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Thanksgiving timeline: When to shop, prep and cook for Thanksgiving dinner

When should you start prepping for Thanksgiving? Well, honestly, now.
It's turkey time!
It's turkey time!TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

Thanksgiving is about food, friends and family. It’s also all about timing. Every home chef — and even executive chefs — have a horror story about their turkey not getting done in time. And that’s assuming you can find one. Save your shopping to the last minute, and you might be having duck for Thanksgiving dinner (honestly doesn't sound so bad, though...).

To help you nail Thanksgiving dinner this year, TODAY Food spoke with a few expert chefs with decades of experience, both personal and professional, preparing America’s favorite feast. Whether you’re hosting or bringing an assigned dish or two, grab a pen (or your iPad) because it all starts now.

2-4 weeks out: Take stock, make stock and order (or buy) your turkey

Start zeroing in on the recipes you want to try. “I like to have all my recipes selected or have an idea of what I am serving by November 1st,” says Matt Abdoo, a frequent TODAY guest and executive chef and partner at Pig Beach BBQ. You should also take inventory of what you have in your pantry, and make a list of what you need. Now is also time to start shopping. “The sooner you can do your shopping, the better,” said Abdoo. “Anything frozen or shelf-stable, I make sure to buy at least two weeks before Thanksgiving.”

Erin Smith, executive chef at Houston’s Feges BBQ (which boasts one of the best Thanksgiving to-go menus in the city) also recommends you have your stock for the gravy and stuffing made at this point. You can freeze it until Thanksgiving. “Having it already prepared makes a world of difference,” noted Smith, who makes her compound butters weeks, if not months, in advance, too.

If you’re buying it fresh, Max Tucci, author of "The Delmonico Way," also recommends you order your turkey now. As long as you have room in your freezer, you can buy a frozen turkey at this point, too. Then Tucci, who once made Thanksgiving dinner for more than 100 people to bring them together after 9/11, says you should make your menu. If you’re assigning dishes to others, you want to give them at least two weeks to prepare.

4-5 days out: Buy your fresh ingredients, start thawing your turkey and making desserts

The weekend before Thanksgiving is the start of game time. Start buying your fresh ingredients, especially what you’ll need to prepare the side dishes you start preparing two to three days out. It’s also when a lot of people start shopping, so brace yourself. To beat the crowds, shop first thing in the morning or late at night. “I like to shop usually an hour before a supermarket closes,” said Tucci, who recommends you “stay away from midday” if you want a less stressful experience.

Start thawing your frozen turkey now, too. “The best and safest way to defrost your turkey is in your refrigerator,” Abdoo said. “It usually takes around one day for every five pounds.” For a 15-pound turkey, that would be three days. However, Abdoo likes to be on the safe side and pull it out of the freezer a day or two early and keep it in the fridge.

According to Smith, now is also the best time to start making the sweet stuff on your menu. “Desserts should be made first,” said Smith, who insists you don’t have to worry about them getting stale. “The sugar and fat help to keep desserts tasting and looking fresh.”

Remember: Desserts don’t have to be homemade to be a hit. “For pies and cakes, I say, 'Why bake for yourself when someone else can?'" said Tucci. If you go this route, order desserts from your local bakery now.

2-3 days out: Start on your sides and gather your remaining ingredients

Unless you thrive under pressure, start your sides on the Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving. “Start with sides that reheat well,” recommended Smith. “Examples include mashed potatoes, braised greens and green bean casserole.”

This is also when Abdoo makes his cranberry sauce (although he says canned cranberry sauce is delicious). If you don’t want to start your sides this early, or you don’t have time, at least make sure you have all of your ingredients on hand.

The day before: Peel and cut your potatoes, clean and decorate your home, and start brining your turkey

Thanksgiving eve will be a busy day. If you haven’t started yet, peel and cut your potatoes. Potatoes for mashed potatoes should be stored in the fridge, covered for water, until you’re ready to cook them. Sweet potatoes should be stored, covered, in their baking dish in the fridge. Basically, anything you want to cook or reheat in the oven on Thanksgiving Day can be prepared today and stored in the fridge, covered, in their baking or serving dish.

You should also use this day to clean and decorate, including setting your table. Smith always has her table set by this point, despite having a 3-year-old in the house, because she knows she’s going to spend most of the following day in the kitchen.

The night before Thanksgiving is when you want to start brining your turkey, whether you’re using a wet brine or a dry brine. It needs to brine overnight.

Thanksgiving Day: Bring your turkey to room temp, cook it, make the rest of the meal — and enjoy!

Because it takes the longest to cook, start with your turkey. (TODAY Food’s guide to cooking turkey is a great resource for everything turkey-related you need to know today.) So how long does it take to cook a turkey?

“It takes around 15 minutes per pound,” said Abdoo, who has won national championships for preparing poultry. So, if you have a 20-pound turkey, allow it to cook for at least five hours. If you have a 15-pound turkey, you’ll need close to four hours.

Abdoo recommends you take your turkey out of the fridge three hours before you plan on putting it in the oven. “Remove the turkey from the brine, pat dry with paper towels and smear with room temperature butter,” said Abdoo. “Then you can season it with salt, pepper and chopped thyme.” This is also when he stuffs the cavity with garlic cloves and herbs before allowing the turkey to sit like this at room temperature until it goes in the oven.

If you don’t have three hours, that’s OK, too. One hour should be enough. “This allows the turkey to come to room temperature,” said Smith. “It gives the skin some time to dry out further which will help make it crispy in the oven.”

While your turkey is cooking, focus on finishing your sides. Start with sides that take the longest such as candied yams, stuffing and green bean casserole. Then, make the mashed potatoes and a salad, if you’re having one. After you’ve checked its temperature — turkey breast is done at 170 F and thighs are done at 180 F — you can carve your turkey and make the gravy.

“I like making the gravy last minute for a few reasons,” said Smith. “First, I like to use the pan juices from the turkey. Second, I’m usually drinking wine on Thanksgiving so I will already have a bottle open for deglazing, and finally, a freshly-made gravy avoids clumping and thickening.”

Last, put your desserts that need to be warm in the oven on low-heat. Smith likes to add a fresh garnish before serving.

Bon appetit!