This make-ahead Thanksgiving menu makes the big day as easy as pie

Turkey Cooked Brined and Seasoned with Spices in Roasting Pan for Thanksgiving Dinner with Blurred Oven Background; Shutterstock ID 165875210; PO: tod...
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By Casey Barber
JPL Designs / Today

If you think us mere mortals can't pull off a full Thanksgiving spread without taking a whole week off work, think again. This foolproof menu — with turkey, stuffing, soup, salad and sweet potato pie — can be prepped bit by bit in the days leading up to the big day (you’ll spend just about 30 minutes a day). Then you’ll pull it all together easily while the turkey roasts on Thanksgiving Day. Follow our six-day prep plan below, and you might even have time to sit down and watch the parade while someone else sets the table!

Menu:

  • Simple herb-rubbed roast turkey with gravy
  • Classic herb and sausage stuffing
  • Green salad with fennel, grapes, Gorgonzola and walnuts
  • Apple-parsnip soup
  • Sweet potato pie with candied pecans

RECIPES

Simple herb-rubbed roast turkey with gravy
Yield: 1 12-15 pound turkey
Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 7 hours and 30 minutes plus overnight brining time

GRAVY:

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 large garlic clove, minced
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 quart (4 cups) chicken broth
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Salt and pepper to taste

DRY RUB:

  • 1 cup Diamond brand kosher salt (see Note below*)
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
  • Zest of 3 lemons
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh sage or 1 tablespoon dried sage
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme

TURKEY:

  • 1 12-15 pound turkey
  • 2 cups chicken broth

*Note on salt: We've specified a salt brand because weight varies by brand, and with the large amount of salt used in a rub, you can end up with a solution that’s too salty. Diamond brand kosher salt also produces a finished dish with a very clean taste. But if you would rather use regular table salt, substitute ½ cup (5 ounces). 

Make the gravy: Melt the butter in a medium (2-quart) saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute, just until the garlic is fragrant.

Whisk the flour into the butter to form a paste. Cook, whisking constantly, until the paste darkens to a deep golden color.

Still whisking constantly, pour the wine into the butter and flour. Whisk out any lumps and cook for 5 minutes.

Stir the chicken broth into the gravy base and add the bay leaves. Bring to a gentle boil and cook for a half hour to meld the flavors. 

Remove the bay leaf. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper until it's to your liking.

Pour into a heat-safe storage container and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate for up to 3 days.

To serve on Thanksgiving, reheat in a saucepan over medium-low heat until the gravy comes to a simmer and add strained turkey drippings if desired.

Make the dry rub: Pulse the salt, sugar, pepper, lemon zest, sage, and thyme together in the small bowl of a food processor or stir by hand. (The mixture will be more finely blended in a food processor, but it will taste just as good if you don't have one.) Pour into a lidded container and store at room temperature until ready to prep the turkey.

The night before Thanksgiving, rub the turkey generously with the dry rub and refrigerate, loosely covered with plastic wrap on a large platter, overnight.

Make the turkey: On Thanksgiving morning, rinse the dry brine off the turkey and pat dry, both inside and out. Stuff the turkey cavity with a halved lemon and a few sprigs of sage and thyme, if desired. Place the turkey on the rack of a roasting pan and let sit for an hour at room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Pour 2 cups chicken broth into the roasting pan and roast the turkey for 45 minutes.

Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees and loosely place a "tent" of foil over roast the turkey until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh registers 165 degrees, anywhere from 2 1/2 to 4 more hours. 

Remove the turkey from the oven and transfer to a rimmed baking sheet or serving platter. Let the turkey rest for at least 30 minutes to redistribute the bird's juices.

Strain the drippings from the roasting pan through a sieve. Discard the fat that rises to the top and use the remaining drippings for gravy, if desired.

Classic herb and sausage stuffing
Yield: 8-10 servings (1 9x13-inch casserole dish)
Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 2 hours

  • 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 pound loose sweet or hot Italian sausage (pork or turkey)
  • 2 yellow or Vidalia onions, diced
  • 4 large celery stalks, diced
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh sage or 1 tablespoon dried sage
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 pound (about 8 cups) bagged stuffing bread cubes or fresh Italian bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 cup chicken broth, plus more as needed

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large (3-quart) saute pan over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the sausage in small chunks and cook, stirring frequently, until the sausage is broken up and cooked through. 

Transfer the sausage to a very large mixing bowl (big enough to hold all the stuffing components), leaving the drippings in the pan. (If you're using turkey sausage and there isn't much fat left in the pan, add the second tablespoon olive oil.)

Reduce the heat to medium-low and stir the onions and celery into the drippings/oil in the pan. Cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are very soft and translucent but not browned. 

Add the sage, thyme, salt and pepper, and cook for 2-3 minutes more. 

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Scrape the vegetables into the bowl with the sausage and let cool for 15 minutes.

Make-ahead note: The stuffing components can be refrigerated overnight at this point, and assembled to bake the following day.

To assemble and bake, preheat the oven to 350˚F.

Stir the egg into the sausage and vegetables. Add the bread cubes and mix thoroughly with your hands or a spatula. Add the broth 1/4-1/2 cup at a time so it's evenly absorbed into the stuffing, mixing between each addition. Add more broth 1/4 cup at a time if the stuffing mixture is still dry — it should be thoroughly moistened but not soggy.

Fill a 9x13-inch baking dish with the stuffing. Bake uncovered for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until crispy and browned on top.

Make-ahead note: The stuffing can be pre-baked for 30 minutes, then cooled to room temperature, covered tightly with foil, and refrigerated overnight. Reheat in a 350˚F oven for 30 minutes on Thanksgiving Day, until completely warmed through and crispy.

Green salad with fennel, grapes, gorgonzola and walnuts

  • 8 cups salad greens (such as baby spinach, mesclun, watercress and/or arugula)
  • 1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
  • 2 cups red grapes, halved
  • 1 cup crumbled Gorgonzola
  • 1 cup coarsley chopped toasted walnuts
  • 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt (any fat percentage)
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper 

Toss salad greens with sliced fennel, grapes, crumbled Gorgonzola and walnuts.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk yogurt with maple syrup, balsamic vinegar and pepper. Taste and add salt as desired. 

Set the salad and vinaigrette aside until you're ready to serve dinner.

Apple and parsnip soup

Follow this recent Today.com recipe for Apple and parsnip soup from Jamie Geller; it’s a perfect soup for Thanksgiving dinner.

Sweet potato pie with candied pecans
Yield: 1 9-inch pie 
Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes

PIE:

  • 1 refrigerated traditional 9-inch pie crust round
  • 1 15-ounce can sweet potato puree
  • 1 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

PECANS:

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 cup toasted pecans
  • 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar

Make the pie: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Unroll the pie crust and line a 9-inch pie plate with the dough.

Stir the sweet potato puree, brown sugar, butter, eggs, cinnamon, allspice, salt and vanilla extract together in a large mixing bowl until well blended.

Pour the filling into the prepared pie crust. Bake for about 45 minutes until the filling is set and no longer wobbly in the center. Remove from the oven and cool to room temperature on a wire rack.

Make the candied pecans: Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Stir in the pecans and sugar and stir until the sugar dissolves and starts to bubble.

Scrape the pecans and sugar onto the prepared baking sheet, spreading them in a single layer. Cool completely (about a half hour).

Line the edge of the cooled pie with a ring of candied pecans.

6-DAY PREP PLAN

Julian Rovagnati / Today

Saturday before Thanksgiving:
 Go grocery shopping! If you're buying a frozen turkey and haven't already purchased it, grab it now so it can thaw safely in the refrigerator: Estimate 1 day of thawing time for each 5 pounds of weight. (A 12-pound turkey will take about 2 1/2 days to thaw; a 15-pound turkey will take about 3 days.) Once the turkey has thawed, keep it refrigerated for up to 2 days.

If you plan on buying a fresh turkey, wait until Tuesday to buy it, then keep it safely refrigerated for up to 2 days.

nanka / Today

Sunday before Thanksgiving:
Make the dry rub for the turkey. Pour into a lidded container and store at room temperature until you're ready to prep the turkey on Wednesday.

Make the candied pecans. Cool completely, then store at room temperature in an airtight container until you make the pie on Monday.

Make the apple-parsnip soup. Let the pureed soup cool to room temperature, then freeze in a lidded container until Tuesday night.

msheldrake / Today

Monday before Thanksgiving: 
Make the turkey gravy. Pour into a heat-safe storage container and cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate until Thanksgiving.

Make the sweet potato pie. Cover tightly with foil or plastic wrap and refrigerate until Thanksgiving.

MSPhotographic / Today

Tuesday before Thanksgiving: 
Start making the stuffing by cooking the vegetables and sausage (follow recipe instructions through the first Make-ahead note.) Refrigerate in a lidded container overnight.

Thaw the soup: Transfer the container of frozen apple-parsnip soup from the freezer to the refrigerator and let it thaw safely there.

K. Miri Photography / Today

Wednesday before Thanksgiving: 
Assemble and pre-bake the stuffing: Bake uncovered for 30 minutes as noted in the recipe, then cool to room temperature, cover tightly with foil, and refrigerate overnight.

Rub the turkey generously with the dry rub and refrigerate, loosely covered with plastic wrap on a large platter, overnight.

BlueSkyImage / Today

Thanksgiving Thursday: Six hours before you plan to serve Thanksgiving dinner, start the prep. Take the turkey out of the refrigerator, rinse the brine off the turkey, pat it dry with paper towels, and let it sit at room temperature for an hour.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Place the turkey in the oven and roast for 45 minutes.

Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees and tent the turkey with foil.

While the turkey roasts, make the salad and vinaigrette and set aside until you're ready to serve dinner (do not dress the salad yet).

After about 90 minutes, check the turkey's temperature if you haven't been monitoring it with a probe thermometer. When the thickest part of the thigh hits 165 degrees, remove the turkey from the oven and transfer to a rimmed baking sheet or serving platter. Let the turkey rest for at least 30 minutes to redistribute the bird's juices.

Strain the drippings from the roasting pan through a sieve. Discard the fat that rises to the top and use the remaining drippings for gravy, if desired.

Increase the oven temperature to 350 degrees.

Remove the foil from the stuffing and place it in the oven to reheat.

While the stuffing is in the oven, reheat the gravy (adding the turkey drippings, if desired) and the apple-parsnip soup on the stove-top until each comes to a gentle simmer.

After about 30 minutes, when the stuffing is browned and crispy, remove it from the oven.

Take the sweet potato pie out of the refrigerator so it will come to room temperature while you eat dinner.

Toss the salad with the vinaigrette, and serve Thanksgiving dinner!

For more advice on a stress-free holiday, see our Thanksgiving planning cheat sheet.