What To Do The Night Before Hosting Dinner To Make Things Go Smoothly

The things you should do the night before — and the one thing you shouldn’t. (And it's not all related to cooking.)
Setting the table is a whole lot easier the night before, when your guests haven't arrived yet to create a swirl of chaos.
Image Source via Getty Images
Setting the table is a whole lot easier the night before, when your guests haven't arrived yet to create a swirl of chaos.

It seemed like such a good idea, back in October, when you said, “Let’s have Thanksgiving here this year.” Now it’s the night before, and you’re moments from a meltdown — and not the buttery, gravy-covered kind, sadly.

Chefs prepare high-stakes, Thanksgiving-level dinners every time they go to work, so they’ve got lots of ways to help you get ready for tomorrow and still get to bed at a decent hour.

A little work now will pay off tomorrow

Michelin star chef Joe Isidori of New York’s Arthur & Sons is a firm believer in staying home tonight and making a dent in your to-do list. “Getting ready ahead of time can be a game changer,” he said. “It makes you look like a real pro — calm, cool and collected. Being prepped ahead of time gives you that chance to enjoy yourself and show off your personality. Prep ahead, have fun and be a rockstar.”

And as you’re working frantically through Wednesday night, consider this thought from chef Andrew Zimmern: “The day before Thanksgiving should be a national holiday!”

Cook some things right now

There are lots of dishes you can make tonight that will still taste great tomorrow. This is a good time to get a start on pie baking or to prepare the cranberry sauce, if you’re making the homemade kind. Dips, dressings and other appetisers can be pulled together. Gravy can be made now, with pan drippings from the turkey added later.

“Cut your bread for your stuffing and leave it out overnight,” said chef Brian Arruda, founder & CEO of Executive Chefs at Home. “It’s much better when it’s a little bit stale.” And, while you’re setting up for tomorrow, he suggested: “Leave a few sticks of butter out overnight — as much as you think you’ll need tomorrow. Tempered butter is ideal for baking, and for buttering dinner rolls. No one wants rock-solid butter.”

Speaking of which, if you’re making homemade rolls, you can mix them now and do a slow first rise in the refrigerator overnight. For more suggestions on foods that do well being cooked in advance, check out our handy guide.

DON’T put this one thing in the oven tonight

Karen Akunowicz is a James Beard Award-winning chef and author of Crave: Bold Recipes That Make You Want Seconds. She said that while you can fuss with turkey beforehand, you shouldn’t touch that (oven) dial on Wednesday night. “It’s fine to clean, season or brine it the night before, but resist the temptation to cook it now,” she said. “The night before, I set it up in a pan to let the skin dry in the refrigerator so it gets super-crispy in the oven. But it’s worth cooking early on Thanksgiving Day, so the meat remains juicy and the skin stays crispy.”

Isidori agrees with her, remaining firm about holding off on that key menu item: “Don’t cook the turkey the day before,” he urged. “It will ruin both the moment and the bird. Save the main event for the actual main event — on Thursday.”

Set up batch cocktails and non-alcoholic drinks as early as the night before.
Kseniya Ovchinnikova via Getty Images
Set up batch cocktails and non-alcoholic drinks as early as the night before.

Set up drinks

Drinks are an easy pre-event task to get out of the way. “Set up your bar,” Akunowicz said. “Use a small table or a sideboard to set out all of the wine, glasses and cocktail prep. This invites your guests to help themselves and is a quick setup the night before.’

If you really want to get ahead of the game, consider making batch cocktails in alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions. “I love batching cocktails,” Isidori said. “I’m a chef, not a bartender, but I love making espresso martinis for my guests.”

Create some space

The third Wednesday in November is when people all over the country turn to each other and say, “This kitchen is too small!” The fridge is crammed, the counters are overflowing, and still, there’s more food to store. Zimmern suggested, “Stop grocery shopping for everyday refrigerated basics about a week before Thanksgiving, to make more room in your fridge and make space for the turkey.”

If it’s already too late for that, Wes Martin, director of culinary production at Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street, offered a smart way to create more cold storage: “A heavy thermal cooler is an under-appreciated tool,” he said. “Fill it one-third with ice to store salads, dips, cheeses, bottles of wine and fruits overnight,” he said. “That will take the burden off of the refrigerator and give you plenty of space to see what you have.”

A “cooler” can become a “warmer,” too, he said. “After many years of catering, I’ve learned how to use a heavy cooler as a hot box, too. You can transfer a freshly roasted turkey to a clean, empty cooler, close it up tight, and it will still be steaming hot when you’re ready to carve two hours later, after the rest of the meal is ready.”

Running out of cooking surfaces is a common Thanksgiving woe. Chef Adrianne Calvo had this great idea: “Use your slow cooker or Instant Pot,” she said. “They can be lifesavers for large gatherings, because they allow you to prepare large amounts of food with minimal effort, and they’ll keep food warm throughout the meal.”

Feather the nest, set the table

The night before Thanksgiving is a time to “infuse love in every corner of your place,” according to Emilie Berner, a chef-instructor with the Institute of Culinary Education. “This can be just straightening out some pillows on the couch, cleaning your space a bit or putting a candle or two around.”

“Check your guest bathroom and make sure it’s well-stocked and ready for guests,” Martin said. “Clear out space in your coat closet for guests’ coats and belongings.”

If you have the space (and not everyone does), you can set the table now. “When things are calm, it’s the best time to make sure you have enough glassware, silverware, napkins and most importantly, serving dishes,” Martin said. “Pull out all of the cookware and utensils you’ll need to prepare the meal and make sure they’re clean. There won’t be time to stop and scrub that dusty roasting pan when the turkey is ready to go into the oven.”

Wrap it up

Another quick tip to do tonight (and make tomorrow easier) comes from Arruda: “Run your dishwasher tonight, then empty it. You’ll be glad you did.”

Berner suggested another thing you can do tonight to make clean-up easier. “Put extra garbage bags at the bottom of the bin, and have extra paper towels or dishcloths handy for spills,” she said.

And, as guests are heading out the door, be ready to offer them some of the best part of the holiday — leftovers. “Have storage containers on hand for guests to take food home,” Calvo said.