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Cook Ahead to Save Time When Company is Coming

Roasted whole turkey with side dishes
Roasted Thanksgiving Turkey

Nashville, Ark. – Thanksgiving is two weeks away. Gathering around the table for that special meal with family and friends can be a source of joy and it warms the soul.

However, spending hours in the kitchen the night before or the day of while everyone else is enjoying themselves can cause undue stress. Here are some tips to put the focus back on the family rather than frenzied (and possible unsafe) food preparation.


Tips to help with your Thanksgiving preparation

  • Limit what you will serve. Do you really need multiple desserts? How many side dishes must you prepare? Think about what you will serve and plan to have a limited number of dishes you will prepare. If you love having an array of dishes to suit every palette, ask those attending to help with food preparation by bringing the side dishes and desserts. You can focus on the turkey and dressing.
  • Avoid preparing foods too early. Unless you are planning to freeze foods ahead of time, it’s safest and will provide the best quality to start preparing most perishable foods no more than the day before the meal. Leftover foods should be eaten, frozen or thrown away within 3 days following the big meal. If you prepare dishes two days in advance, you have cut the days you can safely store the foods in the refrigerator. Vegetable casseroles can be assembled a day in advance, refrigerated and then baked the day of the dinner. Plan 15 to 20 minutes additional heating time to allow the dish to heat to the proper temperature – at least 165°F. The food should be hot throughout and steaming.
  • Do some preparation ahead. Cut washed fruits and vegetables the day before especially if they will be used in salads and relish trays. Store all cut fruits and vegetables covered in storage containers or zipper-type plastic bags in the refrigerator. Avoid leaving cut vegetables and fruits at room temperature for longer than 2 hours. Bacteria grows fast when exposed to room temperature. Time starts when you start cutting and includes serving time. Some fruits, such as apples, pears, bananas can not be prepared ahead of time. To prevent them from browning, coat them with an acidic juice such as lemon, orange, or pineapple juice. Remove them and discard the juice before adding them to recipes.
  • Use the freezer. If you would like to cut down on preparation time for casseroles, now is the time to start chopping vegetables such as onions, celery, bell peppers that you will use. Once chopped, arrange them on cookie sheets that have been lined with parchment paper or was paper in a single layer. They will freeze individually. Freeze them for a couple of hours and then transfer to freezer containers. Take them out of the freezer a few minutes before adding them to the casserole. Then bake as your recipe suggests.
  • Allow time to thaw. If you are purchasing a frozen turkey, you will need to plan plenty of time for safe thawing. Allow approximately 24 hours for every 5 pounds of weight. If you purchase a 20-pound bird, it will take a minimum of 4 days to thaw properly in the refrigerator. To prevent cross-contamination, thaw them in a pan (with sides) on the lower shelf of your refrigerator to prevent its juices from dripping on other foods. Be sure to remove the bag containing the neck and giblets from the body cavity of the turkey before cooking.
  • Semi-homemade is okay. Pumpkin pie is a holiday favorite. However, it is a custard-based pie and should be kept in the refrigerator at 40 degrees or cooler. Foods which contain eggs, milk, and a high moisture content must be kept refrigerated, as bacteria love to grow in these foods. Avoid letting the pumpkin pie sit out at room temperature for longer than two hours. To save time, use ready-made frozen pie crusts in the pan. It only takes a few minutes to add the pumpkin filling to the frozen pie crust just before baking. Be sure to follow the directions on pie crust.
  • Enlist help. Instead of one person doing all the cooking and preparation, enlist the help of your guests. They can peel potatoes, mix ingredients together, wash dishes, etc. When everyone pitches in to help, it can reduce stress.
  • Set the table ahead. If possible, set the table before everyone arrives. It can even be set a few days before the event. Put the tablecloth on along with the centerpiece. Add the flatware and plates if you use “real” plates. Paper plates have changed over the years. There are plenty of options available that will help you achieve a holiday look without the fuss of hand washing dishes. Do set out the serving pieces and utensils needed.

Thanksgiving should be a time to reflect on your blessings. It is a time where family comes together. Make it enjoyable for all, including the cook!

For more information on time saving tips in the kitchen, food safety or nutrition, contact the Howard County Extension Office at 870-845-7517 or visit our office located on the second floor of the courthouse. The Cooperative Extension Service is part of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

Recipe of the Week

Try making this pumpkin pie to save time on food preparation for the holidays. It is quick to prepare and can be made in advance. It also adds some extra vitamin A and calcium to your meal. The recipe and information for this article was adapted from a similar article developed by Nebraska Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Check out their website at for lots of useful information on food safety and food preparation.

Pumpkin Ice Cream Pie

  • 1 can (15 oz.) pure pumpkin puree

  • ¼ cup sugar

  • 1 ½ to 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice, depending on how spicy a flavor you enjoy

  • 1 quart (4 cups) lower fat vanilla ice cream or frozen yogurt, softened

  • 1 (9-inch) prepared graham cracker pie crust

    Whipped topping, if desired

  1. Wash hands with soap and water.

  2. Mix the pumpkin, sugar, and spice until well blended.

  3. Quickly mix pumpkin mixture with the softened ice cream.

  4. Pour into crumb crust and freeze, uncovered, until firm – a couple of hours.

  5. When pie is frozen, cover with plastic wrap and then cover with freezer-quality foil or place in a freezer bag and remove air.

  6. Thaw pie slightly at room temperature (about 5 to 10 minutes) before serving. Top with whipped topping, if desired.

                Yield: 8 servings



            You can make pumpkin pie spice instead of purchasing the commercial         spice. To make 1 teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice, combine:

  1. ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  2. ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
  3. 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  4. 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

*Note: Soften ice cream by placing the container in the refrigerator for about 15 to 20 minutes. Avoid repeatedly softening and refreezing ice cream as it gets icy.

  1. Nutrition Information Per Serving: Calories 190, Fat 4.5g, Sodium 160mg, Carbohydrates 35g, Protein 4g, Calcium 10%, Iron 6%, Potassium 6%


By Jean Ince
County Extension Agent - Staff Chair
The Cooperative Extension Service
U of A System Division of Agriculture

Media Contact: Jean Ince
County Extension Agent - Staff Chair
U of A Division of Agriculture
Cooperative Extension Service
421 N. Main St, Nashville AR 71852
(870) 845-7517

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