Published on 10/29/09

Plan now for easy Thanksgiving meal

By April Sorrow
University of Georgia

As the holiday season approaches, homes will soon be filled with family and friends. Thanksgiving is a few weeks away, but planning now can make the big day less hectic.

“Preparing meals for a perfect holiday can be stressful, but deciding on menu items that can be safely prepared ahead and stored safely until needed can help you have a safer and more relaxing holiday meal,” said Judy Harrison, a food safety specialist with University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.

To help you prepare and stay on schedule, the Partnership for Food Safety Education provides a timeline.

Two weeks ahead

Confirm your guest list at least two weeks before Thanksgiving. With the list in mind, decide on the menu. Select a few recipes that can be safely stored and served at room temperature to avoid an overloaded oven or stove. Ask guests to bring an appetizer, side dish or dessert.

If you have freezer space, purchase the turkey in advance and store it. Plan on about a pound per person.

Check your food thermometer to make sure it’s calibrated and works. If you plan to deep-fry, smoke or grill the turkey, check the equipment beforehand. Plan an alternative cooking method in case the weather keeps you indoors. Purchase the oil, wood chips or charcoal.

One week ahead

Determine how long the turkey will take to thaw. Calculate 24 hours of refrigerator thaw time for each 4.5 pounds of frozen turkey, or three and a half days for a 16-pound turkey. Place the frozen turkey, in the original wrapper, in a two-inch deep roasting pan in the refrigerator. Thaw the turkey with the breast down so the juices will flow into it. A thawed turkey can stay in the refrigerator for up to two days.

Two days ahead

Make pumpkin pies and cheesecake. Refrigerate desserts with custard-like ingredients. Pie crusts can be made ahead and baked the night before. Assemble casseroles. Sweet potato or green bean casseroles can be stored uncooked in the refrigerator and baked on Thanksgiving. For homemade stuffing, cook, cut and cube bread and place it in a single layer on a baking pan to dry.

One day ahead

Make sure the turkey is thawed. If not, use a cold-water method to speed the process. Remove the giblets and wing tips from the turkey and cook giblet turkey broth to use with the stuffing, dressing or gravy. Keep the turkey refrigerated at 40 degrees or colder until ready to cook.

Buy salad greens and perishable vegetables. Wash, trim and cut vegetables on a clean cutting board. Wrap in damp paper towels and place in sealable plastic bags in the refrigerator. Complete any remaining baking. Cover and store fruit pies at room temperature.

Celebration day

Prepare stuffing for the turkey or for baking. Stuff the turkey loosely, allowing about three-quarters cup of stuffing per pound of turkey. Place extra stuffing in a baking dish and bake in the oven. After stuffing turkey, place it in a preheated oven at 325 degrees.

Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperatures of the turkey and dressing. A whole turkey should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees. Check the temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. The stuffing should reach 165 degrees, too, whether cooked inside the bird or in a separate dish. Put a foil tent over the turkey and allow it to rest for 25 minutes before carving.

Make gravy. Preheat the gravy bowl with hot water so the gravy will stay hot.

Begin cooking fresh vegetables one hour before the turkey is done. Boil and mash potatoes. Consider holding the warm mashed potatoes in a slow cooker.

Remove cold desserts from the refrigerator and allow them to become room temperature.

After the meal, place all leftovers into small portions and store in shallow containers in the refrigerator. Perishable foods should not stay in the temperature danger zone (between 40 degrees and 140 degrees) for more than two hours.

The complete holiday checklist is available at or at the Partnership for Food Safety Education’s Facebook Web page.

(April Sorrow is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

April R. Sorrow is a science writer with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.