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My Thanksgiving MAKE AHEAD Playbook
Plus a recipe for make-ahead mac and cheese.
I cannot believe we’re talking about Thanksgiving already but, well, here we are in the second week of November! And honestly, there’s already so much Thanksgiving content out there on the world wide web that I wondered if I really had much to contribute to the Turkey Day convo that would be value add for ya!
But then I remembered that Thanksgiving is a holiday that requires so much advanced planning and preparation and that I, as your resident *professional meal prepper*, do have a good amount of know-how when it comes to make-ahead magic…
So today I’m going dish-by-dish to answer that pesky and important Thanksgiving question: Can I make it ahead? Let’s discuss:
The main event (the turkey) Kinda. For a classic roast turkey, you can and should do everything except roast it (so thawing, brining, dry or wet) at least a couple days ahead of the big event. Keep roasting to day of for best results! If you want to make your bird component ahead, go for something less traditional, like this.
The Stuffing Yes! If you follow a recipe like this one, you can actually make your stuffing right now and pop it in the freezer until November 25th.
The Gravy Nope. I’m a firm believer that gravy should be made with pan drippings from the roasted turkey. In my family, gravy is they very last thing made before dinner is served. Can you make it ahead? I suppose. But I wouldn’t recommend it.
The Mashed Potatoes Yes, but you really, really need to reheat them with extra dairy, and working with a naturally creamier potato like Yukon gold helps too! Otherwise you’re gonna have chalky potatoes. Yuck. This recipe outlines how.
The Sweet Potato Casserole Yes! Do everything except the final bake as far as 2-3 days ahead of time. We always do! My family does a sweet potato “souffle” every year and we make it at least two days in advance.
The Mac and Cheese Yes, but like the mashed potatoes, you need a little extra moisture to ensure good texture day of. I wrote the recipe below with meal prep/make ahead in mind and it would be perfect for the big T day.
The Green Bean Casserole Yes! Assemble everything a day ahead (but leave the onions/crispy bits off the top) and bake it off day of. Don’t do this more than a day in advance and don’t freeze or you’ll risk a water-y soup-y mess!
The Roasted Veggies Yes! Make any roasted veggies as far in advance as a couple days and simply reheat in the oven at 350 until warmed. You can hit them with a bit of time under the broiler to re-crisp, just watch really carefully. If you want to make them day of, make it easier on yourself by doing all the veggie copping a day-or-two in advance.
The Salad Depends…a simple kale salad can be made and lightly dressed up to 2-3 days in advance. But anything that’s crunchy (like croutons or nuts) or can easily brown (like avocado or apples) should be left to day-of prep. A salad with a less hearty leaf than kale (or it’s cruciferous veggie relatives, cabbage or shaved brussels sprouts) should probably be left until day-of.
The Soup Yes! And if your soup doesn’t have dairy in it, you can actually make it now and freeze it until a day before Thanksgiving when you can thaw it! Reheat on the stove or in the microwave and you’re good to go.
The Cranberry Sauce Yes! Ina says we can make it ahead, so we can! I’d feel comfy making this up to 3 days in advance. And actually, many members of my family (including me) truly prefer the canned stuff…no making necessary at all. Heh.
The Pie Yes, yes, absolutely yes! If there’s one thing I think you definitely should do ahead, it’s the pie. They hold up great in the fridge for a couple days, and they’re so labor intensive that I’d never recommend making one on Turkey day itself! And honestly, no one in my family is a big baker, so we usually outsource this task anyway.
And now, for my mac and cheese recipe that holds up beautifully for a few days and would be stunning on your Thanksgiving table:
Pasta Bake with Sage Bechamel (AKA Adult Mac and Cheese)
Yield: 6-8 servings
Because the sauce to pasta ratio becomes especially important in a pasta bake you plan to make ahead, I use one and a half times more cheese sauce than most mac and cheese recipes you’ll find floating around on the web. If you make this recipe, I’m confident that you’ll find nary a dry noodle, even after it hangs out in the fridge for days.
6 Tbsp salted butter, plus more to grease the pan
12 oz. short pasta shape of choice (I like penne, but you can always go classic with elbows)
5½ cups milk
2 Tbsp thinly sliced fresh sage (about 6-8 leaves)
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
½ cup all purpose flour (or substitute for gluten free all purpose flour if avoiding gluten)
1 head kale, destemmed and torn or chopped into bite sized pieces
2 tsp sea salt
⅛ tsp ground nutmeg
Freshly cracked black pepper
2 cups grated gruyere cheese
3 cups sharp white cheddar cheese
Preheat your oven to 375°F. Prepare a 12x8 inch oven-safe casserole dish or 14 inch cast iron pan by greasing it with butter. Cook your pasta for 3-4 minutes less than package directions indicate, drain and rinse under cold water, then set aside.
Heat your milk over low heat in a large pot (you can use the same one you used to cook your pasta!)— this step is important for creating a smooth cheese sauce, so don’t skip it. In a separate dutch oven or high-sided skillet, heat the 6 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Once it’s melted, stir in the sage and garlic and cook until fragrant (about 1 minute), then stir in the flour and cook, while whisking constantly for about 1 more minute.
Slowly pour your hot milk into the butter/sage/flour mixture, whisking constantly. Continue cooking over medium heat while whisking until the mixture thickens and bubbles slightly, about 2 minutes.
Remove the milk mixture from the heat and stir in your kale, salt, nutmeg, 1½ cups gruyere and 2½ cups cheddar cheese until the kale is wilted and the cheese is fully incorporated.
Stir in the pasta. Transfer the pasta mixture to your prepared pan or baking dish, then sprinkle the remaining ½ cup gruyere and ½ cup cheddar over the pasta. Bake until it’s browned on top, about 30 minutes. Top with optional herbs for serving and enjoy.
Meal Prep (or Pre-Thanksgiving) Storage Store in the refrigerator in an airtight container for 3-4 days. Reheat individual portions in the microwave for 2-3 minutes or the entire dish in the oven at 320°F for 15-20 minutes.
Okay, that’s it from me! I’m sending you good kitchen vibes if you’re starting to prep for hosting Thanksgiving. And if I missed a dish that’s classic on your Thanksgiving table and you want to know my tips for making it ahead (or if making it ahead is even possible!) please feel free to leave a comment, reply directly to this email, or shoot me a DM over on Instagram.
With love and a tip of my chef’s hat,