Thanksgiving is stressful enough with all the prep and planning that goes into enjoying a festive meal with loved ones. From figuring out when to purchase the big bird to nailing down the perfect menu for the Thanksgiving holiday, hosting T-Day requires loads of time to make sure everything tastes as delicious as you intended, your guests have a memorable evening, and everything goes off without a hitch.
While you can plan for every potential hiccup that might arise and disrupt your Thanksgiving dinner preparations, sometimes the unexpected is unavoidable. When such moments occur, it can be difficult to get back on track. Before you know it, hungry guests are knocking down your door as you frantically continue an impossible race against the clock, nervously checking your timer as you gauge the temperature of each dish.
To make your life a little easier, we spoke to professional chefs to get their expert time-saving tips for cooking Thanksgiving dinner. Although their advice can help ensure you can spend fewer hours in the kitchen and more time giving thanks, if you find you’re still crunched for time, you can also look to these 20 Last-Minute Thanksgiving Recipes Everyone Will Love.
Chef Omar Loney of Kokomo, a Caribbean restaurant based in Brooklyn, recommends planning out your menu and grocery list ahead of time—preferably at least a week in advance of Thanksgiving. This way, you can make sure you have everything you need and don’t have to scramble to find ingredients at the last minute, while also paying premium prices for them.
“You can buy your nonperishables a few weeks ahead of time, but make sure you have a set list of everything you will need for the days leading up to the big day,” Loney advises.
“A lot of time is spent cutting up vegetables, so buying your produce already cut, diced, or shredded can definitely shave off time,” says Erica Barrett, owner of SOCU Southern Kitchen & Oyster Bar.
So, if you’re making a green bean casserole, try picking up frozen green beans, which are already washed and cut. Buying pre-cut sweet potatoes for pie or casseroles can also save you time and energy—because no one wants to wrestle with a spud on Thanksgiving morning.
If you are planning on cooking a full traditional turkey for Thanksgiving, make sure you allocate enough time beforehand to thawing and prepping it.
“Some turkeys can take up to six days to defrost. So, make sure you do your research and pay attention to the instructions to be sure you get your turkey done in time,” Loney says. “I recommend not doing it on the day of, because there will be enough other things going on.”
Newsflash: Not everything has to be cooked on Thanksgiving day.
“It will make your life a lot easier if you make the desserts—brownies, cakes, pies—the night before, because they won’t go bad from sitting out overnight,” suggests Loney.
Also, make freezer-friendly meals your best friend.
“I’m not talking about TV dinners, but dishes you can make ahead of time that will be ok sitting in the freezer for a few days,” Loney continues. This includes but is not limited to cranberry sauce, gravy, pie crust, and so forth. “Then, all you have to do is thaw them the day before to be ready for Thanksgiving.”
Why sit and wait for your brussels sprouts to cook on the stovetop when you can multitask to make multiple side dishes? You’ll save major minutes by investing in a skillet with different sections.
“Using a multi-sectional skillet allows you to cook multiple dishes at once instead of having to wait for one dish to finish cooking before starting the next,” Barrett says.
Plus, using a multi-sectional skillet instead of multiple pans will save you some clean-up time after Thanksgiving dinner, so you can spend less time scrubbing over the sink.
When it comes to prepping as big of a meal as Thanksgiving dinner, make sure to delegate.
“This day requires all hands on deck. So, my recommendation is to tell friends or family members that are attending to bring a side dish or a dessert, so that it’s not all up to you to cook everything that will go on the table,” says Loney.
However, if planning to host Thanksgiving potluck style, just make sure to give your guests a heads up a few weeks ahead of dinner. This courtesy will enable them to have enough time to shop and prepare their dishes, too.
Whether it’s stuffing, homemade cranberry sauce, mac ‘n cheese, mashed potatoes, or another mouth-watering stovetop side dish, don’t forget to pop the lid on the pot or pan.
“Your food cooks fasters when you have a lid on top holding the heat inside,” says Ebony Austin, owner of Atlanta-based Nouveau Bar & Grill.
Try to reduce the surface area of your food, Austin recommends. Cutting up veggies or meat into smaller pieces will help everything cook faster.
“This is really important when you are baking any type of dish,” Austin says. “For instance, it’s quicker to bake several pieces of chicken that are cut than it is to bake a whole chicken.”
Another pro tip: “When cooking mashed potatoes, cut the potato into small [cube-shaped] pieces before boiling them, so the potatoes cook faster,” Barrett says.
Instead of rummaging through the spice rack or disorganized bottles in your cabinet or pantry, opt for an all-purpose seasoning.
“Using an all-purpose seasoning will stop you from having to sort through your seasonings to find the right one,” Barrett says.
If you have a fryer large enough to fit your bird, put it to good use on T-Day.
“Using the fryer cuts down on cook time significantly,” says Barrett. “Frying a turkey can take up to 45 minutes [depending on its size], as opposed to spending three to four hours cooking a turkey traditionally in the oven.”
“Cooking at a higher temperature will definitely cook your meat faster,” Austin explains. “But please make sure to use a food thermometer to make sure your meat is all the way done and cooked to your liking.”
FYI: According to the USDA, a turkey needs to reach an internal temperature of 165°F, while beef, pork and lamb should be cooked to at least 145°F for food safety.
If you plan on serving a dish that calls for any raw legumes—like black beans, pinto beans, or chickpeas—be sure to soak them for at least four hours prior to preparing your dish. Or better yet, make the time to soak them overnight.
“Soaking [legumes] makes them softer and reduces cooking time,” says Austin.
However, to save even more time, you can always buy these items canned instead.