USA TODAY – The next two months are going to go fly by faster than eight tiny reindeer, and the trick to making the most of the holiday season is to be prepared – especially if you are cooking Thanksgiving dinner.

Thanksgiving is three weeks away, which is plenty of time to work ahead. We put together a timeline of kitchen tasks you can complete in advance, including tips from Marcy Ragan, a personal chef and owner of Relish Your Chef in Long Branch, and Chef Eric LeVine, owner of Morris Tap & Grill in Randolph and Paragon Tap & Table in Clark.

So roll up your sleeves and get ready –Turkey Day is on the way.

WEEK 1:

Make a plan: “When I went to culinary school, every chef that I worked with, they all had a work list, they make a plan,” Ragan said. “Write out the menu, even if it’s tentative. Write out the work list. If you know you’ll need to get your vegetables chopped first, write it out.”

Make a detailed list of everything you want to serve, down to the garnishes for drinks and coffee creamer. Shop for as many groceries as you can, saving ingredients that should be purchased later – vegetables, dairy products, etc. – for a final trip a few days before Thanksgiving.
Turkey: If you want a fresh bird from a local farm, order as soon as possible or you may miss out. Try Hinck’s Turkey Farm in Wall, Green Duchess Farm in Franklin Township, Somerset County; Griggstown Farm in Princeton, Mercer County; and Goffle Road Poultry Farm in Wyckoff, Bergen County.

“If you’re getting a heritage turkey, make sure that you understand that its a lot leaner than a supermarket bird and is going to cook quicker,” Ragan said. Heritage turkey breasts also are smaller than other turkeys, so plan accordingly.

Dessert: Good news: Pies, one of the holiday’s most time-intensive dishes, can be made well in advance (something to remember while apple picking next year). The best pies to make and freeze are fruit pies.

Prepare up until baking and then freeze, uncovered, until hard.Wrap in plastic wrap and foil and pop it back in the freezer. On Thanksgiving or the day before, put the pie directly into the oven – no need to thaw – and bake until bubbly, adding 20 to 30 minutes to the recipe’s bake time.

A tip: To keep a cold glass pie plate from shattering in a hot oven, line the plate with plastic wrap before assembling the pie. Once frozen, pop the pie out of the plate, wrap it and return to the freeze without the plate.

WEEK 2:

Butter: Compound butters are delicious on warm dinner rolls and can be made well in advance. Bring butter to room temperature, mix in chopped herbs, garlic powder, salt, pepper and lemon zest, then shape into a log on plastic wrap and roll up, twisting ends well, and freeze. Move to the refrigerator the day before Thanksgiving or thaw on the counter the day of the meal.
Soup: These can be prepared completely, cooled, frozen and then thawed a day or before the holiday. If making a soup that includes pasta, leave that out and add it during rewarming so it doesn’t absorb the broth.

Bread and rolls: Prepare these through the first rise then freeze. The day before Thanksgiving, proceed with the recipe.

Turkey stock: Homemade stock “will make all the difference in your gravy,” Ragan said. “It can freeze ahead of time and it’s super cheap and super easy to do.” Start with turkey necks and wings, both of which can be found at the grocery store, and roast them at 425 degrees until golden, approximately 30 to 40 minutes. Put them in a big stock pot, add aromatics – onion, carrot, thyme – and cold water to cover. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer for one to two hours, skimming the foam off the top. “You’re going to have a really beautiful, deep turkey stock.”

WEEK 3:

Prep your kitchen: Clean out the fridge –you are going to need space – and sharpen your knives.

Turkey: If you bought a frozen turkey, move it from the freezer to the refrigerator two or three days before Thanksgiving. If you plan to brine your bird, you can make the salt/water/spice solution now, as it takes time to cool down and can sit in the refrigerator for a few days.