My Best Tips for Planning a Thanksgiving Meal (and Day by Day Planner)

I've collected all of my hostess know-how to help you plan a Thanksgiving meal, including a day-by-day planner so you know what to prep and when!
My Best Tips for Planning a Thanksgiving Meal (a Day by Day Planner), how to make Thanksgiving dinner, how to prepare for hosting thanksgiving, side dish recipe ideas, Thanksgiving tablescape inspiration

If there is one holiday that I absolutely love, it’s Thanksgiving… because it’s a holiday centered around food! I’ve hosted a few Thanksgiving and Friendsgiving gatherings over the years. And I know just how stressful it can be to plan them, especially if it’s your first time. So today, I wanted to put all of my hostess know-how in one place to help you plan a Thanksgiving meal, including a day-by-day planner so you know what to prep and when!

How to Plan a Thanksgiving Meal:

Choose a tablescape style

My favorite part about entertaining and hosting is decorating! If you’ve been following the blog for a while, you know that I’ve shared tons of gorgeous tablescape inspiration over the years. My first step when planning a Thanksgiving celebration is to brainstorm what style of decor I want to use.

For example, do you want a more traditional table? Or a modern twist on classic Thanksgiving decor? Do you want your Thanksgiving to feel more formal or casual?

Here are some tablescape styling posts from the archives to get you inspired:
Hosting Thanksgiving in a Small Space? These Tablescape Styling Tips Will Help! #flowerarrangement #floralarrangement #flowerarranging #centerpiece #thanksgiving #fall #thanksgivingdecor #florals #flowers #fallflowers #friendsgiving #tablescape #tabletop #styling #tablestyling #dinnerparty

A Traditional Thanksgiving Tablescape for a Small Space

We always have Thanksgiving with Sean’s family in their own homes, but I styled this tablescape to inspire anyone who lives small and is hosting this year! Plus, the aesthetics of this table feel like a departure for me… because it’s sort of traditional. For some reason, I am really feeling the cozy, warm autumn tones this year.

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How to Style a Moody Fall-Inspired Dinner Party in a Small Space. A fall tablescape with mini cloches, gold taper holders, candlesticks, black dinner plates, smoke glass, mercury glass. #entertaining #tipsandtricks #fall #tablescape #thanksgiving #halloween #smallspaces #dinnerparty

A Moody Fall Dinner Party

Now that the holidays are upon us, I am making it more of a priority to share more of these photoshoots with you. Yesterday, Sarah shared how to make a hanging floral installation, so today I am sharing how I styled this moody fall-themed dinner party set up in our small space.

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How To Style a Casual and Chic Friendsgiving Tablescape #flowerarrangement #floralarrangement #flowerarranging #centerpiece #thanksgiving #fall #thanksgivingdecor #florals #flowers #fallflowers #friendsgiving #tablescape #tabletop #styling #tablestyling #dinnerparty

How to Style a Casual Friendsgiving Tablescape

I wanted to do something special for my friends to express my gratitude for all that they bring to my life, so I cleared out the studio a bit and styled up a casual tablescape that’s perfect for celebrating Friendsgiving. I hope that this tabletop and my styling helps to inspire your own Thanksgiving table this year!

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a whimsical blush Thanksgiving tablescape. Inspiration for small space entertaining via with pink swirled canape plates, pink and gold wine glasses, modern white and gold utensils, pink and natural linens, and thankful napkin rings. #entertaining #thanksgiving

A Whimsical Blush Thanksgiving Tablescape

It’s time for the main event: our Thanksgiving tablescape! Ever since chatting with Sarah about the centerpiece and how it was inspired by our cheese board, all I could think about was incorporating shades of mauve, blush, and rose into the table settings for my Thanksgiving spread. More than anything, I wanted to surprise my guests with a totally unexpected, whimsical table this year!

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A Fall Fête

Just because it’s fall, doesn’t meant the gatherings need to end — if anything, chilly weather and shorter days are the perfect excuse to gather friends around the dinner table. My preferred way to kick off any sort of party is a well-curated spread of cheese and meats served with wine!

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Plan your Thanksgiving menu

Once you have the overall style and vibe of your dinner party decided, it’s time to plan the menu. I always make sure to select recipes that I feel confident in making. Trust me, a big holiday like this is not the time you want to try a complicated dish for the first time! Instead, I always go with what I know I can cook — plus a few key store-bought items to save time.

Here are things to keep in mind when planning a menu:

  • Choose seasonal ingredients – celebrate fall by featuring the best produce that’s in season such as brussels sprouts and squash
  • Incorporate personal touches – my family is Greek, so our holiday celebrations always include a few Greek dishes like spanakopita (which is an awesome addition if you have vegetarians attending!)
  • Don’t forget to include beverages – plan out the drinks you plan to have on hand, such as wine, beer, mocktails, sparkling water, etc

Thanksgiving Side Dish Recipes:

Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Caesar Dressing recipe for a Thanksgiving vegetable side. #thanksgiving #recipe #vegetable #vegetarian #caesar #caesardressing #fall #autumn #brusselssprouts

Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Caesar Dressing Recipe

Alright, let me start by saying I know Brussels sprouts can be a very polarizing vegetable. Truth be told, I wasn’t always a fan. If that’s you, too, I get it! I also think it really comes down to whether or not they’ve been cooked properly. Technique here makes all the difference… crispiness is the key! Getting the outside nice and crispy will not only create a more pleasant and addictive mouthfeel, but will also caramelize the natural sugars and deepen their flavor. In other words: DELICIOUS. Trust me when I say once you taste these Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Caesar Dressing, you’ll be craving those little green morsels all season long!

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Looking for a Thanksgiving side dish that stands out from the crowd? Try this spicy baked macaroni and cheese — it tastes like jalapeño poppers in the BEST possible way!

Spicy Baked Macaroni and Cheese Recipe

Thanksgiving was always different for my Italian American family. The turkey was always the dry (sorry, Nana!) stepsister to our family’s lasagna, and let me be real; I was just there for the sides. I think most of us were/are. So why not bring something a little fun to the table this year, like this spicy baked macaroni and cheese recipe?

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For a yummy side dish for Thanksgiving, try this easy and delicious tri-color potato gratin! It features 3 different colors of potatoes for a fun twist and can be ready to pop-in the oven in 20 minutes - for the full recipe and more delicious side-dishes head to

Tri-Color Potato Gratin Recipe

If I have any one particular weakness when it comes to Thanksgiving side dishes, it would have to be potatoes… I just love them. And the creamier, the better! This recipe for potato gratin is different than most though because it features 3 different colors of potatoes for a fun twist. It’s like comfort food, but taken to a totally new level — and perfect for rainy, cold days when all you want to do is snuggle… oh, and Thanksgiving.

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Easy Winter Kale Salad Recipe with Avocado Dressing

This winter kale salad recipe hits all of the buzzwords you look for: hearty, healthy, filling, easy, and delicious. Honestly, I could go on and on! We topped finely cut kale with radicchio, roasted sweet potatoes, sunflower seeds, and your new favorite dressing, a creamy avocado mixture. This salad is perfect for lunch or as a side dish to bring to your next potluck.

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how to make the ultimate fall inspired grazing board, plus what is a grazing board and the difference between snacking boards and charcuterie boards. Cheese pairings, crackers, spreads, cured meat recommendations, cheese recommendations, and more!

How to Make the Ultimate Fall Inspired Grazing Board

Fall has always been the true gateway to the holiday season! With gatherings starting to pick up a bit more and more, it felt like the right time to share some tips and tricks for constructing the ultimate grazing board. Grazing boards aren’t exactly charcuterie boards since the latter tends to be a bit more on the savory side and always include meats. However, you get a little more liberty with a grazing board, something you can customize to fit your gathering. Here’s how!

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Don’t be afraid to assign dishes and tasks

Trust me, I am horrible at delegating… but when it comes to a big meal like Thanksgiving, you’re going to need the help! Once your menu is set, reach out to reliable friends and family members and ask them to bring a specific dish. While you might not be able to totally micromanage them and have them make an exact recipe, the trade-off is worth it because that’s one less thing you need to worry about!

Decide on your serving style

There are tons of options when it comes to actually serving your meal. Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Buffet-style – set up a separate table with all of the dishes laid out so people can serve themselves
  • Family-style – serve all of the dishes on platters on the dining table so guests can pass them around
  • Restaurant-style – dishes are individually plated and then served to each guest
My Best Tips for Planning a Thanksgiving Meal (a Day by Day Planner), how to make Thanksgiving dinner, how to prepare for hosting thanksgiving, side dish recipe ideas, Thanksgiving tablescape inspiration

My Day-by-Day Planner: Additional Tips for Prepping a Thanksgiving Gathering

3 weeks prior – plan your grocery list and order your turkey

Pull together all of your recipes that you plan to make, then list out all of the ingredients that each will need. Take note of shared ingredients and increase the quantities accordingly. Once that’s listed, organize the list based on the layout of your grocery store. For example, make a list dedicated to produce, one for meat, one for drinks, etc.

This is also when I typically order our turkey, if I haven’t already done so.

2 weeks before – fridge and freezer clean out

Because there’s about to be a LOT of food in your home, you’re going to need the space! Two weeks before Thanksgiving, we start doing ‘clean out meals’ where I get really really creative and try to use up whatever we already have on hand to make room.

You can also use this time to freeze store-bought items like rolls.

1 week before – buy non-perishable foods and make your cooking timeline

This is optional. Typically I like to buy all of the food all at once because that saves me time. But if you’re someone who goes to the grocery store often, you can purchase your non-perishables a week ahead of time and do a follow up shopping trip for fresh items.

This is also when I come up with my cooking plan. Honestly, this is the most important component of pulling off an amazing Thanksgiving gathering. There are so many logistical details and many overlap in terms of timing. I like to use a spreadsheet to chronologically plan what needs to be cooked and when. Read each recipe and map out which dishes can share the oven, what can be cooked ahead and then reheated, and what can be served at room temperature.

3 days before – defrost the turkey and buy fresh foods

Turkeys are dense and take so long to defrost. Make sure you give yourself the time needed! The best way is to thaw your bird is by placing it in a pan then keeping it in the coldest area of the fridge while it defrosts. The pan will contain the juices.

I also buy everything else that I’ll need to prepare the meal, including fresh produce.

2 days before – beginning preparing dishes

Some sides can be prepared ahead of time, like cranberry sauce. Now is also a good time to make your pie crusts and cut up bread for homemade stuffing.

1 day before – more prep

A day before Thanksgiving, I start prepping for my side dishes, especially ones that can be reheated without losing quality. For example, green bean casserole or mac and cheese. Also, refrigerate your beverages so they are nice and cold.

Day of

On Thanksgiving day, I wake up pretty early so that I can get everything sorted, prepped, and cooked. This is when all of your hard work and planning really pays off! Stick to the timeline you made and get that turkey in the oven. While it’s roasting, I continue prepping the rest of the side dishes. Then, when the turkey is done, I use the hot oven to cook them while the turkey rests.

My Best Tips for Planning a Thanksgiving Meal (a Day by Day Planner), how to make Thanksgiving dinner, how to prepare for hosting thanksgiving, side dish recipe ideas, Thanksgiving tablescape inspiration

I know that planning a big meal like Thanksgiving can feel stressful and intimidating, but if you take it step-by-step and plan accordingly, you’ll be able to pull it off without a hitch! While I’m not exactly Martha Stewart (as much as I wish I was), I’m more than happy to help and answer any questions you have. Leave a comment and let me know.

Behind The Blog

Joanna Hawley-McBride is a Pacific Northwest-based social media strategist, content creator, and former textile designer. Joanna is the founder and editor-in-chief of Jojotastic, a lifestyle blog focused on Joanna’s work-in-progress cabin, finding the best pair of underwear through #UnderwearThesis, and empowering women to explore nature — all in her signature unfiltered style. Her work has been featured in Domino, CNBC, and Eating Well.

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