Tips for Hosting Your First Thanksgiving Dinner

By: Katie Morton

Young happy woman preparing salad for Thanksgiving meal at home.

Photo by: iStock


Hosting a dinner party can be stressful in its own right, but hosting an event the size of a Thanksgiving dinner takes the concept of stress and magnifies it tenfold. Between the expectations to manage, traditions to uphold, and friends and family to delight and entertain, the pressure you put on yourself may feel more intense than your Instant Pot in the moments before you activate the quick release.

Though you may be feeling intimidated by the tall order that is a Thanksgiving dinner, we promise it doesn’t have to be painfully stressful. In fact, hosting Thanksgiving is a wonderful opportunity to brush up on your entertaining skills while leaning a bit more on others to help than you would when you host your average dinner party. If you’re still feeling flustered as you contemplate where to start and how to focus your energy, read on for a few tried and true tips that will make the planning and execution as seamless and stress-free as possible.

1. Start planning well in advance

Advance preparation is key. You should have a complete guest list, menu, and shopping list at minimum a week before Thanksgiving. You may want to place an early order for some of your essential grocery items, including the turkey, so that you guarantee you’ve purchased a big enough bird to feed your guests while still leaving plenty left over for delicious hot turkey sandwiches the day after the main event.

Another key element involved in advance preparation? Cleaning. You’ll feel much more relaxed and prepared once your house is sparkling clean and ready for the influx of guests.

2. Consider (but don’t stress over) the ages and dietary restrictions of your guests

In developing your menu, it makes sense (and shows respect) to consider the dietary needs and preferences of your guests. However, this may feel like a mammoth task if there are a variety of different needs to consider. As long as you balance your menu with a range of options, including vegetarian or vegan sides, fresh fruit, and child-friendly dishes (homemade mac and cheese is always a crowd pleaser!), you are likely to cover the majority of your bases. If one of your guests eats an extremely restrictive diet, you may wish to share your menu in advance so that they can plan accordingly.

3. Don’t go overboard on appetizers

It can be tempting to frontload your menu with an array of delicious hor d’oeuvres, but do you really want your guests filling up on apps before you’ve even had a chance to carve up the turkey? You’re better off choosing a couple of simple appetizers, such as a fruit, cheese, and cracker tray or a creamy spinach and artichoke dip, so that your main course maintains the wow factor it so richly deserves.

4. Ask for help

Don’t let your pride get the best of you this Thanksgiving! Instead of overloading yourself by attempting to become your own neurotic version of Emeril Lagasse and Martha Stewart all rolled into one, don’t be afraid to reach out to others for help with cooking or decorating. Most people will be happy to pick up some last-minute ingredients from the store or bring a dish to share with others (though be sure to factor in the time required to reheat dishes when you create your cooking schedule).

5. Think of entertainment options to keep guests occupied

Even if your guests could fill an entire day with chatter, consider setting out a few card games, crayons and paper, or, weather permitting, outdoor sports and activities such as football or jump rope for the kids. At a bare minimum, crank up some mood music or turn on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This will help keep everyone busy (and out of your hair!) as you put the finishing touches on the Thanksgiving spread.

6. Keep it simple!

Hopefully this goes without saying, but too much pressure makes for a stressed and harried host. If you want to enjoy your first time hosting Thanksgiving dinner, be sure to simplify your plans to whatever extent you deem necessary. Rather than trying out a new dish, perhaps you should stick with tried and true classics for the rest of the menu. If you don’t feel like you can manage to make dinner and dessert, pre-order some sweet treats from a local bakery instead of baking your own. There’s no shame in taking a few shortcuts in the kitchen if it helps you maintain a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere in which you have time to interact with your guests, sample lots of great food, and give thanks for everything that truly matters.

Though planning your Thanksgiving celebration might feel overwhelming at times, it can also be a rewarding experience. If you plan ahead, set realistic expectations of yourself and others, and prepare plenty of delicious food, you will have perfected the recipe for a joyful and fulfilling Thanksgiving. What could possibly taste better than that?!

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