Jan Norris: Food and Florida

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Thanksgiving Dinner – Plan It to Ace It

November 1st, 2010 · 12 Comments

From the Library of Congress files

For more than 20 years at my former job as food editor of The Palm Beach Post, we ran a Thanksgiving primer story. Five years into it, we added a terrific Thanksgiving planner that continued annually – even after I left.

It works! I still get notes about how cooks across the country have clipped this out and used it every year – all or parts of it – to keep sanity. I get silent toasts from the cooks all the time.

I’m going to share parts of that with you readers here, everyday, leading up to the big Thursday dinner so you can pull it off with ease, whether this is your first turkey day, or 50th. Look for good new recipes, tips on do-ahead dishes, and getting your house in order way ahead of the game.

Everybody needs a little push, so I’ll be the drill sarge: START YOUR LISTS TONIGHT!

Planning Thanksgiving dinner

Begin with checklists – for guests, food, and the house.

If you make them reasonable and build in flexibility or contingency plans, everything should work like “cluckwork” to get the turkey dinner on the table and keep guests and family as happy as possible all along.

Make several lists

Here are the category suggestions for your lists and their subcategories – along with suggested time table. Get a folder with pockets to organize all your lists and recipes, designs for centerpieces and receipts. These are just suggestions – we obviously can’t predict all the variables. Time things to your dinner plans.


A count: How many are coming and are they house guests? Count little kids as half for food, but remember them for toys, games, etc. to keep them occupied. Expect drop-ins and -outs.

Who eats what: Ask about food allergies and alcohol preferences to save yourself some surprises or headaches. Do now; but build in flexibility with guest number.

Seating plan: Will you have a separate table for kids? Don’t want Aunt Rose sitting too close to Aunt Mary? Place your guests, and draw your seating chart. File it with Guests. Do the week of.


Cleaning and repair – Do you need cleaning or repairs done on appliances, baths, carpet, drapes, lawn? Build the list in two columns: what to do, and phone number of person to do it. Do as early as possible.

Furniture – Will you need to rent or borrow: chairs, tables, a tent? Do now.

Tableware – Will you need to rent, clean or buy new: linens, flatware, plates and dishes? Do now: Have linens dry cleaned ahead. Set up rentals at least 2 weeks out.

Decorations – Are you making or buying centerpieces, table favors, place cards, door decorations? Do 1 or 2 weeks out, and if you have kids, get them involved in this project.


Menu – first and foremost – Plan the menus for all meals, including menus for those guests staying over. Include beverages, snacks, and any foods sent home with guests. This list will get a lot of use – put it on the computer so you can print it out more than once. Do now.

Recipes – Collect your recipes based on your menu. Attach them to the menu. Look them over and decide which can be done ahead (hors d’oeuvres, desserts, usually, but sometimes, even a huge roast turkey), and which must be done the day of (frying a turkey, making gravy, baking rolls). Mark them as such in new lists. Do now.

Pantry list – Go over the recipes again (write out even the ones you know by heart so you don’t forget ingredients), and check your pantry. What do you have and what will you need? Do as soon as possible.

Shopping list – Down to the details. Don’t forget things the non-food things and add ons, oil for oil lamps, garbage bags, wine, coffee add-ins, whipped cream (make your own!!) bathroom tissues, ice, drink napkins, plastic cloths for kids’ table etc. This list may need to be divided, so build in 2 columns on this list – what to buy – and where to get it. Do 2 weeks out if possible.


For cooking and serving your foods, follow our plan, (below). Food safety is important! To get the goods on what can be left out, or needs to be thawed in fridge or how long turkey lasts, go to the USDA Food Safety web site. We’ll reprint it on all our stories. Now, you should have your basic plans. Get to work, and stay organized, and you’ll do just fine!

Click on photo for Libby's pumpkin pie recipe


By Monday:

  • Shop for food – check your lists.
  • Don’t forget: fresh pie or poultry spices, pickles or condiments, coffee cream, nuts or candies for dishes, candles, silver polish, extra food storage containers, disposable roasting pan, pie pans, gravy or stuffing ingredients, rolls, foam ice chests, trash bags, toilet paper, wine, coffee, tea.
  • Check the turkey charts: You may need to begin thawing the turkey today.
  • Make pie crusts and freeze (if you’re not using ready-made).

By Tuesday:

  • Have table linens cleaned and ready.
  • Wash and polish silver, glassware and serving pieces.

By Wednesday

  • Go over your checklists; see that you have everything you need.
  • Get turkey ready for cooking, but do not stuff.
  • Make turkey stuffing and refrigerate separately.
  • Clean fresh vegetables, refrigerate in separate containers.
  • Make cranberry relish. Refrigerate.
  • Make pie fillings and refrigerate. Whip cream for the pies; refrigerate separately.
  • Arrange flowers, cut garnishes, make butter pats, set up coffee service and take care of last-minute decor or cleaning.


These times are planned for a 5 p.m. dinner for 12. Guests should plan to arrive around 4 p.m. The timetable is only a guide. Stay flexible — things happen.

9 a.m.: Set table and get room ready.

9:30 a.m.: Check the cooking chart on this page to see when you need to start cooking the turkey. Allow an extra 15 minutes for prep work. Remember that you need to take the turkey out of the oven at around 4 p.m.

10 a.m.: Peel potatoes for mashed potatoes, put in water to soak. Cook giblets for gravy.

10:40 a.m.: Assemble any casseroles or vegetable dishes and refrigerate.

Noon: Thaw pie crusts (if needed). Arrange hors d’oeuvres or vegetable trays with dips.

1 p.m.: Get coffee ready to brew. Put fillings in pies, refrigerate. Fill butter dishes, creamer and sugar bowl. Line bread baskets with napkins.

2:15 p.m.: Put pies in oven. Dress for dinner. Take five!

3 p.m.: Begin cooking potatoes. Whip cream for pies.

Click on photo for recipe at McCormick.com

3:30 p.m.: Remove pies, and put casseroles and stuffing in oven. Bring out cranberry relish and other relishes. Begin cooking fresh vegetables.

4 p.m.: Guests arrive. Set out finger foods and relish trays. Remove turkey from oven. Remove to carving board and let sit.

4:15 p.m.: Make gravy. Check casseroles and stuffing. Remove if done; keep warm. Put rolls in oven.

4:30 p.m.: Mash the potatoes; keep warm.

4:45 p.m.: Have turkey carved and on platter; set on stove and cover with roaster lid to keep it warm. Have someone fill wine and beverage glasses.

4:50 p.m.: Remove rolls from oven and put in baskets. Bring out vegetables, casseroles and gravy. Brew the coffee.

5 p.m.: Seat guests, serve dinner. Take a bow!


These are approximate amounts. For young children, cut amounts in half.

Turkey: 1/2 to 3/4 pound of meat

Stuffing: 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup (4 to 6 ounces)

Gravy: 1/3 cup (approximately 2 1/2 ounces)

Cranberry sauce: 1/4 to 1/2 cup (2 to 4 ounces)

Rolls: 2

Potatoes, vegetables: 1/2 to 3/4 cup

Pie: 1- 1/2 pieces

Coffee: 1 –1/2 cups

Wine: 2.5 glasses

Click on photo for USDA info on buying, thawing and roasting the bird.


(These are approximate. For detailed information and temperatures, go the USDA Food Safety web site. You’ll also learn how much turkey to buy there and thawing times..)

Weight           Unstuffed                Stuffed

4-6 lbs*       1 -1/2 to 2- 1/4 hours             N/A

8-12 lbs.           2 3/4 to 3 hours             3 to 3 1/2 hours

12-14 lbs.         3 to 3 3/4 hours              3 1/2 to 4 hours

14-18 lbs.         3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours       4 to 4 1/4 hours

18-20                4 to 4 1/2 hours              4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hours

20-24                4 1/2-5 hours                  4 3/4-5 1/4 hours

*(breast or parts only)

Note: If you have brined the turkey, cut the roasting time by 1/3. Use a meat thermometer to check for final doneness.

Useful websites:

A list of sites for other information, but don’t forget to come back here for more through November 25.

USDA Food Safety website: Don’t kill your guests with dinner.

Butterball -All turkey talk, all the time. Other Thanksgiving Day recipes are here, too.

All Recipes – Recipes for every food imaginable; not necessarily tested.

Epicurious – Super recipes that have been tested.

Better Homes and Gardens – Great ideas for decorating, cooking and more – for everybody. Recipes tested here.

Tags: Ask Jan · Holiday cooking

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 dan mcgarity // Nov 1, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    My family wants to try a fried turkey this year, however I do not want to do it myself, any ideas where Ican purchase a fried turkey?

  • 2 Jan Norris // Nov 1, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    I don’t know of anyone locally who is doing fried turkeys, but if I do hear of anyone doing them, I’ll post it here.

    I’m half tempted to offer them myself – they’re really not hard to do and are totally delicious! Not at all greasy as you might expect.

  • 3 Jennifer H. // Nov 1, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    I would totally buy one Jan! I tried it one year and the propane couldn’t get the oil hot enough, it was a soggy greasy disaster!

  • 4 Jan Norris // Nov 19, 2010 at 9:59 am

    A frying thermometer is crucial to this. And doing it outdoors is sensible, though I have seen indoor fryers sold on TV – what bothers me about them is the lifting of the heavy turkey from a countertop height out of the hot oil. Scary!

  • 5 Ken Harrelson // Nov 20, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    Jan, This restaurant will sell you a fried turkey, or you can bring your own for them to fry for you. Much easier than frying the bird yourself.

  • 6 Dan mcgarity // Nov 20, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    I called both Popeyes on Military Trail and they do not fry turkeys. However Joseph’s Market does.

  • 7 Eric // Nov 23, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    Don’t forget to select the perfect music for Thanksgiving!

    Songza.com has a bunch of different Thanksgiving-themed playlists on their site including a classy Thanksgiving Dinner mix as well as playlists submitted by guests including the food blog “Taste as you Go”!

    It’s totally free to listen (you don’t need to create an account or anything) AND you can even create and share your own playlist if you like!

  • 8 Jan Norris // Nov 24, 2010 at 11:13 am

    Too late for this Thanksgiving, but there’s a caterer in Apopka who will ship a fried turkey and trimmings.

  • 9 Karen // Nov 21, 2013 at 9:43 am

    I have been tearing my house apart looking for my “Thanksgiving File” with your article that was posted in paper from over 10 years ago. I use it every year and tweak as needed. I was so relieved to google “Thanksgiving day cooking palm beach post” and find this!!!!

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  • 11 Rae // Nov 22, 2014 at 11:00 pm

    I love your time line– always use it. one year you printed a great Martha Stewart recipe for turkey- used an entire bottle of white wine– really good. her site I am sure has good stuff too for Thanksgiving. Also southern living- good southern style stuff.

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