Hosting Thanksgiving Dinner for the First Time

The Ultimate Stress-Free Guide to Hosting Your First Thanksgiving

We help you have the best Thanksgiving, even if it’s your first time hosting.

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 and knowing you have turkey leftovers to get you through breakfast, lunch, and dinner for days. If you’re hosting your first Thanksgiving, your instinct may be 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.”

We spoke with cooking and event experts and mapped out how to host your first Thanksgiving with a foolproof timeline and checklist. Feel free to adapt this to-do list as needed—the best holiday is one where you get to relax, too.

If hosting a huge Thanksgiving feels overwhelming, it’s OK to skip it. Or you can provide those traditional holiday flavors without the stress by ordering the meal (e.g., Trader Joe’s Thanksgiving food options).

Two to Three Weeks Before Thanksgiving

Make a Plan

First, make sure you know the date of Thanksgiving—it’s always the fourth Thursday of November. (You can also brush up on Thanksgiving Day facts before celebrating.) Then, “start planning out simple things, like event flow,” suggests 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, a 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 inexpensive 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 include one unique item at your meal, perhaps try a signature cocktail (like a batch of apple cider cocktails) instead of a stuffing recipe that requires bizarre ingredients and three days of prep.

Write a grocery list, dividing it 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.)

“Print out a blank November calendar,” says Diane Phillips, a James Beard Award nominee, cookbook author, and cooking teacher. “Fill it in with when you will shop and when you will make certain dishes ahead. Also, add any pick-ups you may need to make or deliveries coming to the house.”

Purchase Your Turkey

Buy the bird as early as possible and freeze it. You need one day of thawing for every four pounds of turkey. If you’re buying your turkey online, shop early to avoid low stock.

“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 leftover turkey.

To ease your burden, consider passing off dessert to a guest or a local bakery, suggests Lilly. While you’re at it, order prepared hors d’oeuvre trays from the grocery store. One more thing crossed off your list!

Confirm Your Guest List

Take note of how many people are coming to your house for Thanksgiving dinner and how many are children. Do you have sufficient tableware, or is it time to buy another flatware set?

From there, ask people to help. It’s not unreasonable to ask guests to bring a dish—and often, they will offer it! 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 it,” 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, offer to give them the recipe. They will appreciate having something they can easily put together.”

One Week Before Thanksgiving

Set the Table

Taking care of the Thanksgiving table decor or flower arrangements in advance saves you some stress. If you can’t set it an entire week in advance, shoot for a few days ahead. If everyone is sitting at one table, have place cards ready to avoid confusion (or to make your intimate household Thanksgiving feel a little more formal).

Seat 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. And try to seat lefties at corners, where they’ll have room to eat without banging elbows.

Go Grocery Shopping

Consult your grocery list and get shopping out of the way. If you shop five to six days in advance, you should have little to no issues with perishable items. (You may also avoid last-minute crowds at the store.)

Prepare for Overnight Guests

Tidy up your home and clean up the rooms or spaces where overnight guests will sleep. Make sure you have fresh towels and linens on hand and that rooms are ready before guests arrive. Try some of our simple tips for prepping your home for guests—your friends and family will love the small details.

The Week of Thanksgiving

Take Inventory

Ensure you have all the essential Thanksgiving cooking tools before diving into food prep. Do you have a turkey thermometer? Enough casserole dishes? What about plates and silverware? Now is the time to double-check your stock and buy any last-minute items you’ll need.

Start Cooking on Sunday

Here lies Phillips’ secret to a stress-free holiday: make-ahead Thanksgiving dishes. Gravy bases can be frozen, and casseroles and vegetables can often be cooked ahead and refrigerated for up to two days. Starting to cook and prep food the weekend before Thanksgiving will save you a lot of time (and stress) the day of.

If it can’t be cooked in advance, maybe it can at least be prepared. For example, potatoes can be washed and set aside, ready to peel and mash.

Thanksgiving Day

Wake Up Early

On Thanksgiving, there is no sleeping in. Make a schedule, and stick to it. Most importantly, 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.”

This means the table or buffet should be set, and the drinks should be chilled. If you have an hour-long buffer, you’ll save yourself a lot of scrambling.

Prepare Every Room in the House

Start your holiday with a clean kitchen—this means clean and clear counter space, plus empty dishwashers and trash cans. Line your bins with more than one bag so that a fresh bag is ready to go when one becomes full.

Remove precious objects from the living room to save them from overly high-spirited kids. If coats and bags are going on your bed, cover your duvet and pillows with a sheet to protect them from the elements.

Fill the bathroom with extra toilet paper and towels. Finally, light a candle in the bathroom—it’s just a nice touch.

Keep Food Warm

Heat pre-cooked food a few hours before the meal is served. This will help stagger your time and space in the oven and stove. But, to avoid serving cold food, try these tips:

  • Store food in the microwave: It’s insulated, so it will keep dishes warm for up to half an hour. (Just don’t turn it on!)
  • Use a thermos: Pour gravy into a thermos to keep it steaming. Or use it to keep soups or other sauces warm.
  • Insulate a slow cooker (or ice bucket): The insulation will help keep mashed potatoes or rice warm while you work on other dishes.

Roast the Perfect Turkey

Follow our easy Thanksgiving turkey recipe for a simple first turkey meal. Cooking times for turkey vary by size and whether or not it’s stuffed. So, keep this in mind.

To know if your turkey is 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 the breast and stuffing.

You could also brine your turkey to make it even juicier, and it’s an easy skill to master. Since this is your first Thanksgiving meal, we’d advise against trying other turkey cooking methods—like deep-frying.

If something goes wrong, don’t panic. Call a turkey-savvy friend or look into take-out options.

Get Your Stain-Removing Arsenal Ready

When you crowd family members into a home and feed them a delicious dinner, food is likely to fly and make a mess. Try these solutions for getting rid of stains:

  • White cotton cloths: Use these to soak up spills.
  • White vinegar: Keep vinegar handy for coffee splatters.
  • White wine: Clear wine can overpower its evil twin, red wine.
  • Stain remover: A pre-treat stain stick will handle major food slips.

Have Fun

The holidays are all about being grateful for what you have—even if the turkey is burnt and the tablecloth is a mosaic of stains. Enjoy your time with family and friends, and take note of funny stories or Thanksgiving wishes to share at future holiday get-togethers.

Source: ~ Image: Canva Pro