Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Menu

Thanksgiving Sides
side dishes ready for the table: Cranberry-Orange Relish, Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Loaded Cornbread Dressing, and Seasoned Greens with Bacon

My family doesn’t have any nearby relatives other than my immediate siblings and mother, but we’ve always been able to have a large shared dinner for Thanksgiving and along the way we’ve figured out our favorite traditional recipes.

These “Quarantimes” will change how and when we share our food, but the planning and recipes don’t have to change that much.

It helps that we’ve already learned to plan our big meal ahead by going through the menu to find as many make-ahead steps as possible. Breaking the recipes and dishes up this way makes it easier have all the food hot on the table, even if our menu is pretty extensive.

a leftovers plate from 2013
Thanksgiving to go

This year more will be prepped and put into take-out containers for people to bake or reheat at home, so they can get it hot when they like – like this “leftovers” plate from 2013, though probably bigger portions.

2020 Menu:

This year a few of the options may depend on careful limits with grocery shopping for fresh produce (trying to avoid when stores are extra busy) as well as how ambitious we are for a few more time-intensive options.

2 (or more) days ahead:

We usually don’t do a lot of the cooking too far in advance because you don’t want to risk food spoiling and the fridge and freezers are usually already pretty full. This year we want to get the food portioned up and delivered earlier, so we’ll see what we can fit in as early as possible.

Fruity Sides

Homemade Jams

Mom likes to share jars of homemade jam and loaves of her homemade oatmeal bread at Thanksgiving. We haven’t made as much jam in the last year or two, though, since Mom’s been trying to avoid excess sugar. We’ll have to check our canning storage in the back stairs to see what’s in the boxes or decide if we want to raid our freezer stocks of berries from the garden / summer sales to fit this in early in our cooking days.

Cranberry Relish

Cranberry Orange Relish

My mom makes her family recipe for cranberry relish with an old-fashioned hand grinder each year that we dig out of the back of a cabinet (usually just for this recipe). You have to make it with fresh cranberries, but it can be frozen and defrosted without the texture or flavor changing.


Thanksgiving Desserts: grape pie, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and Indian Pudding

Pies & Pudding

Making the pie crusts early, especially if you need pre-baked ones, makes it easier to fit in the rest of the baking.

This Indian Pudding, slow-baked with dried berries, cornmeal and sweetened with maple syrup cooks at such a different temperature and length of time that it’s always best to cook it early.

Homemade Ice Cream

This is SO extra. I know it. We’ll see if I have time to bother with it. I have a Salt & Straw cookbook that includes some recipes that sound ridiculous and not worth my time (sorry, NO to mashed potato & gravy ice cream) but the sweet potato ice cream with maple marshmallow and praline pecans mixed in sounds pretty great.

1 (or more) days ahead:

More of these may be done on Tuesday or early on Wednesday this year, even if we’d normally be doing it on Wednesday night.


  • Bake the cornbread for Loaded Cornbread Stuffing
  • Bake any bread
  • Roasted Vegetables
  • Roasted Garlic (while baking something else)


My brother with the smoker takes on the turkey and often includes some fish too – the salmon recipe that came with the smoker from our friends is not traditional Thanksgiving food but always worth it. Plus I find it hilarious when our turkey looks like it’s wearing a tight, shiny leather jacket.


Anything I’m cooking early on the stovetop has to have space in the fridge – so I usually avoid cooking items that can sit out until the day of if we’re running low on space. This year we’ll be aiming to distribute food to people as take-out earlier and may break up who’s cooking what so we don’t have to factor fridge space in the same way.

Gourmet Green Bean Casserole

This involves a slow-cooked mushroom cream gravy and beans you keep as fresh and bright as possible. This year we’re using frozen beans so we don’t have to do the complicated blanching and draining part, just defrosting and draining.

We’ll have it ready to pop in the oven when people get their portions, rather than cooking it ahead and reheating (which might lose that fresh flavor).

Thanksgiving Day

We usually go through the list of dishes to figure out when we want to eat and when to have things ready to go into the oven or come off the stovetop. This year more of the oven-heated items will be prepped ahead so people can bake them at their own pace and we’ll have to think about the stovetop steps.


This is usually how we spend the bulk of Thanksgiving day cooking, since we make the bakeable things ahead and wait on anything that can sit out – bags of potatoes, etc.

Loaded Cornbread Stuffing

I usually have the cornbread baked ahead, but wait to cut it up and cook the “fixings” that go in on Thanksgiving day, to try to keep it from getting too dry.

This year I think I’ll have it mixed up and ready to bake in pans, so people can have it hot when they want without it getting stale from reheating again.

Seasoned Greens with Bacon

Seasoned Greens with lots of Bacon

I usually look up a couple recipes I’ve found online to get an idea of what to shop for, then combine them to get the flavors I like:

Though this recipe from Grandbaby Cakes includes all the flavors I’ve liked in the ones above and more tips on making vegan versions or different cuts of meat to get the smoky flavor, so I may use it going forward.

Good Gravy!

We need the pan drippings (along with the neck/giblets/etc.) to make the gravy, so getting those after the smoking makes the best gravy.

Gravy methods differ in my family, along with perspective on thickeners and how to keep it hot. But nobody really complains whichever way it’s cooked, we just all think our way is best. (Yes, we know how annoying that is).

Mashed potatoes

Usually we wait for the day of to cook these on the stovetop to make sure they don’t get gummy or cold – but I’ve been reading up about slow cooker mashed potatoes and may try that this year instead, though I’ll be sure to include the roasted garlic that we like.

Reheating / Baking

Prepped Thanksgiving Sides (casseroles and veggies)

We try to make sure the oven reheated casseroles are all in wide, flat pans that can fit side by side in our large oven and be reheated together at the same temperature. But if you fill the oven too full, it’s possible some pans won’t cook evenly.

The garden carrots in this photo ended up getting overdone on the sides and had to have the burnt edges carefully scraped off, for instance.

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