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An 8-step guide to a stress-free Thanksgiving

Friday - 11/15/2013, 1:10pm  ET

It's hard to believe Thanksgiving is less than two weeks away.

If that realization strikes panic in your core, take a breath. We've got you covered with a step-by-step and day-by-day plan to make sure your Thanksgiving goes off without a hitch.

#1: Saturday, Nov. 16: 12 days to Thanksgiving

With Thanksgiving 12 days away, now is the time to begin planning -- starting with invitations to dinner, if you have not done so already. It's probably too late for mailed invitations, but online stationary sites, such as Evite and Paperless Post, offer tons of free and festive options -- from elegant to creative designs.

If your Thanksgiving dinner is a less formal occasion and invitations are not necessary, check-in with your guests via phone to make sure everyone still plans on attending.

It's also the time to start thinking about your Thanksgiving dinner menu, which according to WTOP's food expert Mary Beth Albright is something that should be done as soon as possible.

"The earlier you have a menu, the better you will feel," Albright says.

Most everyone has some sort of favorite, traditional Thanksgiving dish or recipe, but don't be afraid to add some variety to your spread with new dishes or variations on the classics.

Check out Pinterest or other social media sharing sites for some inspiration. Publications like Food & Wine and Real Simple have boards, solely dedicated to Thanksgiving meals: we're talking numerous turkey recipes, sides, desserts and cocktails, like a cider-glazed turkey with lager gravy and a pumpkin pie bread pudding with bourbon-pecan hard sauce.

Start thinking about what you want to serve throughout the day:

Appetizers: Do you want to serve something when the guests arrive? Maybe you want a more filling appetizer, or maybe you just want to put out some spiced nuts and olives. Regardless, pick a few things to nibble on and add them to your menu.

Cocktails: This is an area of the menu that can be either really involved, or really simple, based on the ambiance of your event. Do you want to start out with champagne or a cocktail during appetizers and then move to wine at dinner? Or maybe you just want to stick with wine throughout?

When picking wines for dinner, keep it simple. Stick to a pinot noir for red wine and an unoaked chardonnay for white wine. (Thinkstock)

And what types of wines will you serve? Do you want to offer liquors for your guests? Don't forget about coffee to serve with dessert.

Albright has some suggestions when it comes to thinking about the drink menu.

"The question of doing liquor or wine or both is a difficult one, because here's the thing: You want to be a good host, and a good host is serving liquor and wine, because you don't know what people are going to prefer," Albright says.

However, she says you absolutely do not need a full bar. When it comes to holiday dinners, Albright prefers to serve one cocktail, which she makes ahead of time and keeps in the fridge.

"You can just pour it so you're not making individual cocktails," she says, adding that she likes to put a champagne float on the top of the glass. "Pretty much any cocktail, you can put a little bit of champagne or sparkling wine on top."

As for the wine list, Albright says to keep it simple. Thanksgiving is not the time to become a wine connoisseur.

"If you're buying a red, pinot noir. If you're buying white, unoaked chardonnay," Albright says.

The main spread: Sure, the turkey is the star of many Thanksgiving dinner tables, but time and time again, the side dishes are the most anticipated items of the holiday. So now is the time to plan the starches, stuffings and vegetables you want to serve.

When it comes to planning the sides, don't go crazy. Take a new spin on a classic dish, and don't make too much. (AP Images)

When it comes to fleshing out the sides, Albright says don't go crazy. Chances are, what you are picturing in your head is already more than enough.

"You have a lot going on on (your typical) Thanksgiving plate already, even if you just add one vegetable to it, you're done."

Albright recommends roasted Brussels sprouts with olive oil, seedless red grapes and balsamic vinegar.

Another tasty and easy side dish is red cabbage, apples and bacon with balsamic vinegar.

"You cook it for an hour together, and it's the first thing that goes," Albright says.

Dessert: No Thanksgiving dinner is complete without a seasonal sweet -- whether it's pumpkin pie, apple pie or something completely different. Depending on the size of your party, plan out two to three desserts for your Thanksgiving dinner.

Plan out Thanksgiving dinner

Mary Beth Albright, WTOP food contributor


#2: Sunday, Nov. 17: 11 days to Thanksgiving

Now that you've sketched out your Thanksgiving menu, you can plan the shopping lists. There are two main reasons why it's great to do this ahead of time.

For starters, there is nothing worse than writing out a list the day before turkey day, only to realize a key ingredient was left off. And the last place you want to be the day before Thanksgiving is the grocery store … twice!

Second, planning out the list gives you time to go through your cabinets to see what you already have, so you don't end up with three unnecessary boxes of baking powder in the pantry.

Go through each item you plan to serve on Thanksgiving -- from appetizers to drinks -- and list out every ingredient for which each recipe calls.

Then, go back over that list and cross out the items you already have.

Apple pie turnovers are an innovative and crowd-pleasing dessert for Thanksgiving. (AP Images)

If your menu requires ingredients from different stores (maybe your grocery store doesn't sell wine, or maybe you want to order a turkey from a specialty market), break the list out into separate lists for each store. Making an organized list will help tremendously as the holiday gets closer.

Finally, if something on your menu needs to be ordered, such as a pie or a turkey, place your order now.

"We live in an area with great resources if you want to go out and buy terrific bread, if you want to go out and buy pies for dessert. If you are one person cooking Thanksgiving dinner for 25 people, do not cook it all yourself," Albright says.

#3: Wednesday, Nov. 20: 8 days to Thanksgiving

Have a big crowd coming over for dinner? It's time to start thinking about where you are going to fit everyone. Will you have two dinner tables -- maybe even a kids table -- or can everyone sit comfortably together?

Do you have enough chairs or do you need to borrow a few? If the latter is the case, ask a neighbor or a guest ahead of time if you can borrow some.

Also, if you plan to have music playing throughout the dinner, start making your playlist.

#4: Saturday, Nov. 23: 5 days to Thanksgiving

It's time to break out those organized shopping lists you made a few days prior and check off a few items. Get a head start on the dreaded trips to the packed stores by picking up the non-perishable items on your lists.

"You do not want to be the person two days before Thanksgiving who's going through the grocery store with two carts. You need to space this out," says Albright, who adds making a trip early ensures the stores are not out of staple items, such as flour and stock.

Now is also a great time to pick up any alcoholic beverages.

#5: Monday, Nov. 25: 3 days to Thanksgiving

You've given your seating layout and arrangements a bit of thought at this point, so take some time to think a little more about the table. Do you need to dig out the fine china and polish the silver? Or is your celebration more low-key?

It's never too early to start planning your holiday menu and organizing your shopping lists for Thanksgiving dinner. (AP Images)

Regardless, start thinking about the serving platters, dishes and glasses you want to use and dust them off.

If the vision for your table goes beyond a large food spread, now is the time to think about the tablescape -- from the placemats, to the flowers, candles and napkin rings.

If you plan to set up a bar for dinner, make sure your bar has all of the necessary tools and glasses.

#6: Tuesday, Nov. 26: 2 days to Thanksgiving

Finish off those nicely organized shopping lists and pick up the rest of the ingredients you need for your Thanksgiving dinner. Before you head out the door, clean out your refrigerator to make room for all of the newly purchased goodies.

#7: Wednesday, Nov. 27: 1 day to Thanksgiving

Today is the day to get your menu -- and your house -- prepped for the big day. Before you settle in and tackle the chores, consider making one last trip out to the store for any last minute items, such as flowers, ice and any ordered items for your feast.

Break out the duster, the vacuum and get the house in order for your guests. If you are expecting overnight guests, set up the guest rooms.

When it comes to food prep, get all of your chopping out of the way for any dish you have planned on the menu.

"Don't even worry about how much celery (you will need), just buy three bunches and start chopping it, because you are going to need it," says Albright, who also sautés her vegetables for the stuffing the day before Thanksgiving.

If you are serving a few dishes that are easy to reheat, make these ahead of time and put them away in the fridge.

However, if mashed potatoes are on your list this year, do not cook these ahead of time.

The turkey and the mashed potatoes are two items that are best left to the day of. (AP Images)

"The last thing that needs to get done before you put it on the table is mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes do not hold, they do not reheat well," Albright says.

Pies can also be made the day ahead of time.

Set up the table for the impending dinner, and place any decorations around the house (candles, flowers, etc.).

Run and empty the dishwasher with all of the pans/prep dishes you used throughout the day. Having an empty dishwasher on Thanksgiving will be crucial to avoid a sink piled high with dishes.

Doing one last clean before bedtime will also take some of the stress out of your Thanksgiving morning, so you can relax with one extra glass of hot chocolate before the madness starts.

#8: Thursday, Nov. 28: Thanksgiving Day!

It's here! One of the most delicious days on the calendar! And all you need to do is run through the final details:

  • Cook your turkey and any additional items you need.

  • If you used a lot of dishes in your final prep and cooking, run and empty the dishwasher one more time before the guests arrive.

  • Chill the wine and mix together your cocktail (if you are serving one). Make sure you have non-alcoholic beverages available and set up the coffee machine for after dinner.

  • Arrange your appetizers and get everything set up prior to the arrival of guests.

  • Start the music.

  • Enjoy the dinner!

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