21 October 2021 (updated)

Thanksgiving Dinner 101 - How to Plan a Thanksgiving Menu

Thanksgiving Dinner is one of the most anticipated meals of the whole year. By sticking to the basics and enlisting friends and family, you can succeed at hosting America’s favorite meal! Check our tips to survive your first Thanksgiving as a host!

Christmas may be right around the corner, but it's Thanksgiving Day that comes right before it that is a quintessentially American holiday! From the Macy’s parade to the start of the Christmas season, nothing quite captures the holiday spirit like a Thanksgiving dinner. And, while it can be a challenge to put on, there are ways to succeed at hosting for the occasion. Keep reading for some of our top tips for getting started!

What Are Some Tips for Making Thanksgiving Dinner?

Planning a Thanksgiving menu is a huge deal for those who like to host it for the first time. Here are some ways you can make your dinner go off without a hitch!

  • Enlist Help – Knowing when to ask for help is an important part of making your Thanksgiving dinner menu work. By deciding what needs to be done and what you can delegate, you’ll be able to time things perfectly. Whether you're hosting a Friendsgiving meal or having extended family over, sharing the burden always helps--even if they're just washing dishes, peeling potatoes, or bringing a side. And don't forget to make a Thanksgiving playlist so you can jam while you cook!
  • Choose Simple over Sophisticated – Don't bite off more than you can chew--pun intended. A good recipe doesn’t have to be complicated. And, this is especially true when it comes to bringing a big holiday meal together! Choose dishes that will be easy to make so one recipe doesn't overwhelm you.
  • Provide Allergy-Friendly Options – If you’re having more than a few people over, there’s a good chance someone might not be eating meat, dairy, gluten, or nuts. So be sure to ask guests about their dietary preferences, and make sure to provide gluten-free or vegetarian options as needed. Luckily, there are plenty of Thanksgiving recipes that work for any diet!
  • Set the Tone – With all the chaos with prepping food, you may feel overwhelmed when you think about decorating, too. But never fear, you can decorate your table weeks in advance and add finishing touches before the big day! Even simple decorations like fresh greenery, small pumpkins, and twinkle lights can set the mood.

How Long Does It Take to Cook Thanksgiving Dinner?

The cook time for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner will vary depending on what you make. However, a lot of work can go into this special meal, and that’s why you need to plan ahead! If you’re serving soup, for example, it can be made a week in advance and reheated on the stove.

The Thanksgiving turkey is often the most important part of the menu and may need up to 5 days to thaw in a refrigerator. It will take up to 4 hours to cook so it gives you time to work on all your other dishes! Side dishes that are cold can be prepped in advance and put together on Thanksgiving Day. You can make favorites like cranberry sauce the day before.

If you’ve prepped dessert, side dishes, and your vegetables, all you’ll need to do is add heat! Share your tips for managing cooking time with others on FamilyApp!

Photo Credit: @thepieous

What Is Served at a Traditional Thanksgiving Dinner?

There are some Thanksgiving food must-haves that make it hard to think of the holiday without them. If you’re planning your feast, be sure to include the following items! And don’t forget about the gravy and cranberry sauce!

  • Turkey or HamOven-roasted turkey is undoubtedly the main entree of this popular holiday. Even duck, roasted chicken, or Cornish Game Hens can be a popular alternative! Of course, for those who aren’t a fan of poultry, ham is often the choice main. Try a maple-glazed ham this year! Or, if you're hosting a vegetarian Thanksgiving, there's always tofurkey.
  • Stuffing –You can cook this inside your turkey or as one of your Thanksgiving dinner sides. However you do it, it will probably be one of the most popular items on the table! I like to make mine in my dutch oven. There are also options that can work for all kinds of tastes and preferences. You may even want to branch out and try cornbread stuffing this year!
  • Mashed Potatoes – Mashed potatoes and gravy is a staple of almost every holiday dinner! Luckily, you can add a few extras to dress this vegetable up. Garlic potatoes can be a popular addition or even scalloped potatoes for a fancy affair. Check out this fool-proof recipe for perfect mashed potatoes:

Perfect Mashed Potatoes

Light, fluffy, and creamy-- the perfect side for turkey, ham, or roast beef.

0 from 0 votes


20 mins


20 mins


40 mins


Side Dish




8 people


330.0 kcal


  • 6

    large russet potatoes

    peeled and cut in half lengthwise

  • 1/2



  • 1


    whole milk

  • 2 cloves

    garlic, minced

    if desired

  • salt and pepper

    to taste


  • Perfect Mashed Potatoes

    1. Boil and Simmer.

      Put potatoes into a large pot and cover with salted water. Boil, reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until tender (this should be 20 to 25 minutes).

    2. Drain and Dry.

      Drain, then put potatoes back into the pot. Turn to high heat and let the potatoes to rest for about 30 seconds, then turn off the heat.

    3. Mash.

      Mash the potatoes with a potato masher, then add the butter and milk (and garlic, if desired). Continue to mash until desired consistency.

    4. Whisk.

      Whisk in the salt and black pepper until evenly distributed, about 15 seconds.



330.0 kcal


50.0 g


34.0 mg


13.0 g


7.0 g


30.0 mg

  • Greens – The best way to lighten up turkey and stuffing can be with a side of vegetables. Green bean casserole (or my favorite-- Southern-style green beans), Brussels sprouts, or even a cranberry pecan salad are all great options for adding veggies to your Thanksgiving dinner menu!
  • Apple or Pumpkin Pie – No Thanksgiving dinner is complete without one of the season’s desserts! Fortunately, you can’t go wrong with ending your meal with pumpkin pie or apple pie. For those who want something a bit different, pecan pie is another popular choice!
  • Dinner rolls – No meal is complete without rolls! They're perfect for sopping up all that extra gravy leftover from the turkey and mashed potatoes! And don't forget to serve them with butter!

What Are the Top 10 Thanksgiving Side Dishes?

In a world where not all side dishes are created equal, which ones are the GOATs (greatest of all time)? These are some of the top Thanksgiving side dishes from around the country:

  • brussels sprouts
  • creamed spinach
  • sweet potato casserole
  • green bean casserole
  • candied yams
  • dinner rolls
  • cranberry sauce
  • macaroni and cheese
  • stuffing
  • mashed potatoes

For more interesting info on how favorite Thanksgiving sides break down according to state, check out this fascinating map created by Zippia.

What Is the Most Popular Food for Thanksgiving?

Well, it's no secret that turkey is the main event when it comes to Thanksgiving food. We do call it "Turkey Day," after all. But there's actually some data to confirm America's favorite main dish! According to YouGov, in a series of polls with Thanksgiving food matchups, turkey won 83% of the time. It was followed by mashed potatoes at 78% and stuffing at 77%. So if you're going to pick only a few dishes to really focus on, those are the ones!

Get Ready for a Thanksgiving Feast!

Thanksgiving is one of the most popular holidays of the year--especially for the foodies out there! If you’re planning your first Thanksgiving menu, remember to prep Thanksgiving dinner appetizers ahead and choose no-fuss recipes. With foods as delicious as roasted turkey breast and pumpkin pie, you can’t go wrong. Do you have any great Thanksgiving recipes to share? Tell us about them on social #getfamilyapp! There as so many inspired dishes from this holiday that you’ll have ideas for years to come.

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