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Thanksgiving Checklist By Pamela Salzman


Planning in advance is the secret sauce to a stress-free Thanksgiving. Thanks to the culinary goddess, Pamela Salzman, she shares her tips, tricks, and everything guide for the holiday ahead. Although this year may look more like an intimate dinner party, we still believe in making Thanksgiving as special as possible. One thing that doesn’t have to be changed this year is a delicious and well thought out feast.

Below Salzman elaborates on the importance of planning your menu ahead, the questions you should ask yourself and your guests, plus a checklist that makes the week before Thanksgiving as seamless as possible.




Planning the Thanksgiving menu requires a bit of strategy and balance. Make sure you have a balance of cooked and raw food (one thing I have learned is no matter how big your kitchen or how many ovens you have, it’s never enough on Thanksgiving!); protein, starches, and vegetables (I find most Thanksgiving menus to be too starchy;) and ingredients (make sure not every recipe has dried fruit and nuts in it.) Know what dishes need an oven and when because if you’re making turkey and you have one oven, you won’t be baking too much in the hours before dinner.


I love trying new recipes, but my family looks forward to the same traditional standbys every year. There was almost a revolution when I took Breaded Cauliflower off the menu in 2007 (I now serve it as an hors d’oeuvre.) So I compromise by making the classics (traditional roast turkey with gravy and cranberry saucemashed potatoesstuffing, and pumpkin pie), but I also try out a new salad or vegetable side dish every year.

Just because you’re cooking overtime for Thanksgiving dinner, doesn’t mean your household won’t be needing dinner the night before and breakfast the morning of. Instead of ordering takeout pizza on Wednesday night, make and freeze a casserole in the weeks ahead or plan for your easiest 20-minute meal. The same goes for Thanksgiving day, especially if you have young children in the house. You can save your appetite and get by on a piece of fruit for the day, but your four-year-old cannot. I always make a pot of butternut squash soup the day before and a pan of cornbread to be served around noon to tide anyone over until the big meal.


photo by Erica Hampton

photo by Erica Hampton


I remember my first Thanksgiving with a stack of cookbooks and magazines taking up valuable counter space and wasting so much time looking up each recipe multiple times. Ugh! Put your photocopied recipes in sheet protectors and create a dedicated Thanksgiving or holiday binder organized by category. This just might be the most useful tip I give you.


Order the Turkey: If you eat turkey on Thanksgiving, it’s a good idea to order it now. I have always ordered a fresh, free-range, organic turkey because in my opinion it has a tasty turkey flavor and is of higher quality than most other alternatives. The only thing that may be better is a heritage turkey, which has a much stronger turkey flavor and supposed to be moister. It will have less breast meat though and will be more expensive. If you want a heritage bird, you need to order this ASAP since they sell out fast. Avoid “self-basting” turkeys which are injected with anything from chicken fat to salt to chemicals. True, they are easier to cook, but I think they taste more like salt than turkey and they are just full of stuff you don’t want to feed your family.


Here are some questions that will help you decide what size to order:

How many ovens do you have? 

If you have one large oven that can accommodate two turkeys side by side and an extra oven to spare (you’re so lucky!), then you have the option of cooking two smaller birds versus one large one. But with two small ovens, you may not want them both to be monopolized by turkeys.

Are your guests dark meat-eaters or white meat-eaters? 

You will get more white meat by weight from one large bird than from two smaller ones. Likewise, you will get more dark meat from two smaller birds than from one large one.

How big a turkey should you buy? 

The rule of thumb is one pound of turkey per person. That doesn’t mean that you will have 1 pound of meat per person, though. Personally, I think this is only a good rule if you don’t want leftovers if your guests are not big eaters, and/or you have a good number of dark meat eaters versus all-white meat-eaters. Five years ago I cooked two 17-pound turkeys for 20 adults and 5 kids and I had just enough leftovers for the five of us for dinner the next day. Four years ago I cooked two 18-pound turkeys for 24 adults and 5 kids and we had the same amount of leftovers. My point is that I think 1 1/4 pounds per person is a safer bet.

Do you have a bad back? 

What does this have to do with anything? A very large turkey is mighty challenging to keep pulling out of the oven to baste. I find two smaller turkeys much more manageable if you have the oven space.


Two Weeks Before Thanksgiving

Planning Your Table Decor I don’t do anything fancy for my table decorations, but it’s nice to make the table look special. Now’s the time to check your linens for stains and make sure you have enough napkins, plates, and glassware. I generally like to do something simple with fresh flowers in autumnal colors and add in a few of the kids’ Thanksgiving art projects from years past.  But you can put out bowls of apples and pears or gourds and nuts, add in a few votive candles and it will look lovely. If a tablescape isn’t your thing, you can always order from your local florist or full-service market. Just plan ahead. For additional detailed table decor tips, you can read more here.

photo by artisteer

photo by artisteer

  • Make your pie crusts and freeze them You can freeze them in disc form or roll them out, fit them into pie plates and freeze them, well wrapped.
  • Make your homemade stock and freeze it I use over a gallon of chicken stock on Thanksgiving for soupstuffing and gravy.
  • Make your dry mixes for pie fillings, cornbread, and other baked goods. Not only are there never enough ovens on Thanksgiving day, but there are never enough measuring cups and spoons either. I measure out the dry ingredients, store them in a glass jar, and label each jar, e.g. “Dry Mix for 2 Pumpkin Pies.” I didn’t label them the first year I did this and let me tell you — pumpkin pie spices smell A LOT like apple pie spices.
  • Check your inventory of helpful tools and appliances Here’s my list of Thanksgiving essentials:
  1. Instant-read thermometer — the only way to know if your turkey is ready.
  2. Roasting pan(s) and rack(s)
  3. Fat separator
  4. Twine for trussing
  5. Baster
  6. Potato Ricer — for making mashed potatoes

Week of Thanksgiving


  • Grocery shop for everything remaining other than turkeys and produce
  • Arrange tables & chairs
  • Make cranberry sauce and applesauce
  • Write place cards even if it may be a more intimate setting this year, the little details always count


  • Make salad vinaigrettes
  • Make ice cream
  • Make pastry dough for all pies


  • Pick up turkeys and produce
  • Buy and arrange flowers (last year I made arrangements with white hydrangeas, flowering kale, roses, and snapdragons)
  • Brine turkey for 24 hours
  • Set tables
  • Other things that can be done today: shredding cheese, toasting nuts and seeds, Dry bread cubes for stuffing, Wash and dry salad greens, chop vegetables for things to assembled Wednesday, like stuffing and casseroles
  • Make apple caramel sauce
  • Defrost stock if frozen


  • Make soup
  • Make casseroles and stuffing up to the point of baking
  • Wash, dry, chop vegetables for cooking on Thanksgiving day
  • Blanche vegetables needed for Thanksgiving day
  • Make pies
  • Set up coffee and tea service
  • Check powder room
  • Before bed: make sure the garage refrigerator door is closed! (Nine years ago, I left the door open to my extra fridge in the garage all night long. OMG. Disaster! Needed to buy two new turkeys on Thanksgiving morning!)


This is my schedule if we eat at 4:00 pm

9:00 am

  • Take turkey out of the refrigerator
  • Roast delicata squash and apples for salad
  • Prep turkeys

11:00 am

  • Put turkeys in the oven
  • Make crispy onions for bean casserole
  • Prep coffee machine for after dinner
  • Measure gravy ingredients
  • Remove salad dressing from refrigerator
  • Assemble fruit platter

2:00 pm

  • Peel potatoes; make mashed potatoes; keep in bowl over simmering water
  • Assemble cheese and crudités board

3:15 pm

  • Take turkey out to rest, oven to 350 degrees
  • Heat stuffing and casseroles
  • Light candles, water, butter, cranberry sauce, applesauce, assemble salad


  • Carve turkeys

After dinner: whip cream, coffee, and tea, sparkling water

After everyone leaves, write notes for next year!




photo courtesy of Pinterest


Pamela Salzman is a chef, author, and cooking instructor based in Los Angeles, California. She has been featured in New York Magazine, The Malibu Times, KTLA, and NBC News, including several others. For more delicious recipes you can check out her website and follow her on Instagram. 

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