Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Dishes

by Elizabeth Lang on 13 November 2012 4 comments
Photo: daveparker

Thanksgiving can be stressful enough — lots of relatives in town, too much food to cook (in one tiny oven), and of course, timing it all to be ready at just the right moment. Thankfully, one of the best ways to decrease stress on Thanksgiving day is to make dishes ahead of time. (See also: Five Last-Minute Thanksgiving Fixes)

Rather than rely on my relatively few years of experience preparing Thanksgiving, I called the ultimate expert in make-ahead Thanksgiving dish advice — my mom. My mom has always managed to pull together an amazing Thanksgiving feast where the only thing not homemade is the cranberries (my brother prefers the jelly cranberries in a can) despite working full-time and juggling two hectic kids' schedules.

So, what are Mom's tips for dishes to make ahead? She offered her top three dishes in terms of time savings and what was least likely to affect the taste of the dish, along with several other make-ahead dishes and information that is just as important — what not to make ahead.

Top Three Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Dishes

These three dishes require a fair amount of work, and the taste isn't overly affected if you make them ahead of time.

Apple Pie

Apple pie can be made a week or two ahead of time and frozen. When you bake it the first time, don't bake the pie all the way through. When you reheat it in the oven, the pie will finish cooking. Also, put some bread crumbs in the bottom of the pan under the crust — this way, when you cook the pie again after it has thawed, the breadcrumbs will absorb the extra liquid.

Stuffing

Stuffing requires a lot of peeling and chopping. But dressing (as in a dressing casserole, not a kind you make in the turkey) can be made the day before and reheated on Thanksgiving day.

Mashed Potatoes

Mashed potatoes can be made the day before and microwaved on Thanksgiving day. They are almost as good. (Mom's words, not mine. In fact, she always makes hers the day of, but if you need extra time due to the amount of work required to peel potatoes, they can be made ahead of time.)

Other Make-Ahead Dishes

While the following dishes might not be quite as good made ahead as the above three, they're still great. Do these next if you need to save more time.

Cranberries

Homemade cranberries should be made one to two days before and refrigerated, so that they are cold in time for the Thanksgiving feast.

Turkey Breast

If your family eats a lot of turkey breast, bake a breast separately (in addition to the full turkey). You can bake it the day before and store in the fridge in some turkey juice. It will absorb the juice and not dry out when you reheat it. 

Rolls

Dinner rolls can be made one to two weeks ahead and wrapped tightly in tin foil and frozen. When you reheat them in the oven, be sure to keep them in the tin foil, as this will trap the steam and prevent the rolls from drying out.

Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes can be made one day ahead of time and reheated in the microwave. Just wait to add any marshmallow topping until the dish is almost hot. Otherwise you will end up with exploded and sticky marshmallows coating the inside of your microwave.

Don't Try These Ahead of Time

There are a few dishes to always make on Thanksgiving day.

Turkey

There's just no way around it — you need to get up early and put your turkey in the oven on Thanksgiving morning. Besides the wonderful smell and better tasting meat, a turkey made on the day of Thanksgiving reduces the risk of food poisoning.

Pumpkin Pie

Pumpkin pie doesn't freeze well because it's a custard. The only exception would be if you own a commercial freezer that will flash-freeze the pie. But like with the turkey, the smell of freshly baking pumpkin pie is a staple of Thanksgiving.

Veggies

Every family has their own unique Thanksgiving vegetable. Whether it's salad or green bean casserole, it is best made on Thanksgiving day.

Whipped Cream

You can whip your cream most of the way on Thanksgiving morning and then finish whipping it right before serving. But you don't want to make whipped cream too far in advance, or it will turn back to liquid.

If You Do Nothing Else, Do This

Even if you can't or won't make dishes ahead of time, do these three things to save money and stress on the big day itself.

Take Stock

Two weeks before Thanksgiving, take stock of your cupboards and dishware. Determine exactly what dishes you'll need, so that if you need to borrow from a friend or family member, you can give them advance notice. Also determine which recipes you are going to use, and make lists of the ingredients you'll need. Chances are as the time gets closer to actually go shopping, you'll remember items you might have otherwise forgotten.

Set the Table

You can set your Thanksgiving table up to a week in advance. To easily get the wrinkles out of your tablecloth, spray a very fine mist of water on the table cloth. By Thanksgiving morning the wrinkles will fall out. (Don't spray too heavily, or you will mold the table or turn it white.) You can also put out all the silverware and dishes you'll need a week ahead of time.

Make Your Centerpiece

Either order your centerpiece in advance, or make a cheap centerpiece a few days to a week before Thanksgiving. A clear glass bowl of different colored apples is a favorite cheap, easy, and festive centerpiece.

With these tips, you'll be on your way to a stress free Thanksgiving. For great make-ahead recipes for anytime of year, also check out 5 Awesome, Easy to Freeze Meals and 9 Make-Ahead, Freezable Breakfasts.

Is there anything I've forgotten? What tips do you have to save stress on Thanksgiving day?

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Guest's picture
Jessica

You can freeze the pumpkin pie mixture in advance...I usually make mine right after Halloween, put everything in a freezer bag, and then defrost in the fridge a few days before Thanksgiving. Then you just have to give it a quick mix, pour it into the pie crust, and bake!

Guest's picture
Lisa

My kitchen is small so planning ahead is crucial. I make many of the dishes you mentioned ahead of time with one addition...the night before the big day, I load a monster sized turkey into a large lidded roaster pan. I set the temperature at 200-225 degrees and go to bed. By morning it's golden brown and unspeakably moist. Kept covered it easily stays hot until noon and frees my oven for pumpkin pies and other desserts.

Guest's picture
Purchase Wisely

Another way to do the rolls is if you make them from scratch, prepare them through the final shaping, cover them in plastic wrap then place them in the fridge the night before - they will finish rising in the fridge. Bring them out and allow to come to room temperature then remove the plastic wrap before baking - no worries about them drying out.

I do a whipped butternut squash with ginger and orange dish in place of potatoes and it can be done up to two days ahead. Start a new tradition so you can substitute a dish to cut down on day of prep time!

You actually can do whipped cream in advance if you add a little dry milk powder to stabilize the cream - but I fortunately have a nifty little cream whipper that does a cup of cream in 30 seconds. It's only single-purpose appliance I own, and I won't give it up!

Thanks for the tip on the bread crumbs under the pie crust - I've not heard of that before.

Guest's picture

Instant mashes potatoes could be made Thanksgiving day pretty quickly. Thanks for the advice. I featured your article on the Frugal News Review podcast episode 22.