A Beginner’s Guide to Cooking Thanksgiving

2015 was my first time cooking Thanksgiving all by myself. We’d just moved to Logan, Utah, far from my family in Alaska. Dustin’s family was far away as well, and so it was up to me to take on the task of figuring out how to make a bunch of dishes I’d only helped with in the past, including the dreaded turkey.

Another issue we had that year was that we were poor college students. My weekly food/household budget was $50.00 for our family of 3. We were lucky enough to get WIC, which helped, but buying all the necessary food was something I had to get strategic about.

I ended up sitting down with my husband and figuring out exactly what we needed to have on the table for it to count as a “real” Thanksgiving. We decided on turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, deviled eggs, rolls, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, olives, and pie. From that, I made a list and a plan. For the next 4 weeks, I bought 1 or 2 items each week in order to spread out the cost.

My last issue was my kitchen. I had literally about 2 feet of counter space. I had one oven, a small table, and my washer and dryer (located in the kitchen) to use for prep space. In order to have everything out, ready, and hot at the same time, I created a schedule for myself. I wrote it down in a notebook and then used it for the next four years. It hasn’t failed me yet!

My first turkey ever. I was kind of freaked out to cook it, but it was surprisingly easy.

Last year, I got a reprieve. My parents moved down from Alaska, and we had Thanksgiving at their house. I was only in charge of a few dishes, and it was a major relief. This year, though, the Homan family solo Thanksgiving is back. Our family has decided that the corona risk is too much, so we’re doing things alone instead of risking Grandma and Grandpa’s health.

I don’t know how many of you out there are making similar decisions, but I know it can be hard. Thanksgiving is all about family, and missing them for this holiday seems counterintuitive, even if you made the choice to keep them safe. It also leaves you with another choice — forgo the traditional meal, or make it entirely yourself. I know from experience that cooking Thanksgiving alone for the first time can be a daunting task.

Gotta love my mismatched dishes/pots!

Here you’ll find my list and the schedule that I use. This utilizes the dishes that Dustin and I decided were important years ago, but you can modify it to fit in any must-haves that your family loves.

This plan will feed a family of 4 for about 3 days. That’s perfect for us — we get tired of the same meal for lunch and dinner after that time. This also costs me less than $50.00 each year. There’s no law that says Thanksgiving has to break the bank!

One other disclaimer — in order to take some of the pressure off, I use a lot of boxed or prepared foods, like canned cranberry jelly, Rhodes rolls, and frozen pie. We love it, and I love that I can cross those items off my list with a minimum of effort!

Shopping List

This is my basic shopping list. I have two options — split by recipe and split by department. This is so that you can just cross off any recipes you don’t like and substitute in your own dishes with the version split by recipe. Or, you can have everything in one place, mapped roughly to store departments.

Recipe Shopping List

Department Shopping List

Recipes

I’ve linked all the recipes I use here. I’ve added some notes on modifications I make for our family. Thanks to all the wonderful bloggers whose recipes were literal lifesavers that first year!

  • How to Cook a Perfect Turkey from Eazy Peazy Mealz
    • I cook a turkey breast rather than a full turkey since my family really only likes the white meat.
    • I brine the breast in a large bowl covered in Saran wrap rather than an oven bag. One less thing to buy!
    • We don’t do the herby aromatics mentioned in the recipe. The brining and the herb butter yield an absolutely delicious turkey, and I don’t think the extra step added enough to be worth the effort. Feel free to try it, though!
  • Basic Mashed Potatoes from All Recipes
  • Sweet Potato Casserole from Flavor Mosaic
    • Canned sweet potatoes make this a breeze!
  • Green Bean Casserole
  • Deviled Eggs
  • For the stuffing and rolls, I just follow the instructions on the box or bag. No recipe needed!

Schedule

Having 6+ dishes on the table at the same time, warm and fresh, is a logistical challenge. That’s why I made myself a schedule complete with check boxes. This way, I know I won’t forget anything, like the year I forgot to thaw the rolls, and we ended with weird, hard balls of dough. That was sad. Hence the schedule.

We eat Thanksgiving lunch, so I always shoot for an on-table time of 12:00-1:00. This schedule just talks in terms of hours (1 hour before, 3 hours before, etc), so customize it to your family. If you want to eat around 5, then you’ll just subtract the time to figure out when to put that casserole in the oven!

Thanksgiving Cooking Schedule/Checklist

Last Thoughts

I hope this makes the goal of cooking Thanksgiving a little easier for you. I know that first time I realized I was going to be in charge, with my tiny little kitchen, my minimal cooking skills, and my minuscule budget, I nearly panicked. It helped to remember that, while Thanksgiving is a feast, it’s also a holiday about family and gratitude. This year has upended many of our lives, and whether your rolls turn out light and fluffy or like weird little dough balls, it’s good to gather with those we can gather with, whether that’s family, roommates, or people on a Zoom call.

Good luck, and leave a comment below if you have questions!

Don’t forget to pin!

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Hello!

Hi! I’m Diane, mom of two and wife to a pretty great guy. I love to cook and craft. I’m so excited to share my projects with you!

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