how to host thanksgiving (and not die)

In just over a week, I will host Thanksgiving for the third time ever.

The first year, we had a couple of friends over who, like us, weren’t able to head home for the holiday.  I made many of the dishes, but our friends generously brought lots of food, as well.  I was a bit intimidated by my inaugural hostess gig, but the evening ended up being fantastic.  It was a team effort all around, and in the end we enjoyed the fruits of our labor paired with warm company and too many bottles of wine.  In fact, by far the most nerve-wracking part of the day was deep-frying a turkey on our tiny front steps.  (I’m happy to report that no human body parts were harmed that day, and that I have never fried a turkey since.)

Last November, we hosted my husband’s immediate family.  We’ll be doing the same this year.  And while I love my friends and want them to love me (and my stuffing) back, I admit the pressure of having my in-laws for Thanksgiving raised the stakes a bit.  However, with a bit of elbow grease, a whole lot of planning, and frequent wine breaks, it went off without a hitch.

Whether you’re cooking for two or for twelve, planning ahead is key.  So without further ado, here’s a planning guide to help you pull off a festive, tasty, fabulous Thanksgiving!

One month out:

Plan your menu. As soon as you know about how many people you’ll be hosting — as well as their delightful dietary restrictions — start to plan out your menu.  For a first-time host, I suggest sticking to simple recipes of the Thanksgiving classics.  (Now is perhaps not the time to make your first soufflé, even if it is pumpkin flavored.)  Ask your guests if they have any particular favorites so you know where to focus your efforts.  And if it’s appropriate, don’t hesitate to ask them to help you out by bringing a side or dessert.

This year, I plan to make a cranberry walnut salad, turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, cornbread stuffing, sweet potatoes, and my mother’s famous apple pie.  I’ll also serve cranberry sauce out of the can — I mix cans of jellied and whole cranberry Ocean Spray sauces for a more balanced sauce — and a small ham from the Honeybaked Ham store.  (Don’t judge me.  And don’t ask me how to make ham.)

Gather the essentials.  Take inventory of your cabinets and make sure you have enough flatware, water glasses, wine glasses, silverware, and napkins for the number of people you’ll be hosting.  Remember to take every course into account; you won’t want to spend the time between dinner and dessert washing plates or forks because you’ve run out.  (Like me. Have I mentioned we have a tiny apartment?)

table setting

And now that you’ve planned your menu, you can determine exactly what cooking essentials you’ll need.  Make sure you have pots, pie dishes, and baking pans to cook and serve all your dishes.  We love our turkey roaster, but anything sturdy, preferably nonstick, and big enough for your bird will do.  And don’t forget the accessories, like a meat thermometer, baster, measuring cups, serving spoons, etc.  Think through the steps of every single dish, write down what tools you’ll need, and stock up on whatever you’re missing.

Order your turkey.  Rather than dealing with thawing out 20 lbs of frozen bird, I much prefer pre-ordering a fresh turkey to be picked up a day or two before Thanksgiving.  We’ve used Whole Foods kosher or pre-brined turkeys for three years running, and they are consistently delicious.  We just schedule a pick-up so we can get it on our way home from work on Tuesday.  Easy as pumpkin pie.

You’ll want to buy around 1.5 lbs worth of turkey per person, if you want some leftovers.  I always round up to about 2 lbs each, because there is literally nothing better than leftover cranberry turkey sandwiches.  (OK, now I’m excited for Thanksgiving.)

p.s. — Butterball has some great calculators for turkey buying, thawing, and cooking!

One-two weeks out:

Make a game plan.  Confession: I have multiple Excel spreadsheets dedicated to this dang holiday.  One includes a list of all the foods I plan to serve, and all the ingredients that go into those foods.  That gets turned into a master shopping list.  I also make a calendar of the days leading up to Thanksgiving, and write out what activities I’ll accomplish on each day (which is pretty much the list you’re reading now).  You definitely cannot cook Thanksgiving in one day, so mapping it all out will help you from pulling out all your pretty hair.

Go shopping.  I start to stock up on non-perishables, like canned pumpkin, cranberry sauce, flour, sugar, oil, wine, etc. in the couple of weeks leading up to the big day, just to save myself from having to do one enormous trip at the end.  I’ll usually do my last big shop, including all perishables, the Monday before Thanksgiving.  Grocery stores are still fully stocked, and there won’t be as big of a rush on Monday as there will on Sunday or Wednesday.  (And don’t forget to pick up your turkey!)

Thanksgiving Sunday

Deep clean your house.  Pick up your dang Honeybaked Ham.

Thanksgiving Monday

Go on your last big grocery trip.

Thanksgiving Tuesday

Pick up your fresh turkey, and some fresh flowers while you’re at it.  Make your pie dough and refrigerate overnight.  If you’re making cornbread stuffing, bake your cornbread, cut it into 1 inch cubes, and let them sit on your counter overnight underneath a dry dish pie

Thanksgiving Wednesday

Bake your pies — they will stay perfectly fresh in your fridge overnight, and you will be so glad you made them in advance.  Make your gravy base, if you’re doing gravy from scratch.  Feel free to prepare anything else that will keep overnight, like your cranberry sauce or stuffing.  Clean any last small items, like dusty wine glasses or candle sticks, and set your Thanksgiving table.

Thanksgiving Day

Today’s the big day!  Basically, wake up early and never stop cooking until your guests arrive (and even then, probably keep cooking for a while). Don’t forget to take regular breaks to stretch, breathe deeply, and gulp wine.  At some point, also shower.  You’ve got this!!

Thanksgiving Turkey
hair clip optional, but encouraged.

Do you have any Thanksgiving must-do’s I’m forgetting?  Let me know in the comments below!  Wishing you and yours a beautiful Turkey Day full of gratitude, joy, and love.  (And wine.  So much wine.)

Happy Thanksgiving!


4 thoughts on “how to host thanksgiving (and not die)

  1. All I could think of after reading the first paragraph was the Friends episode where Monica does Thanksgiving and everyone has all of these requirements to make it like the Thanksgiving that they had at home. HA! So funny!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. MUST SEE PICTURE of the deep frying turkey on front steps! Too funny!! We had our first Friendsgiving this year and it was an absolute blast – SO much planning but so worth it! Another thing on my list is to always make a “honey do list.” Luckily I have a very helpful husband but I tend to get snippy when I’m focused on my cooking/baking so I make a list for him in advance so he can stay busy – top thing on the list (well, these days it’s take care of the child and keep her out of the kitchen) is keep my wine glass filled.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have to see if I can find an old photo! It was quite a few years ago now … some of the most nerve-wracking 45 minutes of my life!

      I love the “honey do list” — especially the wine duty! My hubs is so helpful, too, especially with the cleaning and the entertaining/(wrangling) of guests while I am still covered in flour and turkey grease 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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