My family is a Thanksgiving family. It’s our major family holiday, a big, chaotic all-day event with an insane amount of food and tons of people. For most people, though, the celebration is a bit smaller. And regardless of whether it’s four people or twelve, it can feel a bit daunting to host your first Thanksgiving.
So I wanted to share some tips for hosting your first Thanksgiving dinner, to help things feel simpler and more manageable!
Why did I want to write this post?? I mean, there are like a million “how to host Thanksgiving” articles out there, and my goal isn’t to rehash those.
Instead, I’ll share a different perspective than all the “Insta-perfect” Thanksgiving guides, focused on finding the balance between hosting a lovely party and being a ball of stress. It’s a “work smarter, not harder” approach. And I’ll note, I’m talking about Thanksgiving but these tips work for any holiday dinner hosting.
I’ll also share some recipe ideas that fit a first-time host’s needs well.
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#1 – I get by with a little help from my friends…
First off—and I know some of you will disagree—you shouldn’t feel like you have to do everything yourself. People LIKE to bring things and help out, and it can help create a very welcoming, convivial vibe.
So whether it’s asking people to bring specific dishes or elements of the meal (drinks, flowers, mashed potatoes) or putting them to work with something uncomplicated (like filling water glasses or stirring the gravy) when they arrive, delegate! You don’t even have to think about it as “asking for help”, but rather helpful roles or tasks.
If you want to have more of a formal affair and do everything yourself, that’s totally fine as well, but I just wanted to state this at the outset! It’s most definitely not a hosting etiquette faux pas.
#2 – Recipe selection & staggered prep are the keys to victory!
With that said, hosting a successful Thanksgiving is all about thoughtful preparation!
My first tip for anyone hosting Thanksgiving dinner is to be smart in your recipe selection—don’t make every single thing the most complicated, time-consuming dish possible. And, don’t choose recipes that are all new to you (and thus, untested).
Think about the mix of dishes, and then pick some recipes that are easy and/or can be made ahead of time, then pick one or two “showstoppers”. For me, I like to spend more time on desserts, and my sides are usually pretty simple as a result.
Similarly, you HAVE to consider oven and stove use. Most people only have one stove and one oven. In particular, the oven timings and temperatures will be a big limiting factor on what you can achieve.
You’ll need a game plan for what needs to be made when, at what temperature, how long it will bake, if multiple items can bake together (e.g. pies are usually at 350 F; bread is usually more like 400 F or above).
And then figure out what can be either entirely prepped ahead, or (ideally) made ahead of time. For instance:
- Most of my pies are actually better when they set overnight, so I make them the day before.
- I also chop all my brussels sprouts and butternut squash the day before.
- You can definitely make whipped cream ahead of time.
- Bread, on the other hand, I prefer to make fresh, along with side dishes (yes, you could reheat, but I don’t prefer the texture).
So what kinds of recipes should you consider? Here are some thought starters…
We don’t usually do appetizers in my family since we do a noon-ish Thanksgiving dinner, but if you’re going that route then go simple so you can focus on the rest of the meal. A whipped goat cheese or feta with jam/compote and crackers is a good option. Or phyllo cups with brie and jam (literally 10 minutes!). OR this is a great place to do a Trader Joe’s or Costco frozen appetizer.
A big turkey breast is the way to go! It is so much easier than trying to cook an entire turkey, and a lot less mess as well. Plus, you can do it in a crockpot so that frees up the oven.
For sides, think about what you really LIKE. I enjoy a mac & cheese (thought my family doesn’t), and I’m not a fan of most of the traditional Thanksgiving casseroles. I always do a roasted brussels sprout and butternut squash dish that’s a crowdpleaser. What’s great for a smaller group is actually a delicious salad (like this)…something a bit elevated but still easy to make. I’m also a plebian who loves Stovetop stuffing, so I’m not much help on the dressing front.
Then there’s bread. Thanksgiving isn’t really about the bread, so I recommend something simple and delicious. Some of the simplest, most hands-off options are drop biscuits and cornbread. Rolls are more trouble (due to the individual shaping), but still not difficult, just require a bit more time and hands-on work (these salted honey ones are amazing!).
Finally, my favorite part—dessert! I won’t lie, pies are a bit trickier, but I always think it’s worth it, and I love an easy one-bowl cake. Personally I think about balance between the Thanksgiving desserts I offer…like a super sweet (e.g. my maple bourbon pecan pie), a fruit-based dessert, a chocolate. I’m not the world’s biggest pumpkin pie fan, so I don’t go out of my way to make it…but it IS tradition!
#3 – Go simple and quality when it comes to drinks
Obviously you’re going to want to have water and non-alcoholic drinks (I’m a big fan of unsweet iced tea), but if you’re having alcohol and more than 4 people, I’d go really simple. It helps if you know the preferences of your guests, but if not then have a couple things to cover your bases.
Focus on good-but-not-fancy wine…champagne or a dry red sparkling are always great choices. For reds, a pinot noir or cabernet franc are nice, nothing super overpowering. For whites, sauvignon blanc is usually inoffensive, though I prefer an albarino or riesling with this type of food.
And don’t forget the option of batch cocktails (batch whiskey sours and a fall sangria are two great options)! If you want to go a bit more high-effort (or only have a couple people), consider the spiced peach bourbon cocktail, a “Poinsettia Punch” (with gin), a cranberry cinnamon whiskey sour, or a classic gin gimlet.
#4 – Don’t stress!
My biggest tip for hosting your first Thanksgiving—or any event like that—is to just not get too stressed out. I know that sounds like “well duh, if I could control that, I would”.
But your guests can tell when their host is stressed and it puts a damper on the gathering. They WON’T notice if the place settings aren’t perfect, there’s a little dust on the mantle, or the mashed potatoes have a few lumps in them. TRUST ME.
One note on decorations, which I haven’t touched on at all. I’ll be honest…this is not my area of expertise, and where I will always tell you to skimp (on time and cost). Again, go simple. A few small cute gourds and pinecones, a table runner, ask guests to bring some flowers, maybe a couple small candles.
Basically, you want to be able to see each other and talk across the table, so don’t do anything too big. Plus, you may want to have the serving dishes on the table as well.
A last tip…I think Thanksgiving is for nicer dishes and glasses (if you already own them…don’t go crazy buying new things). However, you should consider getting those nice pretty plastic dessert plates for dessert, so you can just throw them away for easier cleanup.
Hopefully these tips for hosting Thanksgiving were a helpful addition to the many “perfect host” guides out there. The most important thing is loved ones coming together and eating delicious food—everything else will take care of itself!
Here are some other helpful guides
- The Cocktail Tools Every At-Home Mixologist Needs
- The Tools & Gadgets I’m Obsessed With: What Every Kitchen Needs
- What Bread Should You Make (Based On How Long You Have)?
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