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13 Thanksgiving Mistakes You Absolutely Need to Avoid

No dry turkeys or overly ambitious side dishes here. We've got all the tips you need to make your Thanksgiving a success.

hands carving Thanksgiving turkey on table
Put down that knife: There is a right way to carve your Thanksgiving turkey.
Skynesher/E+/Getty Images

This story is part of Home Tips, CNET's collection of practical advice for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.

Hosting Thanksgiving dinner can feel like a lot of pressure. You want everything to taste delicious -- and you need to spend time and money to make that happen. With all of that, an avoidable mistake can still leave your turkey drier than the Sahara or end up with you feeling overwhelmed and unable to enjoy yourself. 

We're here to help. Here are 13 Thanksgiving mistakes to steer clear of this year to make your Turkey Day go smoothly. (And make sure you check out our Thanksgiving cheat sheet for tons of other tips to make the holiday stand out.)

1. Failing to plan ahead

If you take one thing from this list, make it this one: Hosting a successful Thanksgiving meal requires a lot of planning ahead. The day itself can be hectic, especially with family or friends coming over. You'll want to make sure you plan the meal and double-check your shopping list so you don't forget any ingredients. It also doesn't hurt to have an easy backup side dish ready to sub in in case one dish goes wrong. (Trust me, it's been over a decade, but my former roommates still remember the Great Green Bean Casserole Debacle of Friendsgiving 2010.)

You'll also want to plan dishes with varying prep times and when you're going to start each one, so the meal comes together around the same time and can be served at the right temperature. It always helps to choose some recipes that you can make ahead and freeze. And please, please make sure you start defrosting your turkey well ahead of time -- depending on the size, it can take days to thaw, so hopefully you've already started.

2. Forgetting the appetizers

butter board

A butter board could make an aesthetically pleasing Thanksgiving appetizer for your guests.

David Watsky/CNET

While the turkey and sides may be the main event, don't forget those starter snacks. Appetizers can keep guests from getting hungry and relieve some of the pressure of getting the meal on the table. Set out some light and easy snacks like stuffed peppers or squash bites, or try your hand at a trendy butter board.

3. Starting the meal too late

Thanksgiving feasts are often served as dinner. But with all of the running around to prepare, mingling and waiting for more guests to arrive, the meal can sometimes get pushed later than expected. Beware of serving dinner too late and tempting your guests to skip out on time together in favor of heading home right away to give into tryptophan-induced slumber

4. Serving all hot dishes

salad in a bowl

A cold dish like a salad is easy to prep ahead.

Chowhound

This goes hand in hand with planning ahead -- if all of your dishes are to be served hot, you likely won't have enough burners or oven space to allow them all to be kept hot before serving. Do yourself a favor and serve a cold or room-temperature dish such as a salad, or prepare a make-ahead dish such as roasted acorn squash with wild rice stuffing.

5. Buying the wrong turkey

The last thing you want to do on Thanksgiving is end up with too little turkey for your guests. The typical recommendation is to allot one to one-and-a-half pounds of turkey per person at your table. You may also prefer a heritage or pasture-raised bird, and while it will cost you, it's possible to order one online. And if you're hosting a smaller Thanksgiving (or one with a lot of vegetarians), you can also consider going with a turkey breast instead of a full bird.

6. Stuffing the turkey with stuffing

thanksgiving stuffing in a casserole dish

Cook that stuffing in a casserole dish, not in the turkey, to keep guests from getting sick.

Chowhound

Of all the Thanksgiving disasters that could happen, getting your guests sick would be one of the worst. When you cook stuffing inside of the turkey, it increases the odds of harmful bacteria getting into your food. To make that less likely, the USDA recommends cooking stuffing outside of the bird. So, cook your "stuffing" in a casserole dish instead. (And when you are handling the raw turkey, make sure to always wash your hands before touching anything else.) 

7. Not brining your bird

While brining a turkey is an optional step, it makes a huge difference in keeping your bird juicy and flavorful. Plan ahead for which type of brining you want for your meal: a wet brine for juicier and more tender meat, or a dry brine for a crispier skin and more turkey flavor (and the bonus of not having to deal with large amounts of liquid).

8. Not cooking the turkey enough (or overcooking it)

There's an easy way to avoid this mistake: Buy a meat thermometer. Even if you've cooked 50 turkeys in your lifetime, it's worth double-checking that the meat is 170 F in the inner thigh of the bird. Make sure the juices run clear, as well. And don't rely on the pop-up timer that comes with many turkeys -- if you wait for it to pop, it likely means your bird is overcooked. (You can also check out our guide to preparing the perfect turkey for more cooking tips.) 

9. Carving the turkey incorrectly

man carving turkey

There's nothing wrong with asking for help carving the Thanksgiving turkey.

Getty/The Good Brigade

The work isn't over when the turkey comes out of the oven -- someone has to carve it to get that meat on Thanksgiving plates. And you don't want a turkey butchered the wrong way to take away from your hours spent preparing a perfectly cooked bird. Try using a carving guide, or outsourcing this task to your uncle's expertise. But before you carve, let it rest! Transfer the turkey from the roasting pan to a platter and let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes while you make your gravy.

10. Throwing out the pan drippings

You can (and should) make a batch of gravy for your turkey ahead of time, but you should also plan to use your turkey drippings for more gravy on the big day. It's simple and takes about 15 minutes, but don't throw out one of the most important ingredients: the pan drippings. 

11. Forgetting to set the table ahead of time

Setting the table the night before or the morning of Thanksgiving will take one task off your plate the day of, and keep you from letting the food get cold (or burn) while you're running around putting out silverware at the last minute. And if you have any guests who you don't want to end up next to each other, create place settings with names and set them out early as well.

12. Turning down help

As anyone who's hosted before knows, it's no easy task to plan for and feed a group of people, and make sure they're comfortable and happy. If anyone offers to bring a dish or clean up after the meal, don't be shy about accepting the help. It's your holiday, too. 

13. Getting too ambitious with the meal

thanksgiving dinner on table

Your Thanksgiving dinner absolutely does not need to look like this to be delicious and memorable.

Michael Maes/Photodisc/Getty Images

You may want to go all out as the host and try a new, inventive dish, but it's usually better to save that for the times you're contributing to a meal, not when you're hosting. Planning a complicated and creative dish to impress your guests creates more work for you, when most people are showing up for the tradition and your company. 

If you do want to include a memorable dish that's a little out-of-the-box, practice the recipe a few times before the day comes. You'll be able to work out the nuances of the dish before it's shared with all your loved ones. Similarly, don't feel like you need to tackle a dozen dishes plus five pies all from scratch; in addition to letting guests bring some things, explore your store-bought options, like Trader Joe's Thanksgiving desserts.

Finally, don't feel pressure to make an Instagram-perfect table -- your guests aren't spending time with you for that. 

For more hosting tips, hacks, and recipes, check out our Thanksgiving cheat sheet

More essential Thanksgiving tips