19 of the Best Thanksgiving Dinner Hacks

Isn’t Thanksgiving one of the best holidays? It’s a time for family and friends, community goodwill, and inner reflection and gratitude for our many blessings.

19 of the Best Thanksgiving Dinner Hacks | Foodal.com

At the beginning of the winter holidays, Thanksgiving brings with it the warmth and joy of the season, and the time-honored traditions of family feasts and gatherings.

For most, it’s a time of celebration with those we love, a chance to pause from our busy lives and take a break from the normal hectic pace of our daily commitments. For most, that is the case.

But, for those who actually make the Thanksgiving dinner, the organization, prep, and cooking can create a pressure cooker of stress and chaos. It can feel a bit overwhelming, if you’ve got a ravenous riot of relatives in the house, all waiting to be fed…

So give yourself a break! Stop worrying about the logistics, take control of the details, and start having fun. A little bit of organization and planning will soon have you reveling in the spirit of the season, instead of scowling like a scullery maid.

If you’re looking for ways to save some time and bust the stress of cooking a big meal (and who isn’t?) our list of 19 Thanksgiving dinner hacks will help you to create a fun and joyous meal.

Even better, if you want to make the holiday dining last, check out these tips on how to stretch your Thanksgiving dinner the extra mile! Got bigger concerns? We also have some great ideas on how to survive your holiday dinners, whether for Thanksgiving or Christmas.

1. Plan Ahead and Set a Schedule that Works

Trying to get everything done the same day as cooking a large meal is a time bomb waiting to go off. Instead, take an hour today, right now if you can, to set pen to paper and get organized.

By preparing as much in advance as you can, you’ll have lots of breathing room to enjoy the day, and your company, as well as cooking the feast.

Thanksgiving Shopping List | Foodal.com

Write up a checklist of everything that needs to be purchased, taken out of storage, cleaned, thawed, pressed, set up, or prepped in any way. Then set some time aside in the days leading up to your big meal to get all of the various tasks done.

As you cross each completed item off your list, you’ll have a greater sense of control and calm – which is great for busting those feelings of being overwhelmed.

Make a detailed shopping list for Thanksgiving | Foodal.com

Write up a complete grocery list as well, and you’ll be able to take advantage of sales the week before the holiday. This is also a good time to call some of your guests and ask a few to help out by bringing specific dishes such as veggie sides, salads, rolls, and desserts.

With a little advance planning, you’ll be able to spend more time with your guests, and time spent in the kitchen will be much more enjoyable.

2. Dry Brine the Bird

There’s no doubt that brining a turkey retains moisture to provide delicious, juicy meat. But, it’s also a messy and time consuming process.

Instead, dry-brine your bird with herbed salt for juicy meat and a beautiful, golden skin. Three days before cooking, pat your turkey dry with paper towels.

Salt and spices for a turkey dry brine | Foodal.com

Then, mix salt with dried herbs such as parsley, thyme, and sage and rub the bird all over, inside and out. Seal in a large plastic bag and place in the fridge. On the third day, take the bird out of the bag and allow it to dry in the fridge on a plate for the crispiest golden skin.

While you’re waiting for the bird to marinate, why don’t you take this opportunity to get your spice cabinet organized? Check out Foodal’s review of the best spice racks here.

Dry Brine a Turkey | Foodal.com
Photo courtesy of Food52.com

Food52 has good step by step video instructions for a turkey dry brine.

3. Bake Your Desserts a Day or Two Ahead of Time

Bake pecan, pumpkin, and apple pies, tarts, and any other desserts a day or two in advance. Cover and refrigerate, then take out the day of your meal and allow them to come to room temperature.

Prepare your baked goods ahead of time to speed up Thanksgiving meal making | Foodal.com

This way, you only have prep the toppings, like whipped cream, just before serving.

4. Make Your Own Pie Weights

If you’re making pies that require pre-baking (or “blind” baking) the shell and don’t have pie weights on hand, try this easy solution. Use parchment paper to line the pie shell and fill with rice to weigh down the dough. Some folks use dry beans for this, but they can smell a bit as they bake whereas rice has a more neutral aroma.

I’ve also seen bakers use a pile of coins, but money is notoriously grubby and germ-laden (literally, not just proverbially). Personally, I’d be a bit leery about using them anywhere near food.

5. Leverage Help from Your Friends and Family

Don’t be a kitchen martyr! Asking your family and friends for help with the dinner is smart, and it serves double duty. Your time is freed up by having less dishes to prepare, and guests like to feel they’re contributing by bringing something everyone can share.

Leverage friends and family to help | Foodal.com

For best results, choose guests that can actually cook. For those who can’t, ask them to bring rolls, ice cream for serving with the pies, a pound of good coffee, a bottle of wine, or an after dinner liqueur – all good options for the non-cook.

Of course, just about anyone can be roped into the after dinner cleanup.

6. Set Your Table the Night Before

This is another task that, once completed, really contributes to a sense of calm on the day of cooking a big meal.

Preparing the Thanksgiving dinner table | Foodal.com

The night before your dinner, set the Thanksgiving table(s) with all the linens, trivets, serving dishes and utensils, seasonings, and individual serving sets that you intend to use. Dig out and clean off any extra chairs, high-chairs, kids’ dishes, etc. that will be needed, and make sure everything is in place before going to bed.

And remember to cross it off your list before retiring for the night – you’ll sleep much better!

7. Prep Your Cookware and Tools the Night Before

Similar to setting the table, prepping your cookware and having everything in place before you start cooking brings a sense of control – your brain can let go of fussing over details that are already done, and move on to the next task.

Dig out all the pots and pans, utensils, dishes, oven mitts, basters and thermometers, measuring cups, and so on that you plan to use and place them on the stove and counter in convenient spots, roughly in order according to when you’ll need them.

Set up your recipe books, or print out copies and tape to a cupboard door if your counter space is getting too cluttered.

With everything in its place, you’ll be ready to hit the ground running when it’s cooking time.

8. Chop and Prep Veggies the Day Before

Pull out your recipes, and dice and slice your way through all the veggies listed for the dishes you plan to make.

Prepping vegetables the night before the big meal | Foodal.com

Chop, trim, and peel, then store in zip-topped bags in the fridge until they’re needed.

9. Don’t Peel the Spuds

Peeling enough potatoes for a large group takes a big chunk of time.

If you have other things to do with those precious minutes, cook your potatoes whole instead. When they’re ready, plunge into a bath of ice water. The skins will slip off in one fell swoop, ready for mashing.

10. Butter Up the Bird

Before cooking, rub the turkey all over with butter for juicy, richly flavored meat and golden skin. Using your hands, rub butter and dried herbs under and on top of the skin for a deep buttery taste.

11. Use a Meat Thermometer for Perfectly Cooked Poultry

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much to overcook a turkey, and the result is always dry meat. And undercooked poultry with pink meat and bloody joints isn’t a great way to impress guests either.

Use a meat thermometer on your Turkey | Foodal.com

You can stop under and overcooking your turkey, and eliminate the guesswork altogether, with a good quality meat thermometer.

They’re inexpensive and easy to use, and the digital probe style is ideal for roasting a turkey as the temperature displays on a countertop unit – so the oven door can stay closed, retaining the heat and cooking the meat more quickly.

12. Make a Turkey Stock in the Morning

For delicious gravy, use the neck and giblets to make a small pot of stock while the turkey cooks.

To your pot, add a quartered onion, a couple of carrots and celery stalks, and cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, add some peppercorns, a bay leaf, some parsley and thyme, and simmer gently for several hours. Remove from heat and cool, skimming off any fat that rises.

Use stock to make your turkey gravy | Foodal.com

Add to your gravy for a sumptuous taste.

13. Make Extra Stuffing as a Side Dish

It doesn’t seem to matter how big the bird is, there’s never enough room to hold all the stuffing.

No problem.

The simple solution is to stop trying to over-stuff the bird, and double your stuffing recipe – with whatever won’t fit in the chest cavity going into a casserole dish. Bake with the bird for a side dish of extra dressing. You know it won’t go to waste!

Extra Stuffing | Foodal.com

And for all you trivia buffs, stuffing is considered “stuffing” when it’s cooked in the bird. But it’s called dressing when cooked separately. Just in case you needed to know that…

14. Let Your Bird Rest Before Carving

For the juiciest meat, allow your bird to rest for 30-60 minutes before carving, 20 at the very least.

You should let the Turkey "rest" before slicing | Foodal.com

This is true for all roasted meat and fowl. When cooking, the juices travel and concentrate in the middle of the mass. Resting before carving allows the liquid to be redistributed to the extremities, so all pieces are moist and juicy.

15. Have Your Soup Pot on Standby for After Dinner

Who doesn’t love turkey leftovers? And turkey soup is one of the best… so, have your soup pot and veggies ready to go after the bird is carved!

Use your left over turkey in stews and soups | Foodal.com

After slicing any leftover meat, add the carcass to your pot, cover with water, and simmer for several hours with stock veggies like onion, carrots, and celery.

Carefully strain bones, cartilage, and stock vegetables, then return broth to the pot. Add your soup veggies, some diced turkey, and some herbs, and simmer until the vegetables are tender.

This soup is great for lunch the day after the holiday, or freeze a batch for a rainy day.

16. Free Up a Burner with the Slow Cooker

Stove top and counter space are always at a premium when making a big meal, so free up some room with your slow cooker.

After the potatoes are cooked and mashed, put them in the slow cooker on low in an out of the way spot – they’ll stay warm and fluffy until ready to serve, and you’ll have a free burner on the stovetop.

This is also an excellent alternative for making that after-dinner soup. No need to dirty up the stove again!

17. Free up Some Fridge Space with a Cooler

Just like there’s never enough space in the bird for the stuffing, there’s never enough room in the fridge for all the goodies needed for preparing a larger dinner.

Use a cooler or ice buckets to save refrigerator space during Thanksgiving | Foodal.com

Ease the over-crowding in the fridge by filling a cooler or two with ice and loading them up with canned beverages, juice, wine, or whatever your guests like to drink.

Use a cooler to save refrigerator space during Thanksgiving

Family and friends can help themselves, and precious fridge space is reserved for the food.

18. Serve Dinner Buffet-Style for More Room at the Table

A turkey dinner isn’t really a meal to be eaten standing up while mingling. But dining at a table with no room to breathe isn’t very comfortable either.

Serve your dinner buffet style | Foodal.com

To free up space at the table, set it for a sit-down meal with seasonings and condiments on the table, but serve the food buffet-style.

Use countertops or a sideboard, or set up card tables and lay out all the goodies for guests to help themselves. Everyone will have more elbow room at the table, and it makes setup and cleanup easier as well.

19. Before Digging In, Take a Moment to be Thankful

If you’re sitting down to enjoy a feast with family and friends, you’re more fortunate than a good portion of the world’s population.

Pause for a moment with your loved ones to be thankful for their presence, and to count your blessings… your beautiful Thanksgiving dinner will taste even better with an attitude of gratitude!

Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.

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About Lorna Kring

Recently retired as a costume specialist in the TV and film industry, Lorna now enjoys blogging on contemporary lifestyle themes. A bit daft about the garden, she’s particularly obsessed with organic tomatoes and herbs, and delights in breaking bread with family and friends.

44 thoughts on “19 of the Best Thanksgiving Dinner Hacks”

  1. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays in the year. That is due to the fact that you get to enjoy a day or weekend with your family and friends, it’s a selfless a holiday where you give and give thanks, and it’s all accompanied by great food, and usually a good atmosphere. Thanks a lot for the tips, I’ve always wanted to bake home-made apple pies, but I always end up buying the store kinds due to lack of time. I’m sure to save a lot of time this year thanks to you, and hopefully I’ll get a chance to get to bake my apple pie. I especially like your tip of dry-brining, I’ve always done the wet version, and your version does seem a lot faster and cleaner than mine. I will be looking in the site but if there isn’t, can you guys provide us with a good apple pie recipe? You guys always provide us with winning dishes.

  2. Planning is always key. I think the advice is good for huge dinner parties as well as Thanksgiving, especially digging out all the pots and pans, and making sure they are clean and there are enough pans. It can determine whether you need to rotate cooking items or to have an order if some items need longer to cook.

    I do think extra stuffing is great as you can use it as a side and some people like to snack on it with veggies and gravy.

    • Planning certainly is a key to success Bella, from everyday meals to the big feasts, it’s the step that simplifies.

      And you’re right, extra dressing is a wise step – in our house it’s an integral ingredient in those delicious, leftover turkey sandwiches…

  3. There are many creative ways to spice up Thanksgiving! Every year my family does something different with our turkey. This has given me many more great ideas. One year we put cherry pie filling on the outside and while it seems odd, it was amazing and brought out the flavor. This post also gave my ideas for soups and sandwiches.

    • Well, fruit and poultry is always a good combo though I have to admit, I’ve never tried the cherry pie filling! Glad you found some useful ideas.

  4. Stuffing the turkey itself is pretty unwise, from a food safety standpoint. I do agree that it tastes better when cooked inside the bird. However, as a 15 year kitchen veteran who has been trained, and even taught a few classes, in food safety, I’d be remiss if I didn’t highly advise against it.
    Stuffing needs to come to a temperature of 165 for at least 15-30 seconds before it’s considered fully cooked. By the time your stuffing gets there, your turkey’s breast will probably be in the 180-190 degree range and thoroughly overcooked. If you go for the perfectly cooked breast meat, you’ll have under-cooked the stuffing. This can be especially dangerous, since we serve Thanksgiving dinner to some of the most susceptible members of our family to food borne illness (i.e. small children and the elderly).
    In fact it’s pretty difficult just to get the thigh meat and the breast meat to cook together well. I’ve seen recipes that go so far as to let the thigh meat warm a bit and then submerge (but not thighs) the breast in ice water so it will be cooler and thus cook at the same rate as the thighs.
    I’m all for spatchcocking, myself. It makes the entire turkey cooking process go quicker, and makes it a more even cooking time between the breast and thigh meat. The dry brining, which you suggested, helps keep the breast moist in any case.
    As far as the stuffing goes, just make it dressing. Better yet, bake it in a muffin tin and have STUFFING MUFFINS!

    • Thanks for your insights on cooking temps pej – spatchcocking is great for saving time, and a side of dressing is always a good option for those concerned with food safety.

      I find dry brining (2), buttering the bird (10) and allowing the bird to rest before carving (14) takes care of retaining moisture, and a good thermometer (11) ensures the proper internal temp is reached. But point taken… care needs to be exercised with stuffed foods.

  5. I agree, proper prep is key! I like to prep dishes/chop veggies the day before I have a more labor intensive meal planned, or will be short on time, to make things as easy as throwing it in the oven or mixing everything up the day of. Making sure all your cookware, dishes, and utensils are cleaned and ready is a great idea too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to grab a certain measuring cup or prep bowl, only to have to stop to clean it first. I know to do the cookware prep before trying to cook, I am just bad at remembering to do it. Setting up the table the night before and using coolers, though, are ideas I had never heard of before and are great suggestions. We have a small house, with very minimal seating, so we don’t really host any parties and are usually guests at other people’s houses. Whenever we do have our own dinner party, or when we help set up for someone else’s again, I’ll have to remember those tips. Thanks.

  6. We don’t have a thanksgiving holiday in my country, but honestly we should. This article is so full of good information that I can apply to other celebrations like Christmas, which is just around the corner. These hacks can make life a lot easier and help us to be more organized.I am looking forward to making use of this info. Thanks for lovely article.

    • Thanks for your comments oraclemay. And yes, these hacks are equally applicable to any large meal… glad you like the post!

  7. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. For me, it is the start of the holiday season. Years of preparing Thanksgiving dinner has made me more savvy with the preparations so I too can enjoy some family and relaxation time.

    The article hits the mark with many of its suggestions. I too set the table the night before, prep the bird, and have many side dished pepped the night before. However, i ABSOLUTELY loved the idea of making a drink cooler with a hollowed out pumpkin. What a fun and festive way to use those Halloween pumpkins one more time!

    I also want to share a tip that helps keep me turkeys tasting awesome. The night before i put olive oil on skin, salt/pepper the bird and finally wrap in a towel and place in the fridge. I then cook the bird for the first hour upside down or breast down on the bottom of pan. Both are old family tricks that keep the white meat juicy yet allow the skin to get brown and crispy..YUM!

    • Not too much trumps the lessons of experience kamsith… and thanks for your tips on juicy white meat with crispy skin. Sounds wonderful!

  8. This was a great list of tips for ways to make your thanksgiving day go smoother and stress free. I’m curious, what is brining? Please let me know, I am always trying to learn new things. I really liked the fact that number 19 was to take time to be thankful, because as surprising as it seems, I feel this is forgot far to often. Be thankful! It’s kinda the point 😉

    • Brining is the process of soaking meat in salted water to relax the proteins in the muscle fibers. Once the proteins are relaxed, they can absorb moisture which prevents dryness. However, a lot of that retained moisture is water – which some feel dilutes the flavor of the bird.

      Dry brining, or salting, achieves the same relaxation of tissues through osmosis. Initially, the salt draws the moisture out, then relaxes the protein and re-absorbs the juice without any dilution of flavor. And its not as messy either.

      And thanks for remembering to be thankful abbielu!

  9. This article definitely make many great points, although we do not celebrate Thanksgiving in our country, the points listed would help with every other big gathering between family members too. As someone who has had to help out with a family reunion, I recognize the importance of good planning and commend the article for giving such good advice that would certainly help for these occasions.

    • As you say dabdab, planning is important for any gathering of the clan. Thanks for your comments, glad you found the post useful.

  10. I really enjoy this list. It will help relieve a lot of stress on Thanksgiving so you actually have time to be thankful for the friends and family around you. I do think it is a good idea to precook pies, and you can just throw them in the oven for 10 minutes to warm them back up to make them warm and fresh tasting. Preparing the veggies the night before is also a great idea, you just have to be careful as some can brown.

    • Good point about the veggies browning CatEaterr, care needs to be taken in storing them overnight to ensure they’re still fresh and crisp. Immersing in a bowl of cold water works well for a lot of veggies that tend to brown. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  11. This year, a few of my friends and I have decided to come together and do what we call “ThankMas” (a mix between Thanksgiving and Christmas). The idea of doing potluck with ones you love is so exciting, but at the same time really overwhelming! Although we have not decided who is making what, I will definitely have to pass this page on so everyone knows the hacks to make the food-prepping a little easier for them as well 🙂

    Thank you for these wonderful suggestions!

  12. I absolutely LOVE this post! Thank you for such time-saving, yet simple, tasks. Thanksgiving can definitely be a stressful time if you’re having a big crowd. This list of “hacks” is the perfect solution for a stress-free holiday. I especially love the tips about getting as much done ahead of time as possible. That will definitely make for a less stressful day of. Thank you, again, for sharing this wonderful advice. I will definitely be putting some of these tips to use this holiday season! (And it’s great because, although this is a post about Thanksgiving, these tips can also be tied into Christmas and other holidays as well!)

    • Thanks for your enthusiasm mgprice1! It is hard to be thankful when we’re stressed out and I’m always happy to find tips that make holiday celebrations simpler and more joyous. Hope yours is a good one!

  13. Thanks so much for this post! This year is my very first year living on my own, and I am cooking a Thanksgiving meal for my family for a change. Although I plan on taking your advice and enlisting their help, I do want to tackle the turkey by myself. I love your idea of baking desserts ahead of time rather than waiting to do all the cooking/baking in one day. What would you suggest for somebody with limited space, where I can’t make more than a couple items at a time?

    • Your first turkey, how exciting! Try the menu tabs above for dessert ideas makenziefalcon – Recipes > Desserts should give you some ideas. Have fun!

  14. You are right. It can get hectic. I want to enjoy the holiday too, not feel stressed.

    I love all of these tips, Lorna. These are good, common sense ideas. I’ve used some of these, as I’ve learned them over the years, but I’m always looking to add to the list. The more time I can spend enjoying my grandkids instead of being in the kitchen, the better! Thanks.

    • Glad you enjoyed the post Zyni, there’s nothing like a bit of experience as a teacher… and a few new ideas online always helps too. Enjoy feasting with your grandkids!

  15. Great tips! I am always on the hunt for new tips to make the holidays flow by without a hitch and will definitely be using a lot of these techniques to accomplish just that! However I already bought the brine bag so I might as well use it, but next year I will be using that delicious sounding dry rub! Thank you for posting these.

  16. As someone who suffers from anxiety this article really hits a lot of tips that would help me in a time that is stressful but supposed to be joyful! I love how you have made Thanksgiving seem possible in my little apartment with all the preset tips and preparation as well as making room for everything! These are the things that always have me on edge when I should be enjoying this time with my family. I am THANKFUL I found you and this article to help me out this holiday. By the way your turkey looks amazingly delicious!! Happy holidays!

    • Presetting and advance prep breaks a daunting task into manageable chunks and makes any project seem doable AnDaughter13. So glad you found the tips to be helpful, and hope your holidays are peaceful and joyous!

  17. I always bake my pies a day before our feast. They taste so much better after they’ve set. Plus if there is a mishap it can be corrected without a rush. the holidays can be very stressful if things haven’t been careful planned in advance. Doing so takes the sting out of it so time with family can be enjoyed.

    • It’s so nice to have some breathing room when something does go askew karmaskeeper, as having the time to fix a mistake is crucial to keeping the stress down. And you’re right, pies do taste better with sitting time! Thanks for your comments.

  18. The tip for buttering the bird is genius and sounds amazing! I will definitely be trying this! Can this technique work with other forms of poultry, or just turkey?

  19. It makes for rich, juicy meat Nikole88! I’ve buttered chicken and Cornish game hens, and imagine it would work for game such as duck and goose just as well. Enjoy your bird!

  20. Thanks for these tips, I wish I would have found them a couple of days ago. I have been blessed with cooking the Thanksgiving dinner for my family every year. We usually have a pretty large crowd and I am the one doing the most prep work and cooking so any tips I can take in are greatly appreciated. I use my slow cookers for many things, I especially love using them for the gravy. Next year I will use it for the mash potatoes too! What a great idea.

    I still haven’t figured out how to master the croissants. I usually cook those last and since we have so many people it takes around 30 minutes. I’m worried the food gets too cold while I’m doing this. Any suggestions on how to coordinate the dinner rolls with the meal?

    • Slow cookers are great for keeping things warm and freeing up some space on the stove kit10. For the croissants, could you bake them early in the day just before the turkey goes in? When done, leave them somewhere at room temp, then pop back in the oven to re-heat while the bird is being carved – that way, everything could be served warm.

  21. Hi Lorna! Just passing by to say thanks! Thanks to your helpful tips my Thanksgiving dinner was a success. I was able to plan ahead and did not have to do any last minute shopping. From what my friends tell me the supermarkets were full with hordes of people. So I saved a lot of time in that front. I bought disposable cups, plates, forks, spoons and knives, so when it came down to the clean up it was a total time saver. Let me tell you, your suggestion in dry-brining the turkey was awesome! I got the job done in half the time, and the results were much tastier. I served the food buffet-style and there was a lot more space in the table, making the meal much more enjoyable. In the end I opted for buying already made desserts at Costco and they were delish! Lastly my Mom and friends pitched in to help clear the little dishes that were left, leaving me with a lot more time to truly enjoy the evening! Thanks again!

  22. That’s awesome Michelle, thanks so much for taking the time to let us know of your successes! The dry brine’s a treat, isn’t it? Personally, I’ll go to almost any length to avoid the stores right before a holiday, and pre-shopping is the ticket for saving time and money. So glad you were able to enjoy your meal and time with friends and family!

  23. These are really good tips. Some of it is commonsense really like preparing certain things ahead of time. Every year persons tend to load the day with all the work and by dinner time they end up being exhausted. So I say whatever can be done before the actual day should be done to reduce thanksgiving day stress. Thank you for the tips though.

  24. This was such a good article that I had to revisit it before Christmas. We basically do Thanksgiving dinner again during this holiday season. We just can’t get enough turkey, so we do it all over again instead of having ham or something else.

    Of course, many of this tips are great for any big meal or special occasion, but I’m a turkey person, so those are my favorites.

  25. Absolutely interchangeable with Christmas dinner Zyni, and as you say, for most feasts as well. Except for the turkey part. Hope you have a wonderful, festive meal and get your fill of the big bird!

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