duck (boneless)1/2 pound13 pounds
Chicken or turkey (with bones)3/4 to 1 pound19 pounds
Turkey (whole)1 pound25 pounds
Mar 26, 2016

How do you simplify Thanksgiving dinner? ›

These tips, tricks and timesavers can be a Thanksgiving host's saving grace.
  1. Pick the menu early. Don't leave menu planning and shopping to the last minute. ...
  2. Brine your bird. ...
  3. Start prep work a few days before Thanksgiving. ...
  4. Serve batched co*cktails. ...
  5. Create simple centerpieces.
Nov 1, 2023

How many potatoes for Thanksgiving dinner? ›

Potatoes. If you're making simple mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving and other holiday dinners, Food52 user boulangere usually counts one and a half potatoes per person: "Everyone gets as much as they want, and you have those heavenly leftovers.

How many potatoes per person for Thanksgiving dinner? ›

Because leftovers are the best part. Potatoes or sweet potatoes: 5 to 6 ounces per person, which equals about 1 large Yukon Gold or white potato, or half of a large sweet potato.

How many mashed potatoes per person for Thanksgiving? ›

Add the butter and warm milk to the bowl and mash with a potato masher or fork (or pass the potatoes through a ricer or food mill for a smoother mash). Season with salt and pepper. Plan on 1/3 to 1/2 pound potatoes per person for your feast.

How do I cook my first Thanksgiving dinner? ›

How to Cook Thanksgiving Dinner for the First Time
  1. Prep the week and night before if possible. If certain dishes on your menu like pies, side dishes, etc can be made beforehand, do it. ...
  2. Shop early. ...
  3. Set the table a few days before. ...
  4. Put on a peppy playlist. ...
  5. Enlist help. ...
  6. Have a cleanup plan.
Nov 3, 2023

What is the most important food on a Thanksgiving table? ›

When it comes to the big Thanksgiving feast, we consider the roast turkey and the sweet potato casserole as sides to the STUFFING. A good stuffing makes or breaks Thanksgiving dinner, and this one will absolutely make your holiday meal all the better. Get the Classic Stuffing recipe.

What can I make for Thanksgiving dinner instead of turkey? ›

Thanksgiving Main Dishes That Are Better Than Turkey
  • Roast Chicken With Maple Butter and Rosemary. Image. Credit... ...
  • Beef Wellington. Image. ...
  • Ombré Gratin. Image. ...
  • Skillet Pork Chops and Apples With Miso Caramel. Image. ...
  • Samosa Pie. Image. ...
  • Maple-Baked Salmon. Image. ...
  • Lasagna. Image. ...
  • Ina Garten's Make-Ahead Coquilles St. Jacques.
Nov 10, 2022

How do you make Thanksgiving special without family? ›

You can continue the day by hosting a Friendsgiving dinner or movie night with your pals who are still in town. When it comes to food, you can cook a mini turkey for one or ditch Thanksgiving dinner altogether and order take-out at a local restaurant.

How far in advance should I cook for Thanksgiving? ›

Here's a day-by-day cooking countdown to Thanksgiving.
  • Three Weeks Ahead: Reserve the Bird, Start Shopping, and Freeze Some Pie.
  • Two Weeks Ahead: Menu Plan, Shop, and Make the Cranberry Sauce.
  • One Week Ahead: Make and Freeze Pie Dough, Dinner Rolls, and Stock.

Can I prepare Thanksgiving dishes ahead of time? ›

Casseroles are another great option for making ahead, because you can assemble them, then put them directly into the oven to bake the next day. Get a head start on all the classics—like green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, and corn casserole—so you can breathe easier on the big day.

How to prepare Thanksgiving meal in advance? ›

Our Best Make-Ahead Tips for Your Easiest Thanksgiving Yet
  1. The Turkey: Prep It for Roasting. ...
  2. Mashed Potatoes: Freeze Them or Embrace the Make-Ahead Casserole. ...
  3. Gravy: Yes, Even Without Roasting the Turkey. ...
  4. Stuffing: Bake the Bread, Toast the Nuts. ...
  5. Green Beans: Prep the Garnishes or Casserole.

How many days before Thanksgiving can I start cooking? ›

2-3 days out: Start on your sides and gather your remaining ingredients. Unless you thrive under pressure, start your sides on the Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving. “Start with sides that reheat well,” recommended Smith. “Examples include mashed potatoes, braised greens and green bean casserole.”

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