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What is in a Thanksgiving turkey dinner?

Thanksgiving is a beloved American holiday centered around a hearty turkey dinner. While turkey may be the star of the show, it is the delicious side dishes and savory sauces that really tie the meal together. So what exactly goes into crafting the perfect Thanksgiving feast? Let’s break down the key components of this iconic meal.

The Main Event: Turkey

The turkey is undoubtedly the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table. This large, lean bird can feed a crowd and absorbs flavors beautifully. The typical turkey dinner includes:

  • Whole turkey (12-15 pounds)
  • Herb butter or oil for basting
  • Aromatics like onions, carrots, and celery stuffed inside the cavity

Make sure to thaw the frozen turkey in the refrigerator for 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds. Pat the skin dry before seasoning with salt, pepper, thyme, rosemary, and sage. Baste the turkey with melted butter or olive oil every 30 minutes while it roasts to keep the meat moist and flavorful.

Thanksgiving Stuffing

What is turkey without the stuffing? This savory side dish is the perfect complement to roast turkey. The base of stuffing typically includes:

  • Bread cubes from a loaf of French or Italian bread
  • Aromatics like onion, celery, carrots
  • Fresh herbs like thyme, sage, rosemary
  • Chicken or turkey stock
  • Eggs

You can also add ingredients like sausage, apples, cranberries, pecans, or chestnuts. Bake the stuffing mixture in the turkey or separately in a casserole dish.

Classic Mashed Potatoes

Creamy mashed potatoes are another staple on most Thanksgiving menus. Start by peeling and boiling a few pounds of Yukon Gold or Russet potatoes until fork tender. Drain and mash the potatoes while still hot along with:

  • 4-6 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup warm milk
  • Salt and pepper to taste

For extra decadence, fold in sour cream, Parmesan, roasted garlic, or crumbled bacon.

Thanksgiving Gravy

A rich gravy ties everything on your plate together. Make gravy from the delicious turkey drippings by:

  • Adding flour to the pan drippings and cooking to make a roux
  • Whisking in chicken or turkey stock
  • Simmering until thickened
  • Seasoning with salt, pepper, herbs, and Worcestershire sauce

For convenience, you can also make gravy from a packet or use jarred gravy as a shortcut.

Classic Side Dishes

Beyond the turkey and trimmings, round out your Thanksgiving spread with these tasty side dishes:

  • Cranberry sauce – Fresh or canned cranberry sauce adds tangy sweetness
  • Roasted vegetables – Think squash, Brussels sprouts, carrots, sweet potatoes
  • Green bean casserole – With fried onions and mushroom soup
  • Cornbread or dinner rolls – Warm bread for sopping up gravy
  • Macaroni and cheese – A comforting, cheesy dish

Don’t be afraid to get creative and add your own unique sides as well!

Delicious Desserts

While Thanksgiving dinner itself is quite filling, no meal is complete without something sweet. Favorite Thanksgiving desserts include:

  • Pumpkin, pecan, or apple pie
  • Sweet potato pie
  • Pumpkin roll
  • Apple crisp
  • Cheesecake
  • Carrot cake

Warm pies with whipped cream or ice cream are the perfect ending to a turkey feast. Save room for a slice!

Detailed Breakdown of Thanksgiving Dinner Components

Now let’s take a deeper look at Thanksgiving dinner by breaking down the typical quantity needed to feed different numbers of guests along with estimated cook times.

Turkey Cook Times and Weights

Use this table as a guide for how much turkey you need to buy based on your guest count. Always allow 1 to 1 1/2 pounds of turkey per person:

Number of Guests Turkey Weight Cooking Time
4 guests 8-12 pounds 3 to 4 hours
8 guests 12-15 pounds 4 to 5 hours
12 guests 15-18 pounds 5 to 6 hours
16 guests 20-24 pounds 6 to 7 hours

Always use a meat thermometer and cook until the internal temperature reaches 165°F. Let the turkey rest for 30 minutes before carving.

Stuffing Quantities

You’ll want about 3/4 cup of stuffing per person. Here are estimated stuffing amounts based on guest count:

Number of Guests Stuffing Needed
4 guests 3 cups
8 guests 6 cups
12 guests 9 cups
16 guests 12 cups

For the ingredients to make stuffing from scratch, you’ll need about:

  • 1 loaf of bread per 4 guests
  • 1 onion per 2 guests
  • 2 stalks celery per 4 guests
  • 1 carrot per 4 guests
  • 1 egg per 4 cups of stuffing
  • 1/4 cup fresh herbs
  • 1-2 cups chicken or turkey stock

Mashed Potato Portions

Plan on 1/2 to 3/4 pound of potatoes per person. Estimate 5-8 medium potatoes per 4 guests. You’ll also need:

  • 4-8 Tbsp butter
  • 1 cup milk or cream
  • Salt and pepper
  • Optional: Sour cream, cheese, garlic

Gravy Recipe

Use these ratios for easy gravy based on pan drippings:

  • 1/4 cup flour per 1 cup liquid
  • Whisk together over medium heat to make a roux
  • Gradually add:
    • 2-3 cups chicken or turkey stock
    • 1/4 cup dry white wine (optional)
  • Simmer until thickened, about 5 minutes
  • Season with:
    • Salt and pepper to taste
    • 1/2 tsp poultry seasoning
    • 1-2 tsp Worcestershire sauce

Classic Side Dish Amounts

Use this table as a guideline for how much of each side dish to make for your guest count:

Side Dish Serves 4 Serves 8 Serves 12 Serves 16
Green Bean Casserole 4 cups 8 cups 12 cups 16 cups
Candied Yams 1 1/2 lbs 3 lbs 4 1/2 lbs 6 lbs
Creamed Corn 2 cups 4 cups 6 cups 8 cups
Cranberry Sauce 1 cup 2 cups 3 cups 4 cups
Dinner Rolls 12 rolls 24 rolls 36 rolls 48 rolls

Dessert Quantities

Be sure to have a nice assortment of pies, cakes, and other sweets for after dinner. Aim for 3-4 dessert options and serve 8-12 portions of each. Popular options include:

  • Pumpkin pie (1 pie serves 8)
  • Pecan pie (1 pie serves 8)
  • Apple pie (1 pie serves 8)
  • Sweet potato pie (1 pie serves 8)
  • Pumpkin roll (serves 10-12)
  • Apple crisp (8″ pan serves 12)
  • Cheesecake (8″ cake serves 12)

Having a nice variety of desserts allows your guests to sample a few of their favorites.

Planning the Perfect Thanksgiving Dinner Timeline

Proper planning and timing is crucial for pulling off a flawless Thanksgiving feast. Follow this general timeline as a guide:

Time Task
1 week before Make grocery list, order turkey
3 days before Shop for non-perishable ingredients
2 days before Prep recipes, make desserts
1 day before Shop for fresh ingredients, make stuffing and casseroles
Thanksgiving morning Thaw and prep turkey, peel potatoes, bake pies
2 pm Roast turkey
4 pm Boil potatoes, make gravy
5 pm Warm side dishes
6 pm Dinner is served!

Build in extra time as needed, and aim to have all dishes hot and ready to serve together for optimal flavor.

Shopping Checklist

Here’s a checklist of typical items needed for Thanksgiving dinner:


  • Potatoes
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Herbs (sage, thyme, rosemary)
  • Apples
  • Cranberries


  • Turkey
  • Chicken/turkey stock
  • Bacon
  • Sausages or sausage meat


  • Butter
  • Milk
  • Heavy cream
  • Eggs
  • Cheese (for side dishes)


  • Bread cubes or stuffing mix
  • Pie crusts
  • Rolls


  • Puff pastry (for appetizers)
  • Green beans (for casserole)
  • Pie shells

Canned/jarred goods:

  • Broth/stock
  • Cranberry sauce
  • Pumpkin puree
  • Creamed corn
  • Jarred gravy

Dry goods:

  • Flour
  • Sugar
  • Nuts
  • Stuffing mix
  • Oil
  • Marshmallows


  • Chicken or turkey stock
  • Wine
  • Seasonings and spices

Having all your ingredients and supplies in order well ahead of time will make Thanksgiving cooking much smoother.


Thanksgiving dinner is cherished quality time with family and friends centered around a mouthwatering turkey feast. From tender turkey with savory stuffing to creamy mashed potatoes and sweet desserts, this holiday spread is sure to please. With proper planning and preparation, you can look forward to hosting an amazing Thanksgiving meal each year. What are some of your favorite Thanksgiving recipes and traditions? The possibilities are endless when crafting this iconic American holiday dinner.