How to plan the perfect Thanksgiving Day meal.

For many families, Thanksgiving celebrations do not vary much from year to year. The same menu is served, and everyone knows which favorite foods to expect. But a successful Thanksgiving dinner does require much planning to make sure everything is properly cooked and ready on time. 

If this is your first Thanksgiving to cook or if you are a little nervous even though you’ve hosted before, this list of questions and answers about turkey can help you plan the perfect Thanksgiving Day meal.

How much turkey do I need to buy? A good rule of thumb is to allow one pound per person to account for bone waste. Birds larger than 16 pounds have a higher meat-to-bone ratio so you could go a little less. But if you want leftovers, plan for 1 ½ pounds per person. Using this calculation, you would need a 12-pound bird for eight people.

What if I’m just feeding a few people? If you don’t want all the leftover turkey, try just cooking a turkey breast. A whole turkey breast will feed six to eight people, while a half breast is enough for two to four people. 

What is the best way to thaw my turkey? The best (and safest) way is to thaw it slowly in the refrigerator. Place the whole unwrapped turkey on a rimmed baking sheet, breast up. Plan on 24 hours for every four pounds of frozen turkey: If you have a 12-pound bird, take 12 divided by four. That gives you three days needed to thaw in the refrigerator.

What if I forget to thaw the turkey and need to do it faster? Place the unopened frozen bird in a sink filled with cold tap water, breast down. Change the water every 30 minutes to keep it cool. A 10-pound turkey should be thawed in about two hours. 

Can’t I just cook it frozen? You can, but you won’t be able to season it or baste it until it starts cooking. You should add about 50% to the cooking time. An unstuffed 10- to 12-pound turkey cooked in a preheated 350-degree oven should take 2 ½ to 2 ¾ hours to cook. So if you start frozen, allow for 3 ½ to 4 hours. Just know that the likelihood of dry meat increases if you start with a frozen bird. Do not try to grill or fry a frozen turkey.

How should I season my turkey? There are lots of ways to season your turkey. Brining is a popular method that helps season the meat all the way through and adds moisture to the bird. Wet brining is where you soak the turkey in salty water for a period of time before cooking. With dry brining, you rub the turkey with salt and seasonings and let it rest in the fridge before cooking. Or, you can just season as you cook it. There are many good recipes available online for whichever method you choose.

I need my oven. How can I cook the turkey faster? Cutting the bird into pieces will speed up cooking time. Or you could spatchcock it; cut out the backbone, and flatten the turkey on a baking sheet. You could also skip the oven altogether and deep fry a 10-12 pound turkey in less than an hour.

How do I know when it is done? A meat thermometer is the best option. The meat should register 165 degrees in the thickest part of the thigh, the breast and in the stuffing if you stuffed your bird. Don’t have a meat thermometer? Wiggle the drumstick. The joint should feel loose and any juices should run clear.

Uh oh, my turkey is undercooked. What can I do? If everything else is ready to go and you need the turkey done ASAP, cut it into pieces, place pieces on a baking sheet, cover it with foil, and pop it back in the oven. It shouldn’t take long to cook through.

I left my turkey in too long, and now it’s overcooked and dry. Slice the turkey before you serve it and drizzle it with warm chicken broth mixed with melted butter. Or make extra gravy to pass around.

Can I let the cooked turkey sit on the counter while I finish up my other dishes? Yes! The turkey needs to rest at least 30 minutes before you cut it to let the juices redistribute, but you can let it sit, covered with foil, for up to two hours. 

What dishes can I make the day before? Mashed potatoes, dressing, any casseroles, such as green bean casserole or sweet potatoes, salads (except green salads) and of course desserts can all be made ahead of time. Just reheat the hot dishes while the turkey is resting. You can keep mashed potatoes warm in a slow cooker. 

How long can I keep my leftovers? You have three days to enjoy those leftovers. After that, they need to be tossed or frozen. 

Best wishes for a happy, healthy Thanksgiving filled with delicious food and good company!

Brined Turkey

1 cup kosher salt

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 gallon turkey, chicken or vegetable broth

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

1/2 tablespoon allspice berries

1 gallon iced water

1 Turkey, 14-16 pounds

1 red apple, sliced

1/2 onion, sliced

1 cinnamon stick

1 cup water

4 sprigs rosemary

6 leaves sage

Oil (just enough to coat turkey)

 1. Combine salt, brown sugar, broth, peppercorns and allspice.  Bring to boil. Stir to mix and remove from heat. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until chilled.

2. Early on the day of cooking or late the night before, combine the brine with the ice water in a 5-gallon container. Place thawed turkey, breast down in brine. Cover and set in cool area or refrigerate for six hours. Turn once halfway through.

3. Heat oven 350 degrees. Combine apple, onion, cinnamon stick, and cup of water; heat in microwave five minutes. Remove turkey from brine, rinse inside and out with cold water. Discard brine. Place turkey on roasting rack inside a wide, low pan. Pat turkey dry with paper towels. Place apple mixture inside turkey, along with rosemary and sage. Tuck back wings, and coat turkey with oil.

4. Place bird in oven. A 14-16 bird will take 2-21/2 hours. Let rest, loosely covered, 15 minutes before carving.

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the Cardiopulmonary Rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Missouri.