If you’re hosting Thanksgiving dinner this year, our easy hacks can give you more time for relaxing with your guests!
Preparing a big holiday meal for family and friends is a lot of fun, but it does require plenty of work, and involves much more than simply cooking a bird.
There are side dishes to prepare, desserts to bake, seating arrangements to work out, beverages to chill, place settings to count, and far more.
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With all the details to attend to, and a ravenous riot of relatives in the house, it can create a pressure cooker of stress – which often results in overlooked items, undercooked or overcooked foods, and an unhappy and frustrated host.
But with just a little organization and planning, you can easily manage your tasks and energy so that a delicious meal is served, with everything coming together on time – and you can enjoy it along with everyone else!
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.
Have bigger concerns? We also have some great ideas on how to survive your holiday dinners, whether for Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Ready for some extra time and peace of mind? Then let’s jump into 19 of the best Thanksgiving dinner hacks!
Here’s what’s coming up:
19 of the Best Thanksgiving Dinner Hacks
- Plan Ahead
- Dry Brine the Bird
- Bake Desserts Ahead of Time
- Designate Helpers
- Preset the Table
- Lay Out Cookware the Night Before
- Chop and Prep Veggies the Day Before
- Don’t Peel the Spuds
- Free up Space with a Slow Cooker
- Use a Meat Thermometer
- Save the Neck and Giblets for Gravy
- Have Your Stockpot on Standby
- Make Extra Stuffing
- Create a Veggie Roasting Rack
- Rest Your Bird Before Carving
- Chill Beverages in Coolers
- Serve Your Meal Buffet-Style
- Clear the Air
- Give Thanks
1. Plan Ahead
To successfully pull off a large dinner with a houseful of guests, a certain degree of organization is definitely needed!
Trying to arrange the environment, run out for supplies, and cook a big meal at the same time is waaaaaay too stressful.
Instead, about a month prior to the big event, dedicate one hour or two of thorough planning in order to get your thoughts on paper, then organize them with a timeline.
Create a checklist for everything that needs to be purchased, taken out of storage, cleaned, thawed, pressed, pre-made, set up, or requires preparation of any kind.
In the week prior to Thanksgiving, schedule a bit of time each day to get all your tasks done in an effective and efficient manner.
If you plan on pre-making any recipes, save these tasks for a day or two before the meal to keep everything as fresh as possible. If you have plans for freezer storage, determine the timeline you need for fully thawing your dishes.
As each item on your list is completed and crossed off, you’ll have a greater sense of calm and control.
Then when it’s time to start cooking, your mind will be clutter-free and ready to focus on the task at hand – your time spent in the kitchen will be much more enjoyable, and you’ll have more free time to spend with your guests as well.
2. Dry Brine the Bird
Brining a turkey is a simple process that ensures juicy, flavorful meat.
A salty brine gives a deeply seasoned flavor, tenderizes proteins for the most succulent morsels, and maintains the meat’s moisture – a huge benefit with bigger birds that tend to dry out during a long cooking process.
But a wet brine can be a messy, complicated process. It requires a stockpot large enough to hold your bird and brine, then finding room in the fridge for a large, turkey-filled pot. And you need to flip the bird halfway through the brine soak.
An easier alternative is a dry brine.
It has all the benefits of a wet brine, and also creates incredibly crisp, golden brown skin. Plus, your turkey can sit in the fridge in a pan or large plate instead of in a large, tall, cumbersome pot.
You can learn all about this method, and get our own homemade recipe, in this step-by-step tutorial for how to dry brine a chicken or turkey – there is a lot of useful information to study!
To save even more precious time, you can also use a store-bought dry brine mix, like this Rosemary Thyme Turkey Dry Brine from Sur La Table.
While you’re waiting for the bird to brine, why don’t you take this opportunity to get your spice cabinet organized? Check out Foodal’s review of the best spice racks.
3. Bake Desserts Ahead of Time
If you haven’t delegated desserts for guests to bring, have a baking session a day or two before turkey day.
Classic Thanksgiving sweet fare like apple, pecan, or pumpkin pies – and other tasty fall desserts like pumpkin cheesecake bars and pumpkin cinnamon ice cream – can be precooked, cooled, covered, and refrigerated or frozen in advance until the day of your meal.
Take them out of the fridge several hours before dinner time and allow them to come to room temperature.
Then the only thing left to do is prep toppings like whipped cream just before serving.
And don’t rely on your memory for things like taking pies from the fridge or preparing the final touches – set an alarm on your phone as a reminder.
4. Designate Helpers
There’s no need to be a kitchen martyr!
Smart cooks ask their family and friends for help with cooking, baking, preparations, and cleanup.
Not only will you have more free time with fewer dishes to prepare, but your guests also get to feel good about contributing to the meal’s success.
For the best results, get your friends who cook to bring desserts, salads, and side dishes.
Designate a bartender to keep the drinks flowing, or set up a bar where guests can help themselves.
You’ll definitely also want to enlist a couple bussers and pot-washers to help with the after-dinner cleanup tasks.
5. Preset the Table
Setting the table is another task that, once completed, reduces distractions and frees your attention to focus on the task of cooking a big meal.
A couple of days before your dinner, pull out all your serving and dinnerware items and place them on your dining table to check you have everything that’s needed. See if anything needs to be polished or cleaned.
The night before your dinner, set the Thanksgiving table with all the plates, cups, bowls, linens, trivets, seasonings, serving dishes, and utensils you intend to use.
This can be even easier to do when you own a complete dinnerware and decor set specifically for the Thanksgiving holiday. The setup couldn’t be simpler!
Feel fun and festive with this set that serves 24 people, complete with 24 small plates, large plates, cups, napkins, utensils, as well as 2 table covers and a decorative banner. It’s available now from Amazon.
Dig out and clean off the extra chairs, high-chairs, kids’ dishes, and so on, making sure all the bits and pieces are in place.
Arrange your condiments at the same time. Fill salt and pepper mills, place butter in butter dishes, and empty canned cranberry sauce into a serving bowl.
Cover items like butter or cranberries with plastic wrap and place in the fridge, pulling them out a few hours before dinner to bring them to room temperature.
And remember to cross it off your list before retiring for the night – you’ll sleep much better as your list continues to dwindle away!
6. Lay Out Cookware the Night Before
Just like pre-setting the table, laying out all the needed cookware and utensils the night before turkey day reduces distractions – with everything prepped and in place, you can let go of fussing over details.
Dig out all of your essential cookware, baster, dishes, measuring cups, mixers, oven mitts, pots, roasting pan, utensils, and so on. Then place them on the stove and countertop in convenient spots, lining them up roughly in order of their use.
Another option is to designate a recipe box specifically for your holiday recipes, something that you can cherish and continue contributing recipes to year after year. This gorgeous Ironwood Acacia Recipe Box contains two separate compartments to keep your favorite recipes organized. It’s available to purchase now from Sur La Table.
You can also save all of your recipes on your phone or computer for easy, digital access.
With everything in its place, you can jump right in when it’s time to start cooking!
7. Chop and Prep Veggies the Day Before
Cooking a large holiday meal means there are vegetables to prep… lots of vegetables!
Save yourself some time and stress by prepping all of your veggies the day before.
Pull out and measure the amount of vegetables needed for each recipe you plan to make, then clean, wash, and trim them. Chop, dice, or slice as needed, then store them labeled in airtight bags or containers in the fridge until they’re needed.
Raw items that oxidize quickly, like potatoes, should be placed in an airtight container and fully submerged with cold water to prevent browning, then refrigerated for up to 24 hours.
8. Don’t Peel the Spuds
Peeling enough potatoes for a large serving of mashed potatoes takes a big chunk of time.
If you have other things to do with those precious minutes, cook your potatoes whole instead in a pot of boiling and generously salted water.
When they’re ready, plunge into a bath of ice water. Use a paring knife to make an X in one end and the skins will slip off in one fell swoop, ready for mashing.
For another quick and easy method to remove the skins, skip the potato masher and use a potato ricer instead! This nifty tool is designed to work with potatoes that still have their skins intact – the perforated disc allows the tender flesh to push through, while leaving the fibrous skin behind.
You can also choose to skip the mashed potatoes entirely and opt for whole baked potatoes instead! This would be a nearly effortless choice (no peeling again!), and you can set out a mini station of toppings that your guests can customize for garnishes.
Learn how to cooked baked potatoes in your pressure cooker for a quick method.
9. Free up Space with a Slow Cooker
Stovetop and oven space is always at a premium with holiday meals, so free up some room with your slow cooker.
Transfer your mashed potatoes, or any other large serving of a side dish, into a slow cooker then place it somewhere away from the cooking action.
Set it on low with the lid on to keep your food warm until dinner.
For inspiration, review our entire collection of slow cooker recipes to choose a few to make!
10. Use a Meat Thermometer
Even if you think your timing is perfect, turkey meat is delicate and easy to overcook, which can result in dry meat.
But you don’t want it undercooked either – pink meat or bloody joints are decidedly unappetizing when it comes to poultry, and is a serious health hazard to serve!
So eliminate the stress of guesswork by using a digital meat thermometer, which is inexpensive and incredibly straightforward to use.
Time your bird as usual. Then when it’s 30 to 60 minutes from the expected completion, check the temperature with a thermometer when you baste, fine tuning exactly when it should come out of the oven.
All poultry, including white and dark turkey meat, needs to reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165°F – let that number be your faithful guide!
For predictably good results, read up on the different styles and how to use them in our guide to meat thermometers.
11. Save the Neck and Giblets for Gravy
Don’t dispose of the neck and giblets that usually come included with the purchase of your turkey!
For a rich and delicious gravy, start by making a small pot of stock with the bird’s neck and giblets while the turkey cooks.
A single burner hot plate or induction burner for the countertop is another useful appliance for freeing up the stovetop. You’ll be able to plug it in somewhere safe and out of the way while you let your stock gently simmer as dinner’s prepared.
Consider purchasing this Hazmat-certified Zavor Pro Portable Induction Cooktop, available now from Sur La Table. An hour or so before the bird is ready, remove the stock from the heat and cool, skimming off any fat that rises.
Deglaze the pan drippings with your stock for sumptuous gravy. We have our tried-and-true gravy recipe you can steal from our homemade meatloaf!
12. Have Your Stockpot on Standby
I have to admit, one of my favorite things about making a turkey dinner is the richly flavored soup that comes from the leftovers!
As it slowly cooks, the aroma is heavenly and the earthy flavors are deeply satisfying – and it’s easy to make a big pot for the day after or beyond.
The morning of your dinner, cut into quarters some stock vegetables such as carrots, celery and onion. Put them labeled in an airtight bag or container and transfer that to the refrigerator.
After dinner, when everyone can’t eat another bite, remove any remaining meat from the turkey and refrigerate that along with the carcass and bones.
When you’re ready to cook the next day, place the turkey remains in your stockpot with your reserved quartered veggies and stock seasonings. Cover with water, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer to gently cook all evening.
Once your stock is ready, carefully strain it and use it as a base for turkey soup or freeze it for later use.
You may not feel like getting right back in the kitchen the next day, but making a stock is a really soothing, easygoing process that won’t require too much effort on a tired chef.
13. Make Extra Stuffing
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!
Double up your stuffing recipe – whatever won’t fit in the chest cavity can be placed in a casserole dish. Bake along with the bird for a side dish of extra dressing.
You know it won’t go to waste!
And for all you trivia buffs, stuffing is considered “stuffing” when it’s cooked inside the bird. But it’s called “dressing” when it is cooked separately.
If you are surrounded by seafood lovers, our recipe for oyster dressing is a stellar option to serve for a briny kick.
14. Create a Veggie Roasting Rack
To ensure large cuts of meat like a turkey cook evenly, a roasting rack inserted in the roasting pan is needed to elevate the bird off the bottom of your pan.
This creates optimal air flow, allowing heat and air to circulate under the bird as well as all around it.
If you don’t have a rack, or your rack is too small for a big bird, you can still elevate it with vegetables!
Use vegetables like carrots, celery, potatoes, mushrooms, or thick-sliced onions to lay on the bottom of the pan, placing them crosswise and a couple of inches apart and place your turkey on top. You can also throw in some aromatics, such as heartier herbs like rosemary and thyme and whole garlic heads sliced in half.
To prevent the bird from shifting on a rounded surface, cut carrots lengthwise and place the flat cut on the bottom.
Not only will they help your bird cook faster and more evenly, but the stock veggies also add delicious flavors to the drippings for a flavorful gravy!
15. Rest Your Bird Before Carving
For the juiciest meat, allow your bird to rest for 30 to 60 minutes before carving, 20 at the very least.
This is necessary for all roasted meat and poultry!
When cooking, the juices travel and concentrate in the middle of the mass. Giving your cooked meat time to rest before carving allows the liquid to be redistributed to the extremities, so all pieces are moist and juicy.
Set your timer, and have some patience – this is why circulating a variety of holiday finger food appetizers prior to the main feast is so important!
16. Chill Beverages in Coolers
Just like there’s never enough room in the bird for the stuffing, there’s never enough room in the fridge for all the goodies needed to prepare a large dinner.
To ease over-crowding in the fridge, use coolers filled with ice to chill bottled or canned beverages such as beer, juice, wine, or whatever your guests like to drink.
Family and friends can help themselves, and precious fridge space is reserved for the food.
If it’s cold enough outside, you can even set up this station directly outside a covered porch near the door – it’s suitable enough as an easy access for guests, without taking up any space inside.
17. Serve Your Meal Buffet-Style
After all the effort of preparing dinner, it should be enjoyed in comfort, with ample room for spacious place settings.
To free up tabletop space, set the table for a sit-down meal and include seasonings and condiments on the table, but serve everything else buffet-style.
This gives extra room for table decorations as well, but you should keep the decor simple and minimal if space still is an issue in a smaller dining area.
Use countertops, a sideboard, or card tables to lay out the turkey, side dishes, and all the dinner goodies for your guests to serve themselves.
Everyone will have more elbow room at the table, and it makes setup and cleanup easier, too!
18. Clear the Air
The aromas from a turkey dinner are truly tantalizing, but once the cooking and feasting are finished, some fresh air is needed to help ward off after-dinner drowsiness!
Opening the kitchen window is good to get the air moving, but it’s also helpful to have absorbing agents to eliminate odors and freshen the air.
Fill a medium saucepan to three quarters with water then add three or four large sprigs of fresh rosemary and a quartered lemon. Bring just to a boil then reduce heat so the water barely simmers.
Leave the pot uncovered for 30 to 60 minutes to simmer away odors. Or leave it on low for a few hours to add a light touch of piney-citrus aromatherapy… add in a few cloves, a vanilla bean, and a cinnamon stick for a scent that’s perfect for fall and winter holidays!
19. Give Thanks
When you’re sitting down to enjoy a feast with family and friends, take a moment to be thankful.
There’s no pressure to say a formal or religious-based grace, but take the time to embody the spirit of the day by appreciating the abundant food, comfortable environment, and loved ones…
Because gratitude is good for our well-being!
The practice of expressing thankfulness can even make us happier, according to leading gratitude researcher Robert A. Emmons. This cherished wisdom is published in his book, “Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier,” available now from Amazon.
So count your blessings – your beautiful Thanksgiving dinner will taste even better with a sprinkle of gratitude!
Plan, Cook, Enjoy
With a little planning and a few of our hacks, you can ace cooking a big Thanksgiving dinner and have plenty of time to enjoy it too!
Get all the details down on paper – or on your phone or computer – first, then work out a manageable timeline to complete as many tasks as possible before turkey day.
But the work doesn’t stop once the bird’s ready, so remember to wrangle some help for bartending, cleaning, entertainment, and kitchen duties too!
What are your favorite hacks for a big dinner party? Tell us about it in the comments section below.
And for more valuable Thanksgiving ideas, check out these guides next.
- 23 of the Best Sides for Your Thanksgiving Feast
- Turkey Buying Tips for the Holidays: The Types You Should Know
- 5 Great Alternatives to Turkey for Thanksgiving
Photos by Nikki Cervone, Meghan Yager, Kelli McGrane, Raquel Smith, and Lorna Kring, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Product photos via Sur La Table and Amazon. Originally published on November 5, 2015. Last updated on November 14, 2023. With additional writing and editing by Nikki Cervone.
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.