It doesn't have to be this overwhelming.

Bringing Thanksgiving dinner to the table can be a satisfying labor of love or a miserable nightmare. It all depends on how well organized you are, long before you reach for your prep apron. Rather than exhausting yourself the day before and day of, plan on spending the previous days knocking small tasks off the To Do list. That way, you’re more likely to enjoy your guests, and the day.

Here are some steps to help you plan ahead.

Set the menu and gather your recipes.  Once you’ve decided on the menu, gather your recipes together. If possible, print them out so you can make notes. If necessary, adjust the ingredients to reflect the number of servings you’ll want. Most recipes allow for 4, 6, or 8 portions, so if you’re expecting a larger tableful, you may need to scale up.

Draw up your shopping lists. Use the menu and recipes to create two lists: dry and shelf goods that can be bought in advance, and perishables that will need to be purchased just before. If you’re ordering a special turkey, you’ll want to do it sooner rather than later. It is well worth the extra cost to buy a fresh-killed, certified organic bird from your butcher. (When you buy from the supermarket you are paying for the water pumped into the bird to preserve and fatten it when freezing!)

Draw up the non-food ‘to do’ list. These are the things that tend to get overlooked until the last minute, when they can wreak havoc on even the most organized schedule. For example: ordering flower arrangements, selecting and checking over the table linens, polishing the silver. Use this list as the start of a pre-Thanksgiving timeline, and make sure all the tasks have been slotted into  specific days.

Create your kitchen prep list. Go through your recipes one by one and break each down into separate tasks. Figure out what can be done ahead, and how much beforehand. For example, raw pastry dough can be done on the first day of kitchen prep—wrapped in plastic, it keeps happily in the fridge for days. If you’re making my butternut squash soup (posted today in a separate article), it can be made three days ahead. So can some appetizers, mayonnaises, and salad dressings. Some dishes can be pre-prepped the day before and then finished the day of—green beans can be trimmed and asparagus can be peeled the day before, then blanched on Thanksgiving morning. There’s nothing more satisfying than checking off the tasks, one by one, on a well-organized prep list.

Develop a timeline. This is essential. In addition to the non-food ‘to do’ tasks mentioned earlier, you’ll want to assign every item on your kitchen prep list to specific days, along with your shopping. If you don’t overload any one day, you may find that you actually enjoy the process as you go along—and that when Thanksgiving Day rolls around, much of the essential work has already been done.

Accommodate those who enjoy contributing. Your guest list probably includes at least a few people who like to bring something to the feast. Start by deciding which items on your menu can be store-bought, and who might enjoy contributing them. There are some delicious baked goods to be found these days, and all sorts of good ice creams (my favorites are the ones with a peanut butter base).  If the supporting chefs in your group usually make the same thing every year, you might ask them to do something different that’s a better fit with your menu—they might enjoy the challenge of trying something new.

Start shopping. Using your ‘dry’ and ‘perishable’ shopping lists as guides, start replenishing supplies like flour, salt, baking parchment and aluminum foil, sugar, spices, and other stand-bys. A few days before your first kitchen-prep day, focus on the final items on the ‘dry’ list, including any that will keep for a few days: vegetables, paté, butter, and eggs, for instance. The second phase of shopping should begin the day before kitchen prep begins, focusing on the ‘perishables:’ salad greens, table flowers, herbs, and of course, the bird.

Next: In time for your shopping and to-do lists, Ro’s Thanksgiving menu—and the first of two dessert recipes.

(Image: The Bitten Word.)