First, a list of things I do not mean by “winning” Thanksgiving:

  • “Impressing” your guests
  • Preparing the entire menu from scratch
  • Designing a tablescape with origami versions of The Mayflower
  • Making every detail perfect

For me, winning Thanksgiving means that you gathered people you care about around a table, filled it with delicious food, shared meaningful conversation and stories, and at the end of the day, you can all say (with full bellies and full hearts), “Wasn’t that fun?”

Ideally without requiring the fire department or an emergency plumber to show up, both of which have actually happened to me.

Since I’m going on my 11th consecutive year hosting Thanksgiving for both mine and Adam’s families, I’ve learned a few hard-won keys to Thanksgiving success. Read on for my top tips on making this Thanksgiving your best one ever, no stress required.

top image by buff strickland

Prep almost everything in advance.

Yes, you heard me: almost everything. My family is always surprised when they come over for the Thanksgiving meal and I’m not really all that busy since my dishes are pretty much ready to be rewarmed or they’re best served room temp. I learned from my days working in catering that way more things can be prepped in advance than most people realize. Roasted veggies can be kept in the fridge and then quickly rewarmed in the oven before serving; salads can hangout just fine if you toss them with dressing at the last minute. And I make these make-ahead mashed potatoes every single year.

My exact week-of-Thanksgiving timeline is on the way, but in the meantime, check out lots of my favorite easy make-ahead Thanksgiving recipes right here.

Rent glassware (and anything else you don’t want to have to wash.)

If you’re hosting a big group, this is clutch. I used to think of renting party stuff as a luxury expense; then I decided to rent wine glasses for our 16 guests one year. At the end of a very long day of cooking and hosting, I loaded up all those (still dirty) glasses into the crate to return the next day, I realized it was worth every penny to not have to wash them by hand. You can rent plates, silverware, tables, linen napkins, and just about anything else that you don’t own or want to deal with from a local party rental — and it’s actually not that expensive if you pick them up and return them yourself.

Assign seats.

This one might come as a surprise since y’all know I’m all about the laid-back vibes. Aren’t seating charts kind of… stuffy? Well guys, this is THANKSGIVING after all, and I’m all for finding a couple ways to elevate it to make things feel more special than your average meal. Plus, seating charts serve a few very practical purposes:

  • They allow you to cultivate the “energy” of the table by placing people next to each other who will spark good conversation and not war over politics or sports teams.
  • Assigning seats removes the sometimes awkward moment where everyone is trying to figure out where to sit and you, as the host, are suddenly responsible for making those decisions.
  • Place cards are the perfect opportunity to add a simple decorative detail to each setting that’ll make your guests feel special. Here are all our favorite ideas for easy, awesome place cards.

Make it a potluck.

Do not, I repeat, DO NOT try to make everything yourself. Okay, maybe if you’re a professional chef and used to cooking many dishes at once for lots of people, this is the route for you. But for the rest of us, do yourself a favor and let your friends and family contribute their signature dish, or a dessert from the bakery, or at the very least, a bottle of wine to the meal. ‘Cause you know what? People like to help, and especially at Thanksgiving, they like to feel part of the communal experience by contributing to the meal. Here’s how I organize our family Thanksgiving potluck each year:

  • One month out, I send an email to everyone with the timeline for this year’s meal, specifying arrival time (for pre-dinner cooking and hangs) and the actual time we’re planning to sit down and eat.
  • Next, I provide a list of the different menu items that will create a balanced Thanksgiving meal, leaving them broad enough so that people can infuse their own creativity (ie, list “stuffing,” not “wild rice stuffing with pecans and cranberries.” Or “sweet potatoes,” not “Camille Styles Grilled Sweet Potatoes with Chimichurri.” Although those are amazing.) Basically – resist the urge to be a control freak!
  • I place my name next to the items I’m planning to prepare (like the turkey), and family member’s names next to an item that I know they’ll want to make (like my mom’s pecan pie or my mother-in-law’s broccoli casserole.)
  • Then I ask everyone to “reply all” with their name next to the dish they’d like to bring!

This system prevents redundancies and ensures that we’ll have all the Thanksgiving dishes that people look forward to every year. ‘Cause if there aren’t mashed potatoes, did Thanksgiving even happen?

Say yes to the buffet.

I love a family-style dinner as much as the next person, but when it comes to Thanksgiving, practicality wins. Unless you have the world’s largest table, there’s just no way you’re going to be able to fit everything you need into the center of the table without having the cranberry sauce falling into someone’s lap (does that mental picture make anyone else giggle?)

Setup a buffet on the kitchen counter or a sideboard if you’re fancy, and let people grab their plates and fill them up before sitting down to feast. Here’s the most efficient order for setting up a buffet:

  • Plates first
  • Main course
  • Side dishes
  • Bread, butter, condiments
  • Napkins and flatware (so people don’t have to juggle them as they go through the line)

If space allows, I like to have glassware and drinks setup on a separate table from the buffet so things stay as uncrowded as possible. On the table, I’ll place a couple bottles of wine for easy refills, a big carafe of lemon water, salt and pepper, and a couple gravy boats.

Make it late afternoon.

This one’s for you, Dad. Over the years, we’ve finally come to a peaceful agreement about the timing of the meal, and it turns out that 3pm-ish works for all. It’s late enough so that you have most of the day to enjoy the prep and it feels more like dinner than lunch… and it’s early enough so that we can wrap it up in time for the kickoff of the Cowboys game. I used to resist planning the meal around a sporting event, and then a couple years ago I realized: Thanksgiving is about family, and the game is genuinely important to my dad. Being a little bit accommodating goes a long way in making him feel loved and honored. Note: this is an attitude that can be applied to many, many things during the holiday season and it will never let you down.

Embrace kitchen chaos.

Let’s just set expections: there will be at least one moment during the day when way too many people are squeezed into the kitchen, 3 people are simultaneously asking you for different kitchen utensils, and someone is complaining that there’s not enough room in the oven for their brussels sprouts. When this happens, I advise two things:

  1. Remind yourself that you’re an easygoing host who loves having people gathered in their kitchen. Then patiently answer each person’s questions one by one, scootch your aunt’s stuffing over in the oven to make room for the sprouts, and take maybe 5 minutes on the back patio for deep cleansing breaths of the November air.
  2. Leverage all that extra help in the kitchen by putting people to work. Ask anyone who doesn’t have a job to fill water glasses, chop veggies, set condiments on the table, etc. Prepping together = bonding time!

Keep gratitude at the center.

Don’t forget to provide an opportunity for everyone to share what they’re thankful for. This is often the most meaningful part of the meal, and if you’re the host, the ball is in your court to get things started. There are lots of different ways to do this. I’ve made place cards with each person’s name followed by, “I’m grateful for _______” We’ve played a game where everyone throws their gratitude note into a hat, then we pass it around, people draw one and read it aloud, and we all guess who’s thankful for what. Or keep it super simple by making a toast where you share what you’re grateful for this year, then invite others to follow suit.

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I’d love to hear in the comments: what’s your secret to a seamless and fun Thanksgiving day?

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