How To Plan Thanksgiving Dinner Like a Pro – Part 1

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Planning and hosting a Thanksgiving Dinner is not for the faint of heart.  From menu planning to preparing your home for guests, weeks of preparation are required to pull off this event flawlessly.  However, learning how to plan Thanksgiving Dinner is an invaluable skill.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll dive into each part of planning Thanksgiving like a pro.

In this post, we’ll take a look at meal planning.

How many dishes do I need?  When should I start preparing Thanksgiving dinner?  In which order should I cook my menu?

These are just a few of the questions we’ll answer today.  Let’s dive in!Free Printable Thanksgiving Meal Planning Kit

How Many Dishes Do I Need for Thanksgiving Dinner?

The very first question we need to answer when planning our meal and menu items is; how many dishes do we need?

The answer to this is dependent upon a few different factors.

First and foremost, how many guests will be attending?  Do you plan on serving Turkey as your main course?  And, are you catering to any specific dietary restrictions?

For a quick reference, I’ve put together a little meal planning cheat sheet below.  Included are a few recommendations for the number of dishes you should serve based on attendance.Thanksgiving Dinner - How Many Dishes Do I Need?

Serving 1 – 4 Guests

When serving a small number of guests, like your immediate family only or a couple of friends, serve the following:

  • 1 Main Dish (aka Turkey)
  • 3 Side Dishes
  • 2 Desserts
  • 1 Bottle of Wine (optional)
  • 1 Non-Alcoholic Beverage

Serving 5 – 8 Guests

If you’re expecting a few more people consider adding a second main dish.  If you’re a meat-eater this could be a ham, pot roast, brisket, or ribs.

You’ll also want to tack on an extra side dish and possibly an additional dessert option as well.

Your meal plan will look like this:

  • 2 Main Dishes
  • 4 Side Dishes
  • 3 Desserts
  • 2 Bottles of Wine (optional)
  • 2 Non-Alcoholic Beverages

Serving 9 – 12 Guests

For a mid-sized party, pad out your meal with an appetizer option.  Not only will this enhance the meal experience, but it is a great tool for keeping your cooking and serving schedule on time.

When you have lots of guests, arriving in more than 1 vehicle there will likely be a window of time where people are trickling through the front door.

Trying to keep dishes warm before they get to the table is a challenge only made worse by late arrivals.  To avoid this, ask your guests to show up an hour before you plan to serve your meal and offer them an appetizer while they wait for the food to be set out.

This way you can better time the dishes coming from the kitchen and have a better chance of them all being hot when they hit the table.

Your meal plan will look like this:

  • 1 appetizer
  • 2 – 3 Main Dishes
  • 4 Side Dishes
  • Salad
  • 4 Desserts
  • 4 Bottles of Wine (optional)
  • 3 Non-Alcoholic Beverage Options

Serving 13 – 16 Guests

Larger parties will require an additional appetizer option and 3 main dishes.  Also, make sure there are plenty of sides to choose from along with desserts and wine.

Your meal plan is as follows:

  • 2 Appetizers
  • 3 Main Dishes
  • 6 Side Dishes
  • Salad
  • 6 Desserts
  • 6 Bottles of Wine (optional)
  • 3 Non-Alcoholic Beverage Options

When Should I Start Preparing My Thanksgiving Dinner?

The answer is, unequivocally, the day before.  Even if you are planning for a small gathering, this is a lot of food, a lot of prep, a lot of standing, and a lot of juggling.

Trying to do it all in a single day will leave you in a state of exhaustion.  Trust me on this.  You won’t have time to enjoy your meal, or your guests if you attempt to do it all in a single day.

Prepare all of your menu items the day before.  This means, do all your rinsing, chopping, dicing, peeling, etc. done the day before Thanksgiving.  If you’re serving green beans, sit down and snap the ends.

If you’re baking from scratch, measure out and set aside all of your dry ingredients in a bowl or bag for tomorrow.  Figure out the total amount of diced onions you’ll need or garlic across all of your dishes and do them all at once.

This type of “day before” meal prep will save you hours of time on Thanksgiving Day.

In Which Order Should I Cook My Meal?

Approach the cooking of your meal in a turkey sandwich fashion, with the sides being the bread.  Start with side items that will reheat or can stay heated for an extended period of time without losing their integrity.

Things like mac and cheese, green beans, corn, mashed potatoes, candied yams, and cabbage or collard greens should be at the top of the cooking schedule.  Next, get the turkey in the oven.

How long it needs to roast is completely dependent upon the size of your bird.  Reference your packaging and use a meat thermometer to monitor progress.

When your turkey or main dishes are halfway done, get the rest of your sides cooking.  These would be things like stuffing, gravy, rice dishes, stuffed mushrooms, and cornbread.

When the turkey and all of the sides are complete toss your salad and pop your rolls (if you’re serving them) into the oven.  While your rolls are heating up, start bringing your dishes to the table and calling guests to eat.

BONUS – Suggested Menu Items

Below are a few of my favorite things to make with links to the recipes if you’re looking for a little menu inspiration.


Honey Grilled Shrimp

Di’s Delicious Delux Deviled Eggs

Bacon Wrapped Smokies

Cape Cod Cocktail Meatballs

Hot Mexican Spinach Dip

Grilled Bacon Jalapeno Wraps

Coconut Shrimp


Creamy Dill Cucumber Toasties


Corn and Crab Bisque

Six Can Chicken Tortilla Soup

Healing Cabbage Soup

Russian Mushroom and Potato Soup

Main Dishes

King Ranch Chicken Casserole

World’s Best Lasagna

Oven Pot Roast

BBQ Teriyaki Pork Kabobs

Chicken and Bacon Shish Kabobs

Side Dishes

Gourmet Sweet Potato Classic

Best Spanish Rice

Fried Rice

Airport Bob’s Green Beans

Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Restaurant Style Mac and Cheese

Twice Baked Potatoes

Espinacas con Garbanzos (Spinach with Garbanzo Beans)

Sauteed Curried Corn


Banana Crumb Muffins

Banana Bread

Chewy Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies

Pumpkin Pie Mousse Shots

Chocolate Trifle

Cocktails & Mixed Drinks

Beer Margaritas

White Russian Cocktail

Sparkling Celebration Punch (Non-Alcoholic)


Stay tuned for How To Plan Thanksgiving Dinner Like a Pro – Part 2 where we’ll dive into home preparations and alternative dinner options.

Also, don’t forget to grab a free printable copy of my Thanksgiving Meal Planning Kit.  It includes the meal planning cheat sheet, menu worksheet, a grocery list template, and a cooking schedule.

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