Don’t stress, follow this advice.
You can plan ahead as much as you can for your Thanksgiving gathering, but there’s always bound to be some last-minute scrambling or anxiety. It could be as big as trying to triage the turkey (overcooked, undercooked, etc.) or as small as you forgot to iron the tablecloth. Whatever the problem, it can be super stressful in the moment.
So to help with down-to-the-wire complications, I tapped professional chefs for their best tips. They’re used to high-stress kitchen situations and serving big groups of people, so they definitely know what they’re doing, right?
Their answers don’t disappoint. From the best way to create a schedule to how to keep things warm, here are the best last-minute tips to know when hosting your big feast. Read ahead and say it with me, “Yes, chef!”
1. Make a List and Schedule
Keep things organized by making lists and creating a schedule. Chef Daniel Ulrich of Mon Ami in Santa Monica, recommends making a shopping list before you go to the grocery store or buy kitchen essentials, like cookware and serving dishes
“Always make a to-do list with a set schedule. Making a plan always helps with time management,” says James Jung, executive chef at SET Steak & Sushi in Newport Beach, California.
If you’re a visual person like Shane McAnelly, executive chef at Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, California, you might want to write everything out on a dry erase board in the kitchen and cross things out as they get done because it “keeps everything organized and assures nothing gets missed, like an important ingredient or a step in the process.”
While you’re planning, try to not go overboard. “Less is more. Yes, we all love the giant buffet, but how good is your seventh casserole, maybe if you just made four, those four would be way better!” adds Dave Beran, chef at Pasjoli in Santa Monica.
And during the whole prepping and cooking session, chef Hannon Matern of Videre in Los Angeles recommends taking notes for next year (yes, next year). “If you find that something doesn’t work of you would do something different jot it down, note the change, or maybe the cooking times for the proteins. This will make your next engagement much easier and feel a little more smooth and organized.
2. Prep Ahead
It’s not news that prepping in advance will help lessen the stress. But it’s definitely worth repeating. “A key strategy I employ is prepping certain dishes in advance,” says Gene Hall, executive chef at Preserve in Winters, California. “Assembling my stuffing the evening before allows me to concentrate on roasting the turkey to perfection on the day, ensuring both elements come together seamlessly at mealtime.” Chef Tony Nguyen of Crustacean Beverly Hills adds that you can make other dishes like mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce the day or days before, too.
And if you tried to prep as much as you could and still are running behind, Phillip Frankland Lee, chef/owner of Scratch Restaurants Group in Los Angeles suggests finding a way to incorporate guests into the cooking process to make it more engaging and fun for everyone.
3. Sharpen Your Knives
“Make sure your knives are sharp! Invest in a simple sharpener—you can get them for like $10, not expensive, and spend the time to pre-sharpen all your knives you might use,” Brad Wise, chef/owner at Trust Restaurant Group in San Diego, says.
4. Do Last-Minute Inventory
“I also do an inventory before Thanksgiving to make sure I have enough serving spoons, forks, etc., and if needed, I’ll order more,” Wise says. “You don’t want to find out you’re out as you’re looking for something to spoon your mashed potatoes with!”
5. Clean Out the Fridge
“Clean out the fridge the day before Thanksgiving,” says Top Chef alum Brooke Williamson, owner and executive chef of Playa Provisions in Playa del Rey, California. “I spend a couple of hours the day before tidying up, and this includes clearing out the fridge. People often forget how much space all the dishes take up, so I like to be mindful of how many groceries I’m buying and ensure I have enough space in the fridge to store everything.”
6. Know the Layout
“Understand your oven/refrigerator/counter real estate and plan responsibly. Know how many pots and pans you have and know what’s going in each,” says Kaleo Adams, executive chef at Sandpiper at Oceana Santa Monica.
7. Plan Out Your Serving Dishes
“Always plan out and label (with sticky notes) the actual plates/bowls/platters and serving utensils you plan to use for each side or dish you are serving. Make sure they fit well together on the table or buffet,” recommends James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef Suzanne Goin of Caldo Verde in downtown Los Angeles.
If you don’t have enough serving platters or dishes, get creative. “Fancy platters are the pretty, magazine-approved way to serve your turkey and dessert on Thanksgiving,” says chef Eric Klein of Wolfgang Puck Catering. “They aren’t the only serving option, though. Everything from cheese boards and baking sheets to cast iron skillets and cake stands can be used to serve your holiday meal.”
8. Set the Table
“Don’t forget the table set-up. Plan a seating chart in advance, in addition to your finishing touches for the table,” says Kathy Sidell, owner of Saltie Girl (locations in Los Angeles, Boston, and London).
And chef Martin Heierling of Parmizza in Culver City, California, recommends setting the table first. “Once you’re in the kitchen you’ll be surprised how quickly the day goes by and left scrambling for a beautiful table setting.”
9. Keep Track of Timing
“You want your food to be served hot, so timing is important,” The Resort at Pelican Hill’s Director of Culinary Operations Kyung Carroll says. “By the time your turkey is ready you have 20 to 30 minutes of resting time to cook the rest of your meal. Stuffing in the oven takes about 30 minutes, so put it in the oven when your turkey comes out. Sauteing vegetables doesn’t take a long time. Mash (whisk) your potatoes, heat your gravy, etc.”
10. Take the Butter Out
“Take your butter out of the fridge a couple hours before the meal. Room temperature butter is way easier to cut and add to rolls, mashed potatoes, etc.,” says Gavin Fine, owner/chef of The Bistro at The Cloudveil in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
11. Enjoy the Process
Don’t let the kitchen stress get to you (that much). “Enjoy the process and the cooking, try not to over-stress and ask for help if you have the option. It should be a great time for everyone, the one cooking included,” adds Hernan Melendez, executive chef of Carmel Valley Ranch in Carmel, California.
12. Season Everything
Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows FIG’s Executive Chef Damon Gordon recommends making sure everything is seasoned. “Consider garnishing your dishes with fresh herbs, lemon zest, or other visually appealing elements for that final touch of presentation,” adds Massimo Falsini, chef of Caruso’s at Rosewood Miramar Beach in Montecito, California.
13. Make Extra Sauce
“Make extra gravy, cranberry sauce, dressings! Just in case your holiday meal is a little dry, some extra gravy goes a long way,” says Jeffry Chen, executive chef at San Laurel by José Andrés in downtown Los Angeles.
When preparing the gravy, Jeff Armstrong, executive chef at Paradisaea in San Diego, recommends making it as close to the last minute as possible. “Hot gravy makes everything on you plate hot. Plus it doesn’t form a skin!” he says. And you might want to add a secret ingredient—Jason Mallgren, executive chef at Jordan Winery in Healdsburg, California, suggests adding a splash of soy sauce.
14. Let the Turkey Rest
Don’t carve the bird right away—patience is key here. “Rest your turkey for at least 30 minutes before serving. If you don’t, it will be dry, and all your hard work will be gone!” warns Russell LaCasce, executive chef at Hotel Valley Ho in Scottsdale, Arizona. And that goes for any protein you’re serving, Executive Chef at Montage Healdsburg Jason Pringle adds—it needs to rest for 20-30 minutes for any large roasted item.
When it’s time to serve, there are tricks to make it Instagrammable. “A little melted butter (or olive oil for those trying to be healthy) goes a long way in finishing your turkey or roast or anything on the table to give it that extra shine for that perfect pic of your holiday spread,” recommends Kevin Tanaka, executive chef at the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco.
15. Warm Your Plates
“If you have a large group, warm your serving plate so your turkey will stay warm and fresh until dinner time,” suggests Jean-Pierre Dubray, executive chef at the Waldorf-Astoria Monarch Resort & Beach Club in Dana Point, California.
And that goes for the dinner plates for your guests—preheat those, too. “There is nothing worse than gravy and mashed potatoes on a cold plate,” adds chef David Varley of The Sundry in Las Vegas.
16. Check the Temperature
“Before serving your Thanksgiving meal, it’s crucial to conduct a temperature check for all your dishes, especially the turkey, to ensure everything is cooked to the proper internal temperature. This practice guarantees both food safety and optimal flavor,” says chef-restaurateur Matt Horn of Horn Barbecue, Kowbird, and Matty’s Old Fashioned in Oakland.
17. Keep Dishes Warm
If you’re not quite ready to serve, keep the dishes warm by keeping the oven at 200 degrees, Jeremy Shigekane, executive chef at 100 Sails Restaurant & Bar at Prince Waikiki in Honolulu: “It will hold for about 30 minutes so you have time to do last minute things.”
No oven or stovetop space? You can get creative with your warming techniques. ” A slow cooker, toaster oven, thermos, or insulated cooler can help keep food warm,” Klein says. “Part of the juggling act of preparing Thanksgiving meals is keeping all the food warm until it hits the table. And while the stovetop and oven are the most ideal locations, that is prime real estate and they might not be available. There are plenty of other solutions, including your slow cooker, Instant Pot, chafing dish, toaster oven, insulated thermos, cooler, or more.
“Take a moment to taste each dish. Adjust seasonings if needed. Sometimes the last-minute adjustments can make a significant difference in the overall flavor of the meal, recommends Edward de Decker, food and beverage general manager at Call Me Pearl at The Rally Hotel in Denver.
19. Bring Out the Snacks and the Drinks
If you’re still in the kitchen getting everything ready, have snacks and drinks ready for your guests. “Don’t forget the snacks! You never know what may come up during the event. If things take longer than expected, a simple charcuterie board or chips and dip may save you!” says Joel Hammond, chef de cuisine at Uchi LA.
And you can prep the cocktails beforehand, too. “Pre-batching your cocktails is always a big help, too,” says chef Katianna Hong of Yangban in Los Angeles. Have specialty cocktails already mixed and chilled, then simply pour over ice and garnish—you don’t need to set up a whole bar and make a mess mixing, shaking, etc. You will be free to spend more time focusing on the food in the kitchen.”
20. Set the Mood
“No one wants to feel rushed, and some things will inevitably get delayed; but I find that if you have great music and drinks flowing (aka a vibe), guests are less likely to notice if you’re running behind,” says Hayley Feldman, co-owner of Coucou in Los Angeles.
21. Clean As You Go
Meg Walker, founder, CEO and executive chef of Made by Meg, MBM Hospitality, advises cleaning throughout the whole cooking process and also cleaning the kitchen before people arrive. “Once the party starts, the dishes will pile up. Run and empty the dishwasher. Take out the trash. Replenish the paper towels. Put out new dish towels,” she says.
And run the dishwasher before you sit down to eat, Calamigos Guest Ranch owner Kristi Gerson recommends, so it’s ready for another round after dinner.
22. Take Advantage of Herbs and Garnishes
“Use herbs and edible garnishes as decor, rather than going out and buying fresh flowers,” Williamson says. “I like to go through my garden the day before Thanksgiving and pick big sprigs of mint, basil, and rosemary and put them in little bud vases to display on the table. Not only are the herbs within arm’s length for ingredients, but they also add a fresh component to the table. Citrus is great for this, too—a bowl of oranges makes a great addition to the table decor! So many ingredients can be displayed and also functional.”
You can also use those herbs and garnishes to elevate your dishes. “Placing parsley or dried herbs as garnishes gives the appearance that you were so prepared that you even had time to think about garnishes,” Shigekane says.
23. Put the Pies in the Oven
Once the meal is ready to go on the table, it’s time to prep the desserts. “Place your pies in the oven on low before you sit down to eat, so you can enjoy warm pie for dessert,” suggests Sean Koenig, chef de cuisine at Montage Healdsburg.
24. Accept Help
Don’t be afraid to give tasks to people. “I like to have one person who helps me get the dinner on the table—if there are too many people and the party starts to move into the kitchen while I’m trying to get dinner on the table it makes me nuts,” Goin says. “Have a second person be the one who keeps everyone in the living room or by the bar relaxing and enjoying themselves while the kitchen work is happening. Choose these people wisely!”
If you want to have more helpers, think about their roles in advance. “Before guests arrive, make a list of prep tasks you can assign friends as they come over,” says Thomas McNaughton, co-chef at Flour + Water Hospitality Group. “You know friends and family are going to offer help, so have a list ready for when your sous chefs come a-knockin’.”
That’s easier said than done, of course. “Have a drink, take a deep breath, and relax before you present everything to your guests,” suggests Alan Kwan, executive chef of Alila Ventana Big Sur. And if you’re the meditating type, chef-owner of Oakland’s Bombera Dominica Rice Cisneros suggests doing that, too.
Whatever the case, remember the meal is all about enjoying time with loved ones. “Unnecessary stress and haste will interfere with your ability to ensure that every dish is cooked to perfection and ready to serve at the right moment,” adds chef Craig Wilmer of Farmhouse Restaurant at The Farmhouse Inn in Forestville, California. “What truly matters most is not how hard you worked, but the quality time spent together with your family.”