Hosting Thanksgiving is a rite of passage. When it’s your turn to step up, you might be delighted to show off your skills — or overwhelmed by the enormous to-do list. As nice as it is to have a home that lets you assemble your family and friends, putting everything together can be a daunting task, especially if you make the mistake of comparing yourself to the greatest holiday chef of all time: your mom, who always made it look so easy.
But don’t worry. You’re up for this. And we’re here to help with these tips to keep you on track, from early planning (yes, that’s really a thing) to cleanup.
Start planning two or three weeks before the big day, at least conceptually. Who’s coming? Do they all know (and like) each other? Any kids? Guests with special needs for travel, diet or similar accommodations?
Figure out where you’ll seat everyone, then make a list of what you need. Think folding chairs, trays for platters, place mats and even a kids table.
Decide what you definitely want to cook, what you can buy already prepared and whether you want guests to bring a side dish or dessert. Hosts provide the turkey and gravy, as is generally expected, but the rest is up to you. Make a list of groceries, kitchen utensils (Meat thermometer? Gravy boat?) and extra tableware you’ll need — you’re serving more than usual, remember. Consider a grocery delivery service, which is good for any time, not just the holidays.
Whatever you choose to cook yourself, stick with easy, reliable recipes. You have too much to do without stressing out over some intricate new concoction — especially stuffing. People can get pretty creative with their stuffing mix, but there’s no need to go overboard here. Keeping it simple and traditional is usually best: onions, celery, apples, chicken broth, parsley and less than an hour of your time will suffice.
Invitations should be clear about what’s expected. “No need to bring anything, but I won’t say no to a side or a bottle of wine,” your email might say — and a handwritten note to your aunt to make sure she brings her famous pecan pie wouldn’t be inappropriate. Meanwhile, stay on top of things by cooking some dishes ahead, like casseroles and pies that can be frozen or refrigerated in advance. The Kitchn offers a cook-ahead menu, designed for eight people who can bring “niche” items like sweet potatoes so you can spend more time on the traditional mashed potatoes.
As for the bird, everyone will offer different advice. Ours for your first time? Make it easy on yourself. Reader’s Digest suggests ordering it ahead and picking up a fresh turkey the day before; this will save all the worry over thawing it in time. You need three-quarters to one pound of turkey per person, and a day of thawing for every four pounds, according to Real Simple.
While you’re at it, order some prepared hors d’oeuvres or sorbets to remove one more item from your to-do list. If you’ve invited any vegetarians, serve something just as special as their main dish. Martha Stewart has recipes for easy meatless alternatives.
Things could go wrong. Heck, they probably will — and that’s OK. Expect that someone will arrive way too early, and be ready with something to keep them occupied so you can finish your prep.
For cleanup, fill the sink with sudsy water so dishes can soak while you straighten up or move to the living room for conversation and football. Set up clearly marked recycling bins near the trash so guests know what goes where. Accept volunteers to help, but go ahead and give them one good, “Oh, that’s alright. I’ve got this under control” for good measure.
Hosting Thanksgiving is a big job, no doubt, but remember to enjoy yourself. Don’t sweat the small stuff and don’t forget to be thankful (pun intended). A table full of food, surrounded by people you love… even if the bird turns out a little dry, you’ve got a lot to celebrate.