Make Ahead Thanksgiving ❦ Celebrate with Simplicity

When it comes to holiday meals like Thanksgiving dinner (the second Monday of October here in Canada), always remember that the people are more important than the food. As wonderful as it is to have all the bells and whistles of a traditional meal, sometimes all we can muster is a Make Ahead Thanksgiving. This is the story of one such Thanksgiving for me in 2015. I pared way back on the menu and decor, and my family and I had a wonderful meal together. There just may be a lesson in that. Happy Thanksgiving!

(By the way, in 2015 I was still living in the original Urban Cottage that this website is named after. My century cottage was a bit of a money pit, but I do miss that lovely kitchen.)

Make Ahead Thanksgiving Dinner | © Urban Cottage

Thanksgiving Dinner 2015

It’s Thanksgiving in Canada and, among all the important things in life like spending time with family and enjoying good health, I’m grateful for the magnificent weather we’ve been having this weekend. This is the third day of golden sunshine, just enough breeze to choreograph a balletic dance of colourful leaves to the earth, and warm temperatures around 20 degrees Celsius.

I’m also grateful that the process of making the traditional turkey dinner was relatively easy this year.

And finally, I’m grateful for the creative space of this blog, and readers like you. Happy Thanksgiving!

Make Ahead Thanksgiving Dinner

Don’t judge, but I roasted my turkey (a bone-in breast) the day before Thanksgiving dinner. I used canned pumpkin puree in my pies. I even bought pre-made pie shells (that’s the concession I have the most issue with, but it meant having pie). The menu had no bells and whistles, just the basics.

Yes, I prefer to make everything from scratch, including using pumpkin puree that I’ve made and definitely my own butter-based pastry. But this year, I was not only sick in the week leading up to the holiday but had to complete an important project for a client. I was tired and sore, as after-effects of my April car accident still linger. It was important to me to have my family over for dinner, though,  so I made some compromises to my usual approach.

Sometimes modern scratch living means going a little easier on yourself. So, the house didn’t smell of roasting turkey when everyone arrived. So, the pie crust wasn’t as good as the one I make from scratch, and the pie filling not as silky as when I use my own purée. The menu was pared down to the essentials. There was only one vegetable (beans, which everyone likes) and no cranberry sauce (which only I like).

The important thing is that we joined together around the table as a family (missing those who couldn’t make it). Next year, I’ll go back to my usual ways, but for this year my little concessions were good enough. Because, you know what? Everyone enjoyed their meal. No one turned their nose up at the pie.

Maybe you always used canned pumpkin. Maybe you always buy pre-made tart shells. Maybe your stuffing comes from a box. I don’t stand in judgment. Maybe you don’t have the time to make things from scratch. Maybe you don’t like to cook. Maybe you have burdens that could easily prevent you from pulling off a dinner at all, but you go ahead and do the best you can. So, if you took some shortcuts and went ahead and put that meal together, congratulations! And if you didn’t make a Thanksgiving dinner at all, I do hope that you were able to join in at someone else’s table.

This is the first time I’ve done such extensive advance preparation, and it’s also the first time that my kitchen was so neat and calm in the hour leading up to serving dinner. Every single dish was prepared in advance, all the way from the soup to the turkey to the whipped cream for the pie. Every baking dish doubled as a serving dish, going straight from oven to table, so there was no clutter on the counter, an important consideration in my open concept kitchen/dining room.

My Make Ahead Thanksgiving Menu

Putting It All Together

I started my make ahead preparations the day before and finished around noon on the day of the gathering; I could have begun even sooner, but my schedule didn’t permit. No matter, my approach was successful. So successful, in fact, that I went to the coffee shop and sat in the sunshine with a pumpkin latte and a book a couple of hours before my guests were expected.

I roasted the turkey on Friday, and deglazed the pan, saving the drippings to make gravy once I could use the cooking liquid from the potatoes. Also on Friday, my daughter Jenn came over and we made a double batch of silky corn soup (recipe to follow). Cooking with someone else added another layer of pleasure to the preparations.

On Saturday morning, I cut the bread for the stuffing and put it in a low oven to dry out while I made the pie filling. While the pies were baking I cooked the vegetables and herbs for the stuffing, then peeled, cooked and mashed the potatoes. While the potatoes were cooking, I assembled the stuffing. After the potatoes were done, I made the gravy, adding potato cooking liquid to the base and turkey bone broth that I had in the freezer (otherwise I would have used a chicken or vegetable bouillon cube). The last step was to prepare the beans and the sauce that went with them. I did that after getting showered and dressed, enjoying some me time at the coffee shop, then running to the liquor store for wine and beer (something I could easily have done any time in the week ahead, but my cold seemed to dull my planning powers).

As each dish was ready, I made sure to cool it properly and put it in a greased baking dish, covered well to store in the refrigerator until needed.

Make Ahead Thanksgiving Dinner | © Urban Cottage

Keeping the Table Simple Too

As you can see, I kept the table setting very simple, in part because I couldn’t open the table and insert the leaves on my own, so it wasn’t done until my daughter arrived to help. (Well, I could have done it myself, but I didn’t want to jeopardize the good progress I’ve made in my whiplash recovery — I seem to be learning to pace myself, although it annoys me that I have to.) A few decorative touches would have been nice, but to be honest, I didn’t even think of them this year. I have some beautiful glass pumpkins, but with a new kitten in the house, I think they’ll be safer saved for next year. On the other hand, I used my new colourful baking dishes, along with a couple of white pieces and they added a decorative touch.

When It’s Over, Put Your Feet Up

All in all, it was a successful Thanksgiving dinner. I think the best part for me, apart from having so many of my favourite people at my table, was the lack of last-minute chaos. Everyone left in fairly short order after the meal was finished and the table was cleared, as there were four little ones to take home and put to bed. As for me, with the dishwasher loaded to the max and the hand washing done, I was able to put my feet up and reflect on the success of the occasion.

And then I went to bed early.

Happy Thanksgiving!

First Published 2015 10 12
Republished 2021 10 06
Republished 2022 10 07


    • Thank you, Kia! I seem to do my Thanksgiving writing right at the holiday, when it’s too late for Canadians, but I always think that my American readers might be interested!. So glad to hear you liked this post so much. (I was happy that I also got to show a couple of different views of my kitchen that didn’t make it into my kitchen tour post!)

  1. I love this, Marlene! Our thanksgiving until late next month, so this is one of those plan-ahead for a more simple holiday… I understand what you mean about not entirely liking not having the strength to do it up big, but on the other hand, it’s liberating, too!

    • It is liberating to be so prepared for guests that you can slip out for a while to recharge your batteries before they arrive! I had a dinner with a dear friend recently who is such an elegant hostess. When I arrived her kitchen was serene, yet she produced a meal of turkey schnitzel, potatoes and succotash. It was mostly done in advance and we talked extensively about it. I read not too long ago that when the French have people to dinner they usually serve something that’s been prepared ahead. And, they buy dessert (with their famous patisseries everywhere, pourquoi pas?).

      • I’m seriously going to be revamping my hostessing style. There is plenty that can be prepared ahead; and I used to do this–focus more on the guest/friendship than on the food. My chef-husband tends to think like a restaurant chef who hides in the kitchen, then comes out after everyone has eaten to enjoy the accolades. But even he is beginning to see that kind of show-offery isn’t right for home entertaining.

    • I know what you mean, Tracy! Oh, something I meant to say in my previous response … the whole make ahead concept seems to be getting sexier, with cookbook authors like Ina Garten and Chef Michael Smith having books on the topic now. I think it used to be something more reserved for magazine articles.

    • Thank you, Karen! Much as I prefer to do most things from scratch, it’s just not always possible for one reason or another. And even though I took some shortcuts because I wasn’t feeling great, this was still the most relaxed I’ve been before a big Thanksgiving dinner. So, there’s something to be said for the make ahead approach!

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