Hosting Your First Thanksgiving? Consider This Your Stress-Free Guide
Thanksgiving is one of the biggest family holidays of the year—and maybe the most delicious. There's nothing like the after-dinner food coma that evening and knowing you have leftovers to get you through breakfast, lunch, and dinner practically until Christmas. Still, Thanksgiving tends to be a lot more fun if you're not the host or head chef. If the hosting baton has been passed to you this year—either because your whole family isn't able to gather together because of the coronavirus and it's now your responsibility to prep your household's feast, or it's a generational passing of the torch—we know your first instinct is to panic.
"It always feels overwhelming and very stressful," says Debi Lilly, owner and chief planner at A Perfect Event. "There are a lot of details that have to be fairly synchronized."
Not to worry: We've mapped hosting your first Thanksgiving out. Here, a foolproof timeline and checklist so no detail goes forgotten. But before you start your Thanksgiving hosting checklist, take a deep breath. If hosting a huge Thanksgiving feels overwhelming, it's OK to skip it, especially with the many challenges of hosting a safe Thanksgiving because of the coronavirus. If there were ever a year to take a break from stressful family traditions, 2020 is it. And if you want those Thanksgiving flavors without the stress (or costly grocery list), there's always Trader Joe's Thanksgiving options.
If you're set on a traditional Thanksgiving, though, read on for tips for hosting your first Thanksgiving. Feel free to adapt this to-do list as needed—the best holiday is the one where you get to relax a bit, too, remember.
Two to three weeks before:
Make a plan
First, make sure you know when Thanksgiving is. Then, "start planning out simple things, like event flow," says Lilly. Think about where you want guests to sit, and where you want to set your food (if you're doing buffet style or an outdoor gathering). With more than eight guests, buffet is the easiest way to go—especially if you're short on space.
"You can do a beautiful party in a small space by utilizing all of your sitting areas," says Lilly. This means you may want to purchase cheap lap trays for older guests or young children who might have trouble balancing dinner on their knees.
Create a menu
When creating a menu, go for recipes that are simple and trusted. While it's fun to have one unique item at your meal, go for a signature cocktail, like a batch of apple cider cocktails, instead of a stuffing recipe that requires bizarre ingredients and three days of prep. Once your menu is set, write out grocery lists. You should divide the list into perishables and nonperishables to make shopping and storing easier. Nonperishables can be purchased a week or two in advance; make a trip to pick up perishables a day or two before Thanksgiving. (Many stores will be closed on Thanksgiving Day, so don't plan on going the morning of.)
Pro organizing tip: "Print out a blank November calendar, and then fill in with when you will shop, when you will make certain dishes ahead, and any pick-ups you may need to make or deliveries coming to the house," says Diane Phillips, a James Beard Award nominee, cookbook author, and cooking teacher.
Order your turkey
"For the turkey, you will need three-quarters to a pound of turkey per person," says Phillips. This will still leave you with a day's worth of leftovers. Buy the bird as early as possible and freeze it. Just remember: You need one day of thawing for every four pounds of turkey. If you're buying your turkey online, shop early.
While you're at it, consider ordering prepared hors d'oeuvre trays from the grocery store or desserts from the bakery that you'll also want to serve. One more thing checked off your list!
Confirm your guest list
Take note of how many people are coming to your house (or joining your Zoom Thanksgiving), and in that list, how many are children. From there, ask people to help. It's not unreasonable to ask guests to bring a dish—and often, they will offer! If it's a household-only occasion, give every member a task.
"There's a time and a place for doing it all, but I don't think Thanksgiving is the place," says Lilly. When you ask guests to bring a dish, be very specific, so you know exactly what is heading to your home. Phillips takes it one step further: "If you are having people bring a dish, give them the recipe," she says. "They will appreciate having something they can easily put together."
One week before:
Set the table
Taking care of the Thanksgiving table decor or Thanksgiving flower arrangements in advance saves you a little bit of stress. If you can't set it an entire week in advance, shoot for a few days ahead. Have place cards ready if you'll all be sitting at one table to avoid any confusion (or to make your small household Thanksgiving feel a little more formal).
Place yourself closest to the kitchen, and not necessarily at the head. It's best to split up couples for a livelier dynamic, but keep small children between their parents. Bonus tip: Seat lefties at corners, where they'll have room to eat without banging elbows.
Consult your grocery lists and get your shopping out of the way. Does anything sound worse than a last-minute trip to the local grocery store on Thanksgiving Day? (Or, worse, showing up at the store only to find that it's closed?) If you shop about five to six days in advance, you should have little-to-no issue with your perishable items.
To ease your burden, consider passing off dessert to a guest or a local bakery, says Lilly. Offer up recipe suggestions to the family member who can bake up a storm, or visit the grocer to order ahead.
Prepare for overnight guests
Make sure you have fresh towels and linens on hand for overnight guests (if any), and their room is ready to go.
The week of:
Do you have a turkey thermometer? Enough casserole dishes? What about plates and silverware? Ensure that you have all of the essential tools before diving into cooking.
Start cooking on Sunday
Here lies Phillips' secret to a stress-free holiday: make-ahead dishes. Gravy bases can be frozen, and casseroles and vegetables can often be cooked ahead and refrigerated for up to two days. If it can't be cooked in advance, maybe it can at least be prepared. For example: Your potatoes can be washed and ready to peel and mash.
The day of:
Wake up early
On this holiday, there is no sleeping in. Make a schedule, and stick to it. Most importantly: You want to be ready up to an hour before guests are scheduled to arrive.
"Someone always arrives very early," says Lilly. "There's nothing worse than the doorbell ringing while you're in the shower."
What does this mean? The table or buffet should be set, and more importantly, the drinks should be chilled. If you give yourself an hour-long buffer, you'll save yourself a lot of scrambling.
Keep food warm
Use the microwave—it's insulated, so it will keep dishes warm for up to half an hour—just don't turn it on. Pour gravy into a thermos to keep it steaming. Spoon mashed potatoes or rice into an insulated ice bucket or Crock-Pot.
Prepare every room in the house
Start your holiday with a clean kitchen—this means empty dishwashers and trashcans. Line your bins with more than one bag so that you have a fresh bag ready to go when one becomes full. Remove precious objects from the living room to save them from hyper nieces and nephews. If coats and bags are going on your bed, cover your duvet and pillows with a sheet to protect them from the elements. Finally, light a candle in the bathroom—it's just a nice touch.
Roast the perfect turkey
To know it's done, use a meat thermometer in three spots: breast, thigh, and stuffing. Place the thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh, without touching the bone, and in the center of both the breast and the stuffing. If your turkey is unstuffed, cooking times are different—see this handy chart for answers to all of your turkey cooking questions. Brining your turkey will make it even juicier, and it's an easy skill to master.
If something goes wrong, don't panic. Call a turkey-savvy friend, do some online research, or start research take out options.
Get your stain-removing arsenal ready
When you crowd family members into a home, and couple that with delicious dinner, food will fly. White cotton cloths can sop up spills; white vinegar can handle coffee splatters; white wine can overpower its evil twin, red wine; a pre-treat stick like Tide to Go will handle major food slips.
This holiday is all about being grateful for what you have—even if the turkey is burnt and the tablecloth is a mosaic of stains, enjoy the time you have with family and friends, and take note of funny stories or Thanksgiving wishes to share at next year's dinner.