Tips for a Homemade Make-ahead Thanksgiving Dinner (Eat Well, Spend Less)

Thanksgiving dinner menu planning tips

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays! For starters, all of our friends and family celebrate it, so my Thanksgiving memories are fond ones filled with family or friends (or both!). We get the day off from work or school, and sometimes there's even an early snowfall that gets us all excited about Winter ahead. :)

I also love a good excuse to do some cooking. We've always done potluck-style Thanksgiving Dinners, and one of my favorite things to provide is hot pumpkin dinner rolls spread with butter. (Okay, that's my very favorite Thanksgiving food, too.) When we lived in Ohio, I just made rolls for Thanksgiving. Lots of rolls. Rolls for everyone (40+ people). And they would be gone, every time. (I did a double batch of this recipe, which is already huge!) Now, here in Washington with a much smaller family potluck, I get to make more foods, and only about 10-12 servings of each. Cranberry sauce and green bean casserole are on my list so far for this year! :)

While I do enjoy cooking, I have trouble socializing or relaxing while cooking. I can't join a conversation very easily while I'm cooking, and then there's all the dishes and mess and the fact that I'm usually running behind by 15-30 minutes on whatever I'm doing anyway... so, I find it's extremely helpful to do anything possible ahead of time! Besides, I want to sleep in on Thanksgiving Day, not get up early to start cooking! ;)

Here are ways to make your favorite homemade Thanksgiving foods in advance (or mostly in advance)!

Eat Well, Spend Less series

Appetizers, like veggie trays, dips, chips, meats, or cheeses

Most dips can be made 3-4 days in advance, and meats and cheeses can be sliced for serving 3-4 days in advance, as well. Just store in the fridge, sealed. Veggies can be prepped 2 days ahead (possibly longer).

Tip for prepping veggie trays or cheese trays: I don't always have room in my fridge for the finished/assembled tray or dish, but I still prep the veggies or cheeses ahead of time. Store the prepped foods in Ziplock bags in the fridge, which take up much less space than a specialty tray or dish. You can quickly assemble the tray on the day it's needed! This is especially helpful for advance meat/cheese tray prep, as the foods are kept separate (so flavors don't mix) until a few hours before serving.


Turkeys take a long time to thaw (and should be thawed in the fridge). I plan on about 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey (so, a 16-pound turkey would take about 3 days to thaw). If it happens that you didn't start thawing your turkey in time, you can do a quick-thaw. Leave the turkey in its original packaging and submerge in COLD water. Allow 30 minutes of cold-water thawing per pound of turkey.

Plan ahead for your turkey. Choose a recipe to use, make sure you have the ingredients on hand, and calculate when you'll need to start thawing and what time you'll need to start baking the turkey.


Gravy can be made ahead and re-warmed for Thanksgiving Dinner -- unless you want to use drippings from your turkey to make the gravy. In that case, when the turkey is finished cooking, assign someone else to carve the bird while you make a quick gravy with the hot juices. Or, make giblet gravy ahead of time, and save the turkey drippings for another meal. (Freeze for later use.)


I love stuffing with gravy! The good part about stuffing is that you can make it 2-3 days in advance and bake it before serving (or actually stuff the turkey with it).

I'm guessing that stuffing would work great in the slow-cooker, too (anyone have a tried-and-true slow-cooker stuffing recipe/method?), freeing up more oven space. (My mom's Simple Stuffing recipe is here; hopefully this year I'll make time to take a picture and get the recipe "officially" added to the recipe browser!)

Mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes

Mashed potatoes is another homemade side dish that can take a bit of time to prepare if you wait until last-minute. You can make mashed potatoes 2-3 days in advance. Spread the mashed potatoes in a greased baking dish and re-warm in the oven on Thanksgiving. For sweet potato casserole, unless you're making something super fancy, make it ahead of time and keep in the fridge until you're ready to bake it!

The crock pot also works great for re-warming mashed potatoes! After you make your mashed potatoes, grease the inside of your slow cooker's crock (if removable) and spoon the potatoes into it. Store, covered, in the fridge. (If your slow cooker doesn't have a removable crock, then just store the potatoes in a container in the fridge.) On Thanksgiving Day, heat potatoes in the slow cooker on LOW for 3-4 hours, stirring once if needed.

Green Bean Casserole

Green bean casserole is another good candidate for the crock pot or slow cooker. If you have room in your oven, you can make the dish ahead of time and just bake on Thanksgiving Day. But make sure you really do have room in the oven for everything you're planning to bake or reheat! Turkeys fill up an oven quickly. :) (I'll be posting my homemade green bean casserole recipe early next week!)

Dinner rolls or bread

I love homemade dinner rolls, but like I said, I also like to sleep in. And a lot of our Thanksgiving dinners happen around noon or so -- with a commute. I've not yet successfully attempted the make-dough-ahead, bake-the-next-day approach to yeast breads without the dough completely poofing all over in my fridge while I slept. (I am partial to really truly freshly-baked homemade bread, so I'm not giving up yet!)

So, my method for fresh-like dinner rolls is to make the rolls in advance (up to a week is fine), and freeze them as soon as they're cool. Thaw in the bag before serving. If you have room in the oven, you can re-warm them and everyone will think you really did get up at 5am to start bread.

I've also found that using some natural dough enhancers / dough conditioners can make day-old homemade breads taste just like fresh, so that's another option if you want to skip freezing and bake a day or two early, with fresh-like rolls to serve the next day.

Cranberry sauce

I like whole-berry cranberry sauce, and it can be made 4-5 days ahead and stored in the fridge. Cranberry sauce was one of those things my grandma made and served for Sunday dinners -- just because she knew I loved it. I never disappointed her, and always ate a big helping. ;)

Pumpkin pies or cheesecake

Pumpkin pies can be made a day or two ahead of time. Cover with a layer of plastic wrap so the top doesn't dry out if you're storing them for longer than 24 hours. Pie crust dough can be made and frozen until needed. Or, you can eliminate the need to thaw the pie dough by making it up to 3 days in advance and just storing the ready-made dough in the fridge. (That's my favorite way to do it!) My mom's Foolproof Pie Crust recipe is the best-tasting pie crust we've found.

Cool Whip is just no competition for homemade real whipped cream. I've tried various ways of stabilizing real whipped cream, but none were successful enough in my opinion. Instead, I just plan on taking 2-3 minutes to whip up the cream for dessert. No one seems to mind waiting 3 minutes to get real whipped cream... ;)

Pumpkin cheesecake is another great dessert option, and cheesecake freezes wonderfully. Just thaw in the fridge, covered, for 24 hours before serving. (Cheesecake can also be made and refrigerated for several days before serving.)

Other Thanksgiving Dinner Preparations

Gather your recipes and supplies ahead of time, making sure you have everything you'll need. A roasting pan that's big enough? A meat thermometer? Ingredients for everything?

Calculate just how much space you will have in your oven for everything you plan to bake. You could borrow a slow cooker or a plug-in roaster oven / pan from a friend (who isn't hosting Thanksgiving at her house!) if you need to. If you're having a potluck-style dinner, talk with your guests ahead of time about anything they might be planning to bake in your oven. (They may want to bake at home and bring it in an insulated carrier, already hot, if your oven will be full. I've used my Pyrex dish with insulated carrier so many times!)

If you're using special dishes, linens, or decorations, make sure they're washed and ready to go, well in advance.

I also find it's nice to try to clean out the fridge (use up leftovers, organize, etc.) about a week before Thanksgiving, so I have room for all the extra, special things I'll need to refrigerate! :)

After writing all of this, I need the need to clarify that, of course, Thanksgiving is NOT about the food, but about giving thanks to God and enjoying a special day with friends or family! We've had very elaborate and very simple Thanksgivings, but what I remember most is who we were with on that day.

I hope that, whatever menu you're serving or having on Thanksgiving, these tips and ideas help free you up to relax and enjoy your family and friends on Thanksgiving Day. :)

I'll be sharing links to the other Eat Well, Spend Less Thanksgiving-themed posts this weekend. You'll love them! :)


Those are some good tips! Here are a few of mine....

Thanks for sharing your post, Martha! What good ideas! (And wow, a 5-gallon bucket of potatoes for mashed potatoes?! I wouldn't have a pot big enough to cook them!!)

You're making me slobber. That cranberry sauce looks GREAT!

~Stacy from Stacy Makes Cents

Thank you, Stacy. I can't wait to have some next week! (I love how it gets all jelly-like.) :)

This Thanksgiving, my parents and brother are joining us for a painting party at our house . We will be painting our living room, kitchen, and front hall. We are starting first thing Thursday morning (working through Sat afternoon) and so don't want a lot of kitchen prepwork or cleanup, so we are REALLY making things ahead.

I will cook the turkey on Monday and make the gravy. The gravy will be warmed in our small crockpot Thursday morning and turkey sliced will be rewarmed at lunch time, covered in the oven.

For the mashed potatoes, I am cutting them Tuesday evening and leaving them in a pot of water overnight. Then Wednesday, I will cook them and make the potatoes. They will be stored in my crockpot and rewarmed in it Thursday morning.

My mom will bring stuffing already made in the pan, just will need to rewarm. I will just warm up canned green beans for our vegetable.

My mom is making 2 pies Tuesday and Wednesday and bringing them with her.

We have also eliminated other items to keep things simpler, since we have additional work in getting ready for painting and for 3 days of company. We are leaving off sweet potato casserole and replaced green bean casserole with plain green beans.

Heather (married Aug '00, mom to 6, ages 10 and under, baby #7 due in June)

I hope you have a wonderful painting party, Heather! Sounds like a great family activity. :)

And, congrats on baby #7!! :)

Definitely trying out those rolls... :)

I hope you love them as much as I do! :)

Tammy I always appreciate your practical posts that burst with inspiration. Thank you for all you do! I'll be printing many of these recipes today - cranberry sauce, pumpkin rolls, stuffing and probably more :)

Thank you so much! :)

Thank you for this post! I was googling for best bread machine whole-wheat bread and found you. I've loved looking through your posts.

In re make ahead dinner rolls, I've never been able to either. If I have to make ahead some sort of dinner bread, I make angel biscuits. -->

They don't rise as high as normal biscuits but they are delicious and they freeze really well for a pretty long period of time. I realize they're not rolls, but having a bunch of them in the freezer has been a lifesaver when I don't feel good. :)

Thanks for sharing your experience with the rolls, and welcome! :) I always love it when a visitor says "hi" and shares how they ended up here! :)

It's so nice to remember to plan ahead, even nicer to be reminded in case we forget. Your recipes look mouth-watering!
One way to do your rolls ahead is to mix your dough as usual but instead of shaping and putting in a pan to bake, shape, put on a baking sheet and freeze. When frozen the rolls can go into ziploc bags and kept frozen till you need them. Thanksgiving morning put frozen dough balls into pan, arranging just as you would if they were fresh, cover with plastic wrap and let sit on counter for an hour or two. Bake as usual, maybe adding an extra few minutes if dough is still frozen. Honestly, I'm pretty sure you can bake them right out of the freezer too, just add a little more time. Think of those frozen bread dough and sweet roll doughs in the freezer section at the grocery store... you could always read one of those packages if you wanted to confirm instructions for baking.

Thanks! :)

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