(Last Minute) Thanksgiving Meal Planning

For any cook worth his or her mettle in the kitchen, the prospect of hosting Thanksgiving can be daunting. But what if you're a Turkey Day novice? How do you cook a bird? How many pounds per person? What are good vegetarian and vegan options?? Don't break a sweat. Even with two weeks to go, you can meal plan, organize and turn it out. Plus, good meal planning cuts down on food waste. With that in mind, here are some tips to get you through the Thanksgiving marathon.

2 Weeks in Advance

You gotta figure out your turkey situation. Stat. (That is, of course, if you eat meat.) First: how many guests are you thinking of inviting over? The old rule of thumb is one to two pounds of turkey per person, although a smaller bird has less meat-to-bone ratio. Inviting a gaggle of in-laws, relatives and friends? A 15 pound turkey will feed 10 to 15 people. Go bigger or get a second turkey if you want a little wiggle room plus leftovers.

Chances are that turkey you'll buy will be frozen, whether it’s a heritage breed from your farmers' market or an organic one from your local supermarket. If you have a good idea of how big you want your bird, get it a few weeks in advance and stick it in the freezer. Done. You could roll the dice and buy a frozen turkey last minute, but you'll risk not having a lot of options to choose from. (Like, your only option is a 15 pound turkey when you're cooking for three people.)

Determined to buy a fresh turkey from a local farm instead of frozen? More than likely you'll be out of luck unless you place an order in early November. Still determined? Epicurious has a list of farms that will ship to you for some orders placed a couple of weeks in advance. You could also scope out your local farmers' market or food coop in the week before Thanksgiving and see what you can find.

Here's the scoop on a couple of terms you may stumble across when purchasing:

  • Kosher — Kosher turkeys are raised and slaughtered according to Jewish dietary laws. They are also brined, meaning they are soaked in a solution of salt for a certain period of time. Brining means the salt locks in the juices, giving you a flavorful, moist bird.
  • Heritage — These are old fashioned breeds of turkey, such as the Bourbon Red and Auburn, nearly lost to monoculture. The majority of turkeys available on the market are the Broad Breasted White, which are bred for their plentiful breast meat – just like the name suggests. Expect to pay mucho dinero for a heritage turkey. Here's more on the different types of turkey you might see to help you make your selection

Got your turkey figured out? Now figure out your kitchen situation. If you are a novice cook, Thanksgiving Day is not the day to realize that you don't have a roasting pan, a meat thermometer, a baster and other essentials. (Hint: you'll need foil. Lots of it.) Make an inventory of what you have. Compare it against this list. Buy what you can, borrow the rest. Make sure your oven works. You know, the usual.

When you're not frantically buying cooking supplies, don't forget to menu plan. Epicurious says you should do this six weeks in advance, which I think is a bit nuts – maybe I'm a lazy cook? – but two weeks should be enough time for you to figure out what you'll cook, how you’ll accommodate different dietary needs and who will bring what. True, if you’re trying out some crazy thing you found on Pinterest, you'll want to figure that out way in advance. (This vegetarian "vegducken" looks pretty rad.)

That said, stick to the classics if you're a rookie. They are timeless crowd pleasers for a reason. Gather recipes for the bird, gravy, stock, stuffing, plenty of vegetable side dishes, a vegetarian main dish, mashed potatoes, cranberries and pumpkin pie. Go over the ingredients and make a shopping list. Outsource what you need in order stay sane. Start making runs to the store for stuff that you can stock up on. Don't forget the booze.

One Week in Advance

You should be pretty much stocked up and ready to go. Figure out what can be done in advance and frozen or put in the fridge – like, getting your pie crust ready. Use this week to buy anything last minute and make menu changes based on surprise updates to the guest list.

Three to Four Days Before

If you bought a frozen turkey, start defrosting it in the fridge. (If you got a big bird, it may need an extra day.) If making cranberry sauce from scratch – you should; it's super easy – this will be a good day to get that out of the way.

Two Days Before

Make that pie! Make last minute phone calls and texts to guests to make sure there are no last minute surprises.

Day Before

If you're brining, your defrosted bird will need 8 to 16 hours to soak. Plan accordingly. Also, you're going to need a lot of space in your fridge and a big container to soak that turkey. Figure out what sort of brine you'll use.

Making your own turkey broth? Why wouldn’t you? It's so much better than the store bought stuff. Use the neck and giblets, which you'll more than likely find in a bag in the cavity of the turkey. Get this out of the way; you can stick in the fridge and reheat tomorrow.

In all, the most important thing you can the day before is come up with a cooking schedule. Look at how much time everything will need to bake or spend bubbling on the stove. Figure out what can double up in the oven or be cooked and reheated later. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time for snafus and clean up.

Game Day

First things first: get your schedule out, get your gear out. By far the most important thing is to get the turkey ready to go in the oven. That means making sure there aren't any plastic packets of giblets or a neck in the cavity – that is, if you opted against making your own stock the day before. Truss the legs if that's your fancy. Or not. I like to rub the skin with herbs and butter. If you didn't brine, make sure you salt the turkey well.

Figure out what time you want everyone to eat. Start doing the math. A thawed 15 pound turkey will take about three hours to cook. The rule of thumb is about 13 minutes of cooking time per pound. As long as you get your bird into the oven and it cooks as it should and on time, everything should go according to plan. Then you'll just have to figure out the side dishes, gravy, stuffing and assembling anything you made in advance. Employ friends and relatives to be your kitchen helpers.

You got this.

Pro Tip — Don't stuff that turkey. Besides food safety issues, it can throw off the cooking time. (I made this mistake once.) Instead, cook stuffing in a baking dish separately. Keep moist with stock.