Thanksgiving Planning Tips

— By Debbie Barnett, EFNEP CEA in Kennebec, Knox, Lincoln, and Waldo counties – University of Maine Cooperative Extension

If you are like me, the thought of having guests over for Thanksgiving, or any big occasion, can be stressful and time consuming. Questions like, How many people will be coming? How will I decorate? And the most important piece, What will the menu be? These are all questions going through my head during the Thanksgiving season. Below are a few tips to help plan your Thanksgiving meal in advance so you don’t have to worry about last minute preparation.

Planning Your Menu

Planning your Thanksgiving Day menu can seem a bit overwhelming, but there are ways to make it easier. As you plan your menu, think of guests that may have different dietary needs. A great way to have everyone feel included in the meal is to ask each guest to bring a dish to share. Be sure to delegate a type of dish; side dishes like vegetables, salads, stuffing or  dessert. This takes some of the stress from you and gives those with special dietary needs the opportunity to share foods they can enjoy. Consider trying a few of our delicious fall and Thanksgiving themed recipes below:

Shopping & Cost

As you begin to think through the menu, a big consideration is cost. A good starting point is to write down your menu and plan when you will buy the foods as you think about storage and sale prices.

  • Turkey: The size of the turkey you need will depend on the number of guests you expect. A rough estimate of 1 to 1.5  pounds of turkey per guest will help you determine the size of the bird you will need. If you have a freezer you can store it there until it’s time to start defrosting. Your local store may start to advertise sale prices for turkey the first few weeks of November, or your store may start letting you order your turkey at that time.
  • Purchase dry stuffing at the beginning of the month or when on sale, and keep it with other shelf-stable pantry items like cranberry sauce, olives, pickles, and potatoes. During the first three weeks of the month, purchase a few shelf-stable foods for your meal each week and wait to buy the fresh foods like fruits, vegetables, and leafy greens the week of Thanksgiving.


It is important to have a schedule for all the preparation that will take place before your Thanksgiving meal. Below are a few considerations:

  • The turkey will need time to thaw, and a good rule to follow is 24 hours for each 5 pounds. The safest way to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator, and it will need to be on a platter or tray on the lowest shelf to catch any liquid as the turkey thaws. You can find more food safety tips for handing the Thanksgiving turkey at Extension Bulletin #4213 Food Safety Facts: Helpful Hints on Handling Turkeys for Thanksgiving. 
  • Make sure to reach out to guests at least two days before Thanksgiving to remind them to bring their special dishes to share.
  • A day or two before Thanksgiving, you can make any side dishes that are not being brought by guests. You can plan to reheat these dishes while the turkey is in its final stage of cooking. The table can be set, check for serving dishes, and create a checklist making sure you have done all of your planning and preparations.

Thanksgiving Day

It’s here! The big day with your guests! Be sure to review your checklist again, and depending on the weight of the turkey and if it is stuffed or not, roasting times can vary. Refer to the table below as a guide for roasting your turkey:

Roasting Times

Weight of Turkey


Unstuffed Cooking Time


Stuffed Cooking Time


8 to 12 2 3/4 to 3 3 to 3 1/2
12 to 14 3 to 3 1/4 3 1/2 to 4
14 to 18 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 4 to 4 1/4
18 to 20 4 1/4 to 4 1/2 4 1/4 to 4 3/4
20 to 24 4 1/2 to 5 4 3/4 to 5 1/4


The mashed potatoes can be cooked and mashed while the turkey cooks. The side dishes and stuffing can be reheated while the turkey is being finished as well. Try including younger guests by having them help with the preparation process, set the table, or put out side dishes close to serving time. Guests with their side dishes will eventually arrive, so be sure to keep their hot dishes hot and cold dishes cold until serving time. Now it’s time to sit down and enjoy your meal!


After your meal, have guests help you clean up. Invite them to bring containers to take some leftovers home with them. Remember that any dishes that have been left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours or more than 1 hour (if the temperature is above 90°F) should be thrown out immediately. If your dish is still safe to hold onto, check out our How to Make the Most of Your Leftovers blog post for some more great safety tips and ideas for what to do with leftovers. If you don’t know what to do with your turkey leftovers, check out our 10 Recipes to Use Your Leftover Turkey blog post. If you are looking for fall or Thanksgiving inspired recipes that are budget friendly, easy to make, and delicious, then check out our Recipes page! The UMaine Extension Food Team has a great Preserving the Harvest webinar entitled Thanksgiving with the UMaine Extension Food Team that is worth checking out as well.

Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be stressful, and everything can be prepared in advance. We wish you a stress free, happy Thanksgiving with your family and friends this year!