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How to Host the Smoothest Thanksgiving Ever

It’s a big holiday. Here’s how to simplify, from do-ahead prep to day-of festivities.

8 min read
2023-11-09
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My parents and I have been hosting Thanksgiving for as long as I can remember. Sometime around Halloween, my mom and I start texting recipes back and forth. How much should we switch up versus stick to tried-and-true faves? To spatchcock or not to spatchcock? Are the vegetarian cousins coming? 

A few days before the holiday, we’ll start gathering supplies. And by the time Thanksgiving Day rolls around, we’re happily ready. Or, we are now. We’ve been perfecting the process for decades. Follow these tips and you’ll still have energy to feast, imbibe, and enjoy the company of your loved ones with minimal stress. 

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The Lead Up

1. Order a premade turkey

We’ve tried all the turkey methods, from grilling (there was a fire, and it was not small), to smoking. If you have the inclination to cook your own bird, enjoy it! If it feels like a headache, there’s no shame in letting somebody else cook a turkey for you. Some things are better left to the professionals. Your local grocery store or butcher most likely has solidly delicious options. 

2. Delegate liberally

Everyone likes to feel useful. “What can I bring?” they’ll ask. If your friend loves baking, assign them apple pie. If your uncle has never set foot in his kitchen, ask for a few bottles of his favorite wine

3. Use store-bought pie crust

This is a genius compromise between from-scratch and from-the-store pies. Pre-made pie crusts are better than ever. You can find versions ready to go in their tin, and others that you can roll out and fill with your pumpkin custard or pecan-y goodness. You’ll end up with a perfectly tender, flaky crust. 

4. Plan a house cocktail

A big-batch cocktail will make your guests happy, and you won’t have to fuss with mixing individual drinks. I’m a big fan of a pitcher of autumnal sangria, although you can’t go wrong with a spiced cranberry punch or, honestly, martinis. 

5. Support your favorite local spots

Before I had kids, I’d spend Monday or Tuesday night of Thanksgiving week lovingly making a bourbon pumpkin cheesecake in a graham cracker-and-pecan crust. Maybe one day I’ll return to this project. Until then, I have an excellent local bakery that I’m happy to order from. They don’t have a pumpkin cheesecake, but they do have a pumpkin layer cake that might even upstage the turkey. 

6. Check in with your guests

Even if they’re people you know and love, new food allergies and sensitivities crop up. Make sure you understand requests and expectations to avoid last-minute worry, and then you’ll have time to source a sugar-free apple crumble for your bestie or a few delicious non-alcoholic options for your father-in-law.  

7. Write down the menu

We often have a Wednesday panic — do we need one more side? Should we whip up something fresh to help balance all the heavy dishes? Make yourself a step-by-step plan ahead of time and write it all down. Seeing everything on paper will help you to visualize the meal; it'll become clear if you’re missing an element, or including too many carbs (never!).  

8. Don’t set the bar overly high

People are happy to gather and celebrate. I can be a perfectionist — I want to cook the best sweet potatoes ever. But, trust me, nobody cares all that much. They want to be fed, and they want to see you. The rest is a bonus. 

9. Outsource the décor

If you’re crafty, knock yourself out, but this has never been a forte of mine. We’ll be ordering a pretty, bright autumnal bouquet, and then placing little vases around the house. On the table, little pumpkins are easy to order and create a festive vibe. 

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The Day Before 

10. Set the table

It’s one big thing you don’t have to worry about on Thanksgiving Day. Every year, my parents bicker about how to best position the tables (lengthwise? In a T? Should there be a kids’ table?). Better to get this argument settled the night before. Plus, it’s fun to wake up to your gorgeous setting, all ready to go. 

11. Assign seats

We’ve often neglected this step, and everyone huddles around the table with their glasses, feeling awkward. Outsource this task to an emotionally intelligent guest or family member (or at least one with nice handwriting). 

12. Prep your heart out

Now’s the time to finish everything that can be made ahead of time so you don’t have to worry about chopping, slicing, mixing, and sautéing furiously when your guests arrive. Cranberry sauce can be made ahead of the big day; ditto mashed potatoes, casseroles, and most desserts. You can do a lot of prep even if you want to cook things on Thanksgiving Day — for example, toast the nuts and make sure your bread is prepped for stuffing. That way you can simply mix everything and place it in the oven. 

13. Ask your guests to bring Tupperware

We’ve recently started doing this and 10/10 recommend. Guests can pack their own leftovers as part of the collective cleanup, ensuring they have exactly what they want (and won’t take your nice containers home with them, only to disappear forever).   

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The Day Of 

14. Clear the decks

I’ll run the dishwasher one last time and take out the trash. It feels nice to start the holiday with a clean slate, and it’s one less thing to worry about when you’re scrambling to get your meal on the table. 

15. Save tasks for the early birds

We all have the one aunt who will arrive at least 30 minutes before you tell her to. (Or I do, anyway.) When she asks what she can do, I’ll have her chop the Brussels sprouts or arrange the veggies for crudité. I’ll offer her some sangria for her trouble, of course. 

16. Make a plan for the kids

We went from not having any little ones in my family to having a whole bunch. We’ll be making them a mocktail — so fancy! — and setting up lots of paper and craft supplies to keep them busy and happy while we finish prepping dinner. 

17. Share what you’re grateful for

I love going around the table and sharing a gratitude. Sure, it can be cheesy. But it’s a good reminder of the joys and gifts we hold close. It can be an icebreaker and a conversation starter, too. 

Happy Thanksgiving! Here’s to full bellies, full hearts, and abundant leftovers.