4 Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Dishes So You Can Enjoy the Day

Whether we have little kids underfoot, a full-time job, or just the general holiday pile-up, preparing for Thanksgiving can be overwhelming.  Regular life is full enough — a bit of strategy helps to tackle turkey day with a smile.

I’ve made Thanksgiving dinner on my own for years now.  We don’t have relatives nearby, and we often end up inviting friends over.  So that I don’t wake up Thanksgiving morning in a panic and spend the rest of the day running around like a headless turkey, I know one of my best tactics is to get as much done ahead of time as possible.

Side dishes like potatoes, green beans, cranberries, and stuffing can be done days ahead.  (Instead of also fixing dinner on those days, treat yourself to something out of the freezer.)  Then on Thanksgiving day, all you’ll need to do is wrangle the turkey, get the house ready, and bake those sweet-smelling pies.  (The pumpkin and pecan pies we make are so easy that I save them for the day of, so I’ll actually have something to do.)

The recipes I’ve listed here are simple yet classic.  With Thanksgiving coming just once a year, I find that it’s hard to get tired of the traditional dishes.  And whether you’re orchestrating the celebration or just playing a part, there’s always room to simplify.

Traditional Turkey Stuffing

If you have a food processor to do the chopping, now is the time to pull it out.  If not, time for the cook to get an assistant.  That’s why in our family this recipe is lovingly referred to as Dad’s Turkey Stuffing. With the chopping and sautéeing done ahead of time, all you have to do on Thursday is mix the bread stuffing with the spiced vegetables.

About 25 servings

  • 1 bunch celery with leaves, chopped (4–5 cups)
  • 2 large onions, or 4 small ones, chopped (about 1 1⁄2 cups)
  • 2 sticks butter
  • 5 large mushrooms, chopped (1⁄2 pound)
  • 1 bunch parsley, chopped (1⁄2 – 3⁄4 cups)
  • 1 tablespoon tarragon
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon sage
  • 1 1⁄2 teaspoons paprika
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 can chicken broth
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 2 12-14 oz. bags plain unseasoned bread stuffing
  • 1 12-14 oz. bag cornbread stuffing, unseasoned if you can find it
  1. Sauté celery, onions, and mushrooms in butter.  Add spices. Store in a cool place for up to a week.
  2. When ready to stuff the turkey, toss the vegetable-spice mix with the bread stuffing in a very large bowl until blended.  Fill the inside of the turkey with stuffing and bake according to turkey instructions.
  3. About an hour before eating, toss about half of the stuffing (the rest is for leftovers) with a beaten egg and enough chicken broth to moisten.   Heat in a covered oven-safe dish until warm all the way through.  Serve.

Skin-On Smashed Potatoes

My mom always made mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving dinner, but they’re best beaten light and fluffy right before serving.  Because I don’t love the pressure of whipping up smooth potatoes at the same time that the turkey is coming done and the gravy needs to be made, I made smashed potatoes last year.

Because potato skins are rich with vitamins, smashed potatoes are a chunky version of mashed potatoes that are both fast and healthy.

Adapted from How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman.

About 10 servings

  • 5 lb. bag of potatoes (any kind will do: russet, Idaho, Yukon or red-skinned)
  • 1 stick butter
  • salt & freshly ground pepper
  1. Scrub the potatoes well.  Place the un-peeled potatoes in a large, deep pot and add enough water to cover by about 1 inch.  Add 1 tablespoon of salt and bring to a boil.
  2. Keep the water at a rolling boil for about 30 minutes.  Potatoes are done when a sharp knife inserted into one meets with almost no resistance.
  3. Drain the potatoes.  (If you really want to peel them, give them more time to cool before slipping off the skins.)
  4. Drop a stick of butter into the still warm pot, plus some salt and pepper.  Dump in the potatoes and smash roughly with a fork or potato masher, leaving lots of lumps.  Add more butter if desired, and you’re done.  (Refrigerate for up to five days before reheating in the microwave.)

Classic Cranberry Sauce

We’ve always used the simple recipe on the back of the Ocean Spray package of fresh cranberries.  It’s unbelievably easy, and equally as delicious.  If you want to mix it up, add a few orange slices for color and variety.

Makes 2 1/4 cups

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 12-ounce package fresh cranberries

Combine sugar and water in a medium saucepan. Bring to boil; add cranberries, return to boil. Reduce heat and boil gently for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cover and cool completely at room temperature. Refrigerate for up to a week before serving.

Buttered Green Beans

Try to find the freshest green beans possible.  Ideally they should snap when broken in half.  Make trimming faster by snapping off the stem side only (leaving the curly end) — or recruit your kids to help!

About 10 servings

  • 4 lbs. green beans, washed and stem-ends snapped off
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  1. Bring to boil a large pot of water with 1 tablespoon of salt.  Drop in the beans and cook for about 5 minutes or until bright green and as tender as you like them.  (Taste one.)
  2. Drain the beans and then drop them into a large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking.  Drain again and refrigerate in a covered container for up to 2 days.
  3. When about ready to serve, place the beans in a microwave-safe dish.  (Since the stove and oven are usually busy at Thanksgiving, I like to use the microwave when possible, but if you prefer you could also sauté the beans in a skillet.)  Top with about 4 tablespoons of butter.
  4. Heat in the microwave (about 5 minutes) until hot all the way through.  Toss with the melted butter, season with salt and pepper, and serve.

Shopping List

Things You Might Already Have

  • tarragon
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • sage
  • paprika
  • nutmeg
  • sugar
  • 1 egg

Things You Might Need to Buy

  • 1 bunch celery
  • 2 large onions, or 4 small ones
  • 5 large mushrooms (1⁄2 pound)
  • 1 bunch parsley
  • 4 lbs. green beans
  • 5 lb. bag of potatoes (any kind will do:  russet, Idaho, Yukon or red-skinned)
  • 1 12-ounce package fresh cranberries
  • 4 sticks butter
  • 1 can chicken broth
  • 2 12-14 ounce bags plain unseasoned bread stuffing
  • 1 12-14 ounce bag cornbread stuffing, unseasoned if you can find it
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  • Sara Zimmer November 23, 2011, 5:16 pm

    Thinking of you today — I am still thankful for your meal last year! I remembered you put some of your recipes on your blog, so I am writting down your cranberry sauce recipe. I’ll be making it tonight for tomorrow’s Thanksgiving dinner. Thanks again and hope your family has a blessed holiday!

    • Amy November 23, 2011, 7:22 pm

      Hi Sara! How great to hear from you again! The cranberry sauce is the easiest – ever! I miss seeing you and the boys around town.
      Love, Amy

  • Sara Zimmer November 22, 2010, 9:32 pm

    YUM! I think this is my favorite post yet! My fork is ready now!

  • Jane November 22, 2010, 1:40 pm

    Hi – thanks for the recipe ideas. Quick questions about the stuffing: how could I adapt this so I don’t cook it inside the turkey?

    • Amy November 22, 2010, 1:59 pm

      Hi Jane,

      Sure! After it’s all mixed up, just toss it with a beaten egg and enough chicken broth to make up for the moisture that it won’t receive from the turkey.

      Cover it with foil and warm it in the oven until it’s heated through. The time will depend on how hot the oven is (usually you’ve already got something in there) but about 1/2 hr at 350 should do it.

      Let me know how it goes!


      • Cheryl November 24, 2013, 2:52 pm

        Can the stuffing mixture be prepared – not going in the bird – covered and stored in refrigerator overnight?

        • Amy November 25, 2013, 8:25 am

          Yes, definitely!


  • Potato Ricer Guy November 21, 2010, 8:30 pm

    It’s true. The gods have spoken. Great article and thanks for mentioning the potato ricer. They make the best mashed potatoes ever.

    • Amy November 22, 2010, 9:05 am

      Hi Potato Ricer Guy!

      I’m thinking about getting one, to try it out. Can you suggest a certain brand?