How to Host Thanksgiving Dinner Without Losing Your Mind

Close up of white wine glasses clinking over set Thanksgiving table

No more tears! Easy, elegant entertaining is just one, beautifully organized list away.

By Erin Henderson

Trust me when I say, misery does not love company.

Hosting a group of your nearest and dearest, as well as family, for a special occasion dinner is stressful enough: don’t burn the turkey, don’t undercook the turkey, make sure to thaw the turkey. There is no reason anyone of sound mind and body should add extra tension to an already taxing day.

The good news is, you’ve got some time to really pull off this holiday dinner party with panache. Seriously. All it takes is a little organization, a bit of timing, and a never-to-deviate from list. The key is to get as much off your plate as soon as possible, so you have only the smallest number of tasks to complete on Thanksgiving Day.

So, pour yourself a nice glass of wine, settle in, and let’s get started.

(PS – if you're finding this article with only days to spare before your Big Dinner, we got you. Bookmark this for next year so you don't make the same mistake twice, but in the meantime, check out our super-fast, to-the-rescue, 7 Day Party Planner.)

Up to 3 Months Out

This is the time to begin the actual party planning: inviting guests, creating the menu, picking up non-perishable items that are quick sell out the closer you get to the big day.

1. Invite your guests. You may have the same family members year in and year out, but don’t take that for granted. Maybe your niece has decided to backpack the Himalayas over Thanksgiving. Perhaps your cousin has started dating a vegan. Get your invites out early, a simple text will suffice, so people know when and where to show up, and you know who is coming and with what needs.

2. Plan (and practice) your menu. Thanksgiving Day is not the time to be trying out a new gravy recipe. If you are going to deviate from your tried-and-true classic menu, or if this is your first time hosting, practice the recipes you intend to serve at least twice. Trust me, you might have beginners’ luck with a dish the first time so making it more than once irons out any potential kinks before serving it to your guests. Write out your menu in detail, including ingredients, and the vessels you plan to serve them in or on. You will see why soon.

1 to 2 Months Out

1. Take inventory. Now is the time to go through your cupboards to see what you have and what may need replacing. Do you have enough wine glasses? Did you forget you broke your gravy boat last year? Just before serving dinner is not the time to find that out. This will also give you enough time to buy what you need before the store runs out of in-demand items.

2. Buy the non-perishables now. Every year, on the day before Thanksgiving (or any holiday for that matter), I see a long line stressed-out, frantic people waiting outside the wine store. And yes, every year I feel slightly smug about it, because every year I put out articles like this. But my exasperation is a story for another day. While you have the luxury of time – and choice – on your side, pick up the items you know you’re going to need, that will easily last until the holiday: wine, spirits, toilette paper, candles, napkins, canned cranberry sauce, frozen pastry, salt, dried sage… buy them now before they’re gone, and store until you need them – you will be so thankful you did.

1-2 Weeks Out

Now we start to get a little more serious, but we’re still cool as cucumbers because we’ve got a plan.

1. Wash and polish. The wine glasses, serving platters, and good silver that’s all been sitting in the cupboard collecting dust since last Thanksgiving? Set aside a Saturday morning to give them a little spit-shine (not literally, because, ewww.) When they're nice and gleaming, store them with a tea towel over top to avoid getting dust back on them.

2. Check your menu. Do not go rogue! The shiny magazines lining the grocery check out will try and tempt you, but you must stay strong. You wrote out a menu in careful detail a few months ago, and even took a few recipes for a test run, so stick to the plan. Get your freshly-polished serving vessels and put sticky notes on what will be used for which item. Now you know if you’ve double booked Grandma’s antique casserole dish for both the green beans and the mashed potatoes.

3. Laundry. Wash and iron the tablecloth, linens, bedsheets, and towels for the guest room. Hang or fold these carefully until ready to use.

4. Grocery shop. This is the first round. Get the stuff that can last a few weeks in the pantry such as squash, pumpkin, potatoes, onions, breadcrumbs etc.

5. Cook and bake. This is also the first round. Make anything that can be frozen ahead of time: pies and cookies, soups, casseroles...  whatever will be just as good baked from frozen or thawed. Make it now and get it off your to-do list.

6. Thaw the turkey! Experts recommend thawing a turkey in the fridge. This is the safest method, but also the longest. Estimate one day for every four pounds of bird. Meaning, if you have a 20lb turkey, it will take five days to thaw. 

1-2 Days Out

Ok troops, it’s crunch time. (Aren’t you tickled you started this weeks ago?!)

1. Prep and assemble everything you can. This includes cutting up vegetables for salads and sides, making the stuffing, blending the salad dressing, whipping up the dips. Refer to your trusty, detailed menu.

2. Set the table. An already-set table is so impressive when guests arrive. And it’s yet another thing done so you have more time to enjoy your party.

3. Clear out the hallway closet. Better your coats piled on the bed than your guests'.

4. Set up the bar. This includes batching any premade cocktails.

6. Clean the guest bathrooms. And put painter's tape across the door frame so no one can use them until the party starts.

7. Final run to the grocery store. This is for those highly perishable items that couldn’t be picked up until now. Don’t forget extra ice, butter, sour cream, and milk.

1 -2 Hours Out

As my favourite quote from Elizabeth Taylor goes, “Pour yourself a drink, put on some lipstick, and pull yourself together.”  Time your day backwards so you are ready and waiting, preferably with a cocktail in hand, to greet your guests when they arrive.

1. Put the turkey in the oven.

2. Assemble all the sides. That way, you just have to pop them in the oven, or place on the buffet when the time comes.

3. Fill ice buckets. Chill the wine, and have an extra bucket with ice and tongs for cocktail making. 

4. Music. Hit it maestro!

5. Light the candles

6. Relax. It's your party. When the host is having fun, so are the guests. 

Hear From Real People!

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