Everything You Need to Cook Your First Thanksgiving Dinner

From the Turkey All the Way to the Pies

Balsamic and honey glazed roast turkey

​The Spruce / Cara Cormack

Are you planning to cook your first Thanksgiving dinner? Tempted to roast a turkey, but feel intimidated by a whole bird? Whether you're a beginner cook or taking on hosting duties for the first time, we're here to help you make your holiday feast a success. You'll find everything you need to plan Thanksgiving dinner for your squad, whether you're cooking for a big family, an intimate gathering, or just yourself and a roommate. Read on for Thanksgiving dinner planning tips, cooking inspiration, and festive recipes that will become new favorites.

Plan Your Thanksgiving Menu

Depending on the size of your celebration, you'll want to put together a menu that includes your group's favorite dishes and maybe try out a few new recipes. Some things to consider when planning your holiday menu include how many people you need to feed, how much cooking you want to do, whether you need to consider the needs of vegans, vegetarians, and others following special diets, and what classic dishes your family or friends cannot go without.

Whether you want to keep things simple for the holiday or you're excited to try your hand at a classic holiday feast with all the trimmings, we've got you covered with the ready-made Thanksgiving menus below. You'll also find additional ideas in the rest of this article if you would prefer to assemble a more customized dinner menu. Once you know what you will be cooking, then you can draw up a grocery list and go shopping.

Spatchcock turkey recipe

The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

Roasting a Whole Turkey

For some families, Thanksgiving wouldn't be the same without a whole roast turkey on the table. If that's the case for yours, take a look through the cooking guides listed below, which will walk you through every step needed to cook up the ultimate holiday turkey. We've included advice for choosing the right turkey, how to thaw a frozen bird, turkey brining (and why you should do it), how long it really takes to cook a turkey, and—of course!—how to carve it when it's ready. Plus, you'll find a round-up of the most delicious-ever whole turkey recipes.

Tip

Order your turkey ahead of the holiday by calling your local store or going online to make sure they have one in stock for you. You can always store a frozen turkey in your freezer until it's time to start thawing (for timing, consult the guide below). As a general rule, you'll need to allow one full day of defrosting for every four pounds of turkey being thawed.

Remove and let cool

​The Spruce / Julia Hartbeck

Cook a Turkey Breast for Smaller Gatherings

What if you want to serve turkey for Thanksgiving, but your table will include fewer people? If you're planning a small holiday gathering, and don't want to be stuck with loads of leftover meat, consider cooking a turkey breast instead of a whole bird. A skin-on turkey breast is all delicious white meat and can be can be cooked using any of the methods you might use for a whole turkey, so you can experiment with grilling, smoking, or even deep-frying the meat.

Depending on your needs, a whole six- to seven-pound bone-in turkey breast will feed six to eight people. If you're serving four folks or fewer, consider scaling down to a three-pound boneless half-breast. Then browse some delectable turkey breast recipes that are worthy of your holiday table.

Keto Stuffing

 The Spruce Eats / Leah Maroney 

Stuffing

Stuffing (or dressing, as some families call it) is a beloved part of the Thanksgiving meal. If you're not cooking your stuffing inside a whole bird—which is always delicious, but not a necessity—many stuffing recipes can be made a few days ahead and chilled in the fridge, tightly-covered for day-off reheating. Others can be quickly assembled and baked on the holiday, either inside the turkey in a stand-alone casserole dish or in a space-saving appliance, such as a slow cooker or the Instant Pot. Browse our best Thanksgiving stuffing recipes and cooking tips below.

Serve and enjoy

The Spruce

Gravy

You probably think of gravy as a holiday essential, particularly for moistening and flavoring drier white turkey meat. But you may be surprised by the range of gravy options available to you—including those that don't rely on turkey drippings, are gluten-free, or suitable for a raw vegan diet. Check out our best gravy cooking tips and recipes to find one that suits your holiday feast.

cranberry sauce

 Leah Maroney

Cranberry Sauce

Cranberry sauce is a must for brightening Thanksgiving plates and adding a tangy-sweet zing of flavor to poultry mains. It's also a snap to make from scratch and homemade versions far outdo the canned jellied kind. What's more, with a little creativity, you can easily tweak it in so many ways for your special celebration. Take a look at our best cranberry sauce recipes below, which include the classic stove-top sauce, plus some spicy, boozy, and mixed-fruit variations. You'll also find tips on how to freeze any extra berries and ideas for using up leftover sauce.

Low calorie sweet potato casserole recipe

The Spruce Eats / Diana Chistruga 

Say It With Sides

Some folks might say it's the side dishes that make Thanksgiving so very special. From classics like green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, and roasted Brussels sprouts, to creative corn side dishes, vegan and vegetarian gratins, and trendy cauliflower mash, we've got all the recipes you need for a holiday table groaning with scrumptious sides.

Instant pot mashed potatoes recipe

The Spruce / Emily Baker

Think Outside the Oven

Whether your holiday dinner will be big or small, there's a good chance you will spend at least part of the day in the kitchen juggling multiple dishes. Give yourself (and your crowded oven) a break, by finding recipes you can make in your slow cooker, the Instant Pot, or make ahead of Thanksgiving day for easy reheating (or simply dishing out) at dinner time. Check out these awesome ideas for time-saving turkey-day dishes.

Sugar-Free Pumpkin Pie

The Spruce / Christine Ma

Holiday Desserts

Do we even have to say it? The best way to end Thanksgiving is with a plate of something sweet. Whether you wouldn't dream of anything else but sweet potato pie, prefer a classic pumpkin, or are into trying something different this year, our holiday dessert round-ups won't let you down.

Thanksgiving Punch for the Family
The Spruce Eats / S&C Design Studios

Don't Forget Drinks

Thanksgiving is a party, no matter how many people join in. Make sure to have some refreshing beverages on hand for your guests. At the very least, you'll want to stock your fridge with cold drinks for those who don't consume alcohol (including kids), whether that's sparkling water, a pitcher of still water with floated cucumber and lemon slices, or a special Thanksgiving mocktail. If you enjoy wine, we also have tips on which to serve for the holiday. Or stir up a pitcher of our popular fall sangria, a boozy mixture with red wine, liquors and fruits.

Turkey and mashed potato croquettes

The Spruce Eats / Diana Chistruga

Make the Most of Leftovers

Sure, Thanksgiving leftovers are so delicious, you could just eat them from the fridge with a fork. If you're looking for other ideas, though, reach for these easy, inspired recipes that transform leftover holiday foods into yummy week-after meals and snacks.