How Long to Cook a Turkey (Or How Not to Ruin Thanksgiving Dinner with a Toddler Underfoot)

© Olga Lyubkin -

As any mom of young children knows, getting dinner on the table can be a challenge on the best of days. But what about a big Thanksgiving feast? Is it possible? Here are 13 tips and tricks for getting Thanksgiving dinner on the table despite mommy brain, toys on the floor, and a small, distracting person zooming around at knee level.

Tip 1: The turkey takes a loooong time to cook

As in hours. Don’t wait until you’re getting hungry before you pop it in the oven or you’ll be sitting down to dinner after the kids go to bed. On the other hand, maybe that’s a good strategy for a peaceful meal (just kidding).

Tip 2: Figure out how long to cook your turkey

20 minutes per pound at 325 degrees Fahrenheit is standard, which means a 10 pound turkey will take over 3 hours, while a 20 pound turkey will take at least 6 hours. But a stuffed turkey or a defrosted turkey (as opposed to fresh) can add another five minutes each per pound. The only surefire way to know when your bird is cooked completely is to use a meat thermometer. When it reads 180 degrees Fahrenheit inside the meatiest part of the thigh, you can take it out. Decide when you want to eat and count backward from there to figure out when to preheat the oven and prep the turkey (and make sure to have a meat thermometer on hand).

Tip 4: Keep your toddler occupied

If you’re going to juggle turkey basting with cooking several dishes that you only cook once a year, you will have to focus. And we all know how hard it is to focus with a toddler constantly vying for attention. Your best friend today is a spouse or family member who will take the kiddo to the park or for a nice long walk. If this isn’t possible, consider some of these other tips for keeping him occupied.

Tip 5: Your next best friend is an older cousin

Preferably one he adores to play with who can both keep an eye on him and keep him entertained while you cook the Thanksgiving meal. Plan your guest list accordingly. An older sibling may work in a pinch, but will likely result in more squabbles and parental interference than a cousin.

Tip 6: Plan as if you’re taking a cross-country plane trip

Stock up on a few new trinkets and toys that are sure to keep your toddler entertained. Novelty goes a long way. Try a new box of colorful band-aids (the preferred method of body decoration in our house), a fun little toy, and a new art material such as do-a-dot markers or Crayola twistables slick stix. Things from the dollar store or dollar aisle at Target work fine. Avoid books (they’ll want you to sit down and read to them rather than cook), balls (they will end up underfoot), and paints (you don’t want to have to deal with the clean up).

Tip 7: Don’t discount screen time

If you’re normally against screen time for toddlers, you may want to reconsider for today. If your toddler is a screen-time veteran, choose a new or favorite DVD that will keep your toddler occupied for a while. Or set him up with YouTube videos or PBS Kids online.

Tip 8: Enlist your toddler’s help

While your toddler may want to help cook (or just be near you), you probably just want to get dinner done. Compromise and find a task he can do to “help” while you work too. Ideas: tear lettuce, sort or count raisins, whisk her own little bowl of flour and spices, roll out some extra cookie or pie dough, wash potatoes, or just play with a baster and a bowl of water over a big towel.

Tip 10: Make the pies the day before

They’ll keep just fine and that will be one less thing to think about on Thanksgiving Day. While you’re at it, you can chop vegetables, assemble a casserole, or make the cranberry sauce ahead of time as well.

Tip 11: It’s okay to buy pre-made

I’m not a stuffing-out-of-a-box person so this is a hard lesson for me, but you (and I) don’t have to make it all from scratch. The toddler years are a good time to cut yourself some slack and make things a bit easier on yourself. Pick up some sides at the deli, a pie at the bakery, or make something from a box or can.

Tip 12: Plan ahead with cooking and prep times for all your dishes

This is useful even if you don’t have mommy brain. And it’s extra valuable if you have helpers in the kitchen. You can refer to your handy dandy list to see when each item should be started. Here’s an example for a 2pm Thanksgiving meal. Your times will vary depending on the recipes you use.

  • 10 lb Turkey: truss and prep at 9:30am, put in the oven at 10am
  • Green bean casserole: start at 10:30am
  • Pumpkin soup: start at 11:30am
  • Mini cornbread muffins: start at 1pm
  • Stuffing: start at 12noon
  • Pies: bake a day ahead
  • Cranberry sauce: Make ahead or use canned
  • Salad: Assemble at 12:30pm
  • Gravy: start at 1:15pm

Tip 13: Keep the kids occupied during the meal

Toddlers may eat in five minutes what it took you five hours to cook, so how do you keep them occupied while the adults enjoy their meal? You can set out some crayons and a decorate-your-own placemat (a piece of poster board works fine) at each spot or cover the whole table with paper. When the kids are tired of drawing, whip out a new packet of stickers you have stashed near the table. Or just let them play nearby.

How about you? Do you have any tips to share for getting Thanksgiving dinner on the table with toddlers in the house?


Read more of Jean’s writing at The Artful Parent.
And don’t miss a post! Follow Jean on Twitter and Facebook!


Want more ideas to keep your kids occupied? See this list of 11 easy toddler art activities.

Article Posted 5 years Ago
share this article
facebook twitter tumblr pinterest
See Comments
what do you think?
share this article
facebook twitter tumblr pinterest
See Comments
what do you think?
what do you think?
close comments
Subscribe to the
Follow us on