The first time Adam and I ever hosted Thanksgiving at our house was… memorable, to say the least. The fun started when both our families showed up, and the single toilet promptly got clogged thanks to a stopped up dish disposal and our home’s single plumbing line in our 1930’s bungalow. One emergency plumber and countless trips to the Starbucks bathroom down the road later, we finally settled in at the table ready to feast—only to discover that I’d forgotten to remove the bag of giblets from the inside of the turkey cavity before cooking it. So that’s what was causing that burning plastic smell!
Yes, Thanksgiving can be full of opportunities for disaster, but after hosting at our house for 10 years straight, I’ve collected my share of shortcuts and strategies to help me pull it off seamlessly.
Whether it’s your first time hosting or your twentieth, these are my best tips to ensure Thanksgiving is a no-sweat day that’s filled with fun. And just remember: if disaster does strike, at least you’ll have a good story to tell around the table for years to come!
1. Make a plan.
I’ve learned that the more detailed my plan on the front end, the more I can kick back and relax on the day-of. Start with a list of how many people are attending. I send an email to the entire group and get specific on arrival and mealtimes with guests so everyone knows what to expect. For example: “Come over at 1:30 pm for drinks and snacks, we’ll eat at 3 pm, and we’d love for everyone to stay and watch football and eat pie through the evening.” This is also a great way to find out if there are any dietary restrictions and get some volunteers to pitch in on the menu (more on that later.)
2. Write out the menu.
Finalize your menu at least a week before T-Day, then gather the exact recipes you’ll be making and list everything that can possibly be made in advance (note that you probably need to order your turkey, like, now.) Then, map out your advance prep plan on your calendar so you can be sure you’ll actually have enough time to get it all done (ie. three days before, buy your groceries; 2 days before, make salad dressing, pie crust, cranberry sauce; 1 day before, brine the turkey… etc.)
3. Make it a potluck.
I honestly can’t imagine hosting our big family gathering without lots of people pitching in on the menu. We divvy up the cooking and I’ve found that everyone loves having the chance to contribute their own traditions to the table. My dad always makes the stuffing, my mother-in-law brings her broccoli casserole and gravy, and my mom is on pie duty. This year we’ve got even more aunts and cousins around the table, so they’re pitching in with appetizers, veggie sides, and a gluten-free dessert. Anyone who doesn’t cook is bringing wine to contribute. It takes a village, and asking for help is key to keeping my Thanksgiving Day manageable and the overwhelm at bay.
4. Don’t feel like every “Thanksgiving food” has to be included.
Especially if you’re shouldering the bulk of the cooking yourself, my biggest piece of advice is to keep the menu relatively limited. People do not need both mashed potatoes and potatoes au gratin, I promise. And just because brussels sprouts are awesome doesn’t mean you also need to serve them if you’re already having green beans. Just remember, every additional dish equals more groceries, more prep, and more clean-up, so I usually map out a menu that has a main (turkey, ham, etc), a grain (stuffing or rice salad), potatoes, a green veggie side, a cranberry something, and a bread. If you have a big group, you could add a salad, winter squash, or sweet potato dish, or whatever is traditional for your family, but the point is, take an honest look at the menu and ask yourself if you’re trying to do too much. If so, figure out what item will be missed the least, then ditch it from your menu.
5. Set the table the day before.
Not only will this give you major peace of mind when everyone shows up at your house and your table is ready to go, but it’ll give you a chance to identify if you’re missing any flatware, glassware, plates, etc. Then you can ask a guest to bring a few backups, or rent some (more on that later.) Most importantly, it’s one less thing to think about on the actual day, so you can focus on food, drinks, and spending time with your people. For Thanksgiving, I like to set name cards at each place setting—it elevates the table to special occasion status, and also allows you to get strategic with who’s next to whom (#nodrama.) Here are 20 other easy ideas that’ll make your Thanksgiving table gorgeous.
6. Keep drinks simple.
When guests arrive at my house this year, I’m going to have a slow-cooker full of cider that I’ve dressed up with spices, along with a bottle of bourbon on the side for guests who want to spike theirs. This is not a day to stand behind the counter mixing individual cocktails, people. On the dinner table, set a juicy red wine, a crisp white, and a big carafe of water. Give everyone one wine glass and one water glass and let them fill and refill themselves. Done and done.
7. Pickup dessert from a bakery.
My mom will kill me for this one because honestly, a Styles’ Thanksgiving would not be the same without her legendary homemade pies. BUT if she wasn’t there to help me with this aspect of the meal, I am all for supplementing the menu by picking up a delicious dessert from a local bakery or restaurant. It will save you loads of time and (if it’s a good bakery) will be guaranteed delicious. Mix up some homemade whipped cream just before serving and no one will know the difference.
8. Hit up the rental company.
My first real job was in catering, and I quickly learned that renting glassware and silverware is kind of the most awesome thing ever. For one thing, if you’re hosting a big group, who has 20 forks and knives lying around? But the real key to this one is in the clean-up. Just imagine the feeling at the end of the night of loading all those dirty wine glasses into a crate and putting them in your car to drop off the next morning. Bliss!
This post was originally published on November 19, 2019, and has since been updated.