How to Host Thanksgiving

I’m sharing my best tips from 20 years of experience so you can host Thanksgiving with ease. Whether you’re a first time host or you just need to stay on track, this guide is everything you need to know to plan the day. It’s got my best advice, expert tips, timeline, decoration ideas and more for a stress-free family gathering.

Thanksgiving table set up outside with female setting centerpiece of mini pumpkins.

Tips for Hosting Thanksgiving

When it comes to hosting a major holiday it can feel overwhelming, especially if it’s your first time. I’ve been hosting Thanksgiving for over two decades and I’ve learned some simple steps and helpful tricks along the way.

The key is to plan ahead! And if you’re planning on hosting Friendsgiving, you can apply these tips to that too.

Minimize the stress of hosting by covering all the bases in advance. Follow my tips, make lists, and take things one step at a time.

Plan in Advance 

The more you can do ahead, the more you can relax on Thanksgiving day. Everyone has a full schedule these days so you want to ensure you can pin down who’s coming. 

You also need ample time to plan the menu and seating arrangements around who will be attending. 

Thanksgiving table with food and place setting with min pumpkin filled with rice dressing.

What Time is Thanksgiving Dinner?

When selecting a time, it’s important to be realistic. You want to ensure that you have enough time to prepare, cook and get ready for your guests. 

Many people eat Thanksgiving dinner between 5-7pm. Taking that into consideration, you will want to plan your day accordingly. The trick is to pick your time and then work backwards to determine what time to put the turkey in, prepare the sides, etc.

When I was growing up, our large family meal was a late lunch, around 1pm. That can work well if some family members have to go to their in-laws for dinner. It’s a balancing act!

EXPERT TIP: Decide on the time you want to eat and work backward to create a timeline of things to do, including cleaning chores, food prep, baking ahead, cooking the turkey (and resting it), etc.

Get a Head Count

A couple of weeks out, finalize your guest list and create a central mode of communication for people attending. It can be an email, a group text, or online portal.

Be specific with the time, location, and expectations for the day. If drinks and appetizers start at 11am and the big meal is at 1pm, let guests know.

Thanksgiving buffet table with sign and yellow vase of cotton bolls.

Make it Potluck

The idea of hosting a large Thanksgiving meal without help is inconceivable to me. Just because you’re HOSTING doesn’t mean you have to do all the cooking for a gathering of 25 people. Not to mention that can get expensive!

Get lots of Thanksgiving potluck ideas and follow these tips.

  • Let everyone pitch in their favorite holiday recipe. My mother-in-law always makes oyster dressing, while my cousin makes mashed potatoes. Those are traditional recipes you can check off your to-do list! 
  • You can also assign a specific recipe for them to follow. If the classic green bean casserole is on the menu, anyone can bring that.
  • This is a good time to talk about dietary restrictions too. If anyone needs to contribute specialty dishes they can do so.
  • Always have something that non-cooks can bring. It can be wine, a bakery dessert, a simple appetizer, or an extra bag of ice.
dining table set with Thanksgiving dinner with turkey centerpiece.

Plan the Menu

Once you know how many people to expect it‘s time to plan the menu. Break it down into sections for appetizers, drinks, mains, sides and dessert

List everything that can be made in advance. Use a calendar to stay on track!

Once you have a meal plan, gather the recipes you’ll be making and break it down even further to create a grocery list.  

Divide your shopping list into sections. It will help you navigate the grocery store more efficiently. Here are the sections I use.

  • Produce
  • Pantry
  • Spices
  • Meat
  • Frozen
  • Refrigerator

Take Inventory

Two or three weeks before Thanksgiving take inventory of what you have and what you need to get. This includes equipment as well as pantry staples and spices.

Equipment You’ll Need

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Make sure you have all the equipment you need for roasting a turkey, cooking sides, baking pies, etc. Locate all necessary pots, pans, dishes, and serving platters. Make sure they’re clean and ready to use. 

EXPERT TIP: Take inventory of your pantry to see what you already have, like spices and seasonings, broth, canned pumpkin, etc. 

Clean out the Fridge 

At least a week ahead you’ll need to clean out the refrigerator and freezer so you have plenty of space for holiday dishes, especially the turkey! 

Make sure you have shelf space to set the turkey on for several days as it thaws. It will need to defrost for a few days and then dry brine for 24 hours.

table full of dishes, glasses, flowers, wine and napkins for entertaining.

Thanksgiving Decorations

Decorating and setting the Thanksgiving table is one of my favorite things. It sets the tone for the whole feast and makes everything look incredibly festive. 

Start pulling together linens, dish sets, glassware, utensils, flower vases, candles, and place cards.

Thanksgiving table setting with brown tablecloth and white dishes, fall flower centerpiece.

Create a Tablescape

The sky’s the limit when it comes to your table décor. Whether you’re looking for a neutral Thanksgiving tablescape, or more traditional Thanksgiving table décor, there is something for everyone. 

If you’ll be having children at your dinner, consider setting up a colorful Thanksgiving kids table that will have the children excited to sit and enjoy their space. 

Centerpiece

Add a simple but festive fall centerpiece to the tablescape. It can be flowers, pumpkins, candles, or any combination of those.

Create DIY place cards for each place setting. Not only do they elevate the table for the occasion, they allow you to be strategic about who’s next to each other.

EXPERT TIP: Set the table up to a week ahead so you’re not stressed at the last minute. 

traditional food for Thanksgiving set out on dining table.

Serve Traditional Food 

A traditional menu is always a huge hit and includes family favorites. Here are some recipes we make year after year.

apple appetizers with cheese wrapped with deli turkey slices.
beautiful cheese and charcuterie board surrounded by champagne bottles and glasses.

Keep Appetizers Simple

If you’re planning on serving appetizers, it’s best that you keep it simple. After all, the star of the day will be the meal itself. 

thanksgiving sangria with apples and lemons floating on top, in punch bowl.

Serve Batch Drinks

Make large batch cocktails or family-friendly punch to welcome guests. This way they can help themselves while you do your hosting duties.

  • A delicious fall apple sangria is a good choice, or a spiced rum sangria.
  • You can also keep a batch of hot cider or mulled wine in the slow cooker along with a bottle of bourbon or rum to spike it if they want. 
  • If you’re having wine with dinner, serve Pinot Noir, Rosé, or a full-bodied Chardonnay to go with the turkey.
  • Don’t forget a pitcher of water or iced tea.

There are several delicious Thanksgiving cocktails that will set the tone for your gathering. Make sure you plan the drink menu just as you did the food, making sure you have all your ingredients and tools.

EXPERT TIP: Put your energy toward the things you love to do. If you love to bake, assign someone else a side dish to bring. If you love setting the table, don’t waste your time making homemade rolls.

dining table filled with Thanksgiving side dishes.

Choose Your Side Dishes

You may choose your sides based on tradition, but here are some other things to keep in mind when planning your Thanksgiving menu.

Things to Consider

  • Cooking time. Unless you have a double oven you can’t cook 4 casseroles at once. Make sure you account for cooking time and heating instructions.
  • Make-ahead. Get a head start the week ahead and make some recipes ahead. Things like cranberry relish, pies, even mashed potatoes can be made ahead. 
  • Oven space. Making a side dish on the stovetop, in an air fryer, or a slow cooker can free up valuable oven space.
  • Cold dishes. Cold or room temperature dishes are a godsend since you don’t need to use any equipment to warm them. In my family we are known for having classic potato salad or creamy pasta salad on the table.
  • Vegetarian options. With more and more people eating plant-based food it’s important to have options for vegetarians. My easy wild rice dressing is perfect for this. 
  • Picky Eaters. Do you have simple options for kids and picky eaters? Many folks don’t like “mixed” foods, aka casseroles. Have some options for them or encourage them to bring their favorite item.
  • Something Fresh. The Thanksgiving meal is known for its rich and hearty foods. I like to incorporate something fresh and light to help balance that. Green salads or marinated green beans are great for that.
  • Vary colors and textures. A well rounded menu should contain a variety of colors and textures. Include creamy casseroles and crunchy vegetables.
  • Balance flavors. Thanksgiving is full of recipes that pair savory ingredients with sweeter ones. Think wild rice with fruit and nuts, as well as dishes like macaroni and cheese served alongside sweet potato casserole. What you don’t want is to have the same flavor or ingredients showing up in multiple dishes.

EXPERT TIP: Use a large cooler like a heating drawer to keep cooked dishes warm.

thanksgiving dressing topped with pomegranate arils and sage, in white bowl.

Use Shortcuts

There are some time-saving shortcuts you can take, even for holiday meals! They can include a completed dish, or certain ingredients. Here are my favorite items to use or to supplement your menu with.

Favorite Shortcuts

  • Frozen or refrigerated pie pastry dough or crust.
  • Canned whole cranberry sauce. You can dress it up with a splash of Grand Marnier and fresh orange zest.
  • Frozen dinner rolls are my go-to bread option. The Sister Schubert’s Parker House yeast rolls are chef’s kiss perfection!
  • Stove Top stuffing is the perfect ingredient to use as a base. You can dress it up with sautéed onions, celery, broth, dried fruit, or chopped nuts.
  • Chicken broth or bone broth will help you glide your way through Thanksgiving cooking.
  • Pies from the bakery are usually delicious and you can dress them up with homemade whipped cream.
  • Gravy. I know purists will nay say this, but it CAN help you through. Use a mix or a jarred variety.
  • Bagged salad greens get you started for any kind of fall salad from kale and butternut squash salad to beet & goat cheese salad.
  • Bob Evans refrigerated real mashed potatoes are my secret weapon. Don’t judge; I challenge you to serve them in your own bowl or from the slow cooker and see if anyone can tell the difference.
white table set up with Thanksgiving pies, Thankful for Dessert sign on wall.

Set Up a Dessert Table

While this easy pumpkin pie is the recipe I make every year, there are other non-traditional dessert options too.

PARTY TIP: Supplement your menu with a delicious dessert from the bakery or other prepared items.

card table with tablecloth, set up for Thanksgiving.

Plan For the Extra Guests

The holidays are the time when space is at a premium. You may be able to comfortably seat 8 at your dining room table, but what do you do when your guest list is 20?

Up to two weeks out start working on the logistics of the day. Do you need to set up folding tables? Do you need to rent extra chairs? Do you need to clear out another room to set up a card table?

And don’t forget you’ll need tablecloths to cover those extra tables, as well as place settings.

Start Cooking Ahead of Time 

Anything that can be prepped or made a few days ahead, should be. Preparing your sides and desserts in advance is a great way to minimize the stress once the big day arrives. 

Vegetables and casseroles can be made in advance, refrigerated and reheated. If something can’t be cooked ahead of time, consider what parts of it you can prepare.

Anything that can be washed, measured, chopped, and assembled, can be done a few days in advance.

Prep the turkey fully the night before, so it’s ready to pop into the oven on Thanksgiving morning (if you’re eating lunch) or dinner.

Schedule Your Day 

Write a timeline for every task that must be performed on Thanksgiving day.

Take note of how long your turkey will take to cook and make sure you have it in the oven on time.

Don’t forget to make time to get your self ready. Whether you have to shower, or simply change into something more festive, you want to avoid greeting your guests in your sweats!

EXPERT TIP: Start thawing your turkey on Saturday or Sunday depending on the size. It takes about a day for every 5 pounds, so it will take about 3 days for a 14 pound turkey to thaw. And if you want to dry brine the bird it will take another day for that. 

white table set up with leftovers containers and boxes, for Thanksgiving.

Plan for Leftovers

Everyone loves those Thanksgiving leftovers! Stock up on disposable containers that guests can load up and take home with them. Set them aside until they’re needed and then let guests help themselves.

Be a Good Guest

If you are the guest for Thanksgiving, here are a couple of “rules” to keep in mind. First, don’t show up early!

As a hostess I can’t tell you how anxiety-producing it is to have a guest show up 15 minutes early. Those last 15 minutes are already the most stressful so you don’t want to have to entertain anyone before you’re ready.

Never show up empty-handed, but be thoughtful about what you bring.

  • Bring wine or an appetizer, a dessert or a side dish. 
  • Bring something that doesn’t require oven or refrigerator space.
  • Bring a cooler with lots of ice.
  • Bring something in a slow cooker if needed.

And finally, don’t show up with unexpected guests without letting the host know beforehand. It may be true that “the more the merrier,” BUT if seating and logistics have been meticulously planned out, adjustments will be necessary. Just send a quick text or call.

Ditch Perfection

Maybe the most important thing to remember about hosting Thanksgiving is to give up the notion of perfection.

You don’t have to make everything from scratch, and you don’t have to make all the food by yourself, and you don’t have to include every single recipe from your childhood.

Remember, it’s all about giving gratitude and being with the ones you love.

red licorice pieces in glass vase with sign that reads, how many turkey waddles.
Thanksgiving word search on burlap.

Have Some Thanksgiving Day Activities

If you’re looking for fun things to do with family, here’s a good list Thanksgiving party ideas.

  • Participate in a Turkey Trot.
  • Go for a walk in the neighborhood.
  • Go for a bike ride.
  • Play backyard touch football.
  • Play board games.
  • Put a puzzle together.
  • Watch football games on tv.
  • Put up your Christmas tree.
  • Do a Thanksgiving word search.
  • Provide tiny pumpkins and markers for kids to draw faces on them.
  • Play the “guess how many” game with a jar filled with Harvest Candy Corn or red licorice pieces.
  • Play the “A to Z Gratitude” game. Each person takes a turn saying what they are thankful for, but it has to start with the letter of the alphabet that comes next. Start with A, then B, etc.
  • Look at old family photos. This is a really good activity if you’re gathering with lots of aunts and uncles and cousins from multiple generations. It’s great for story telling too!
  • Pick names for a Christmas gift exchange.
copper chafing dishes on white side board.

How Much Food?

When cooking for a crowd do you double a recipe or simply make more options? Personally I like to have more options, however there are the tried and true recipes you simple MUST include.

Here’s how much you need to have in order to get about 1/2 cup per serving. In the case of cranberry sauce it would be more like 1/4 cup each.

Food8 Guests16 Guests24 Guests
Turkey12 pounds24 pounds2 large turkeys
Dressing4 cups8 cups12 cups
Potatoes6 pounds8 pounds10 pounds
Cranberry Sauce2 cups4 cups6 cups
Green Bean CasseroleDouble batchTriple recipe4x batch
Rolls16 rolls32 rolls48 rolls
Pies (9-inch)2 pies4 pies6 pies

Thanksgiving Timeline

Follow this schedule so you can stay on track with planning. 

2-3 Weeks Out

  • Buy a frozen turkey. Estimate 1.5 pounds per person. For an heirloom or special farm turkey, place your order now.
  • Plan your menu. Coordinate with guests on what they will bring. Have a good mix of dishes that are served hot, cold, or at room temperature.
  • Equipment inventory. Make sure you have all the equipment you need.
  • Pantry inventory. Now is a good time to check your spices and other staples.
  • Shop for non-perishables. Get pantry staples and anything that will keep, like flour, sugar, butter, chicken broth, canned pumpkin, etc.
  • Stock the bar. Take inventory of the liquor cabinet and get what you need to make large batch punch or specialty drinks.
  • Stock up on storage containers. Make sure you have take-away boxes for guests, plastic wrap and aluminum foil.
  • Make pie dough. If you’re making dough from scratch, make it now and freeze. Pat each crust into a 4-inch disk, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and then foil, and freeze. Let the dough defrost overnight in the refrigerator before assembling and baking the pies.
  • Bake and freeze pies. Many pies like apple, pumpkin or pecan can be made ahead and frozen.
  • Prepare and freeze gravy. You can make most gravy recipes ahead of time. When you’re ready to use it, place the gravy in a saucepan with a little water if needed, and heat over low.
  • Make and freeze dinner rolls. On Thanksgiving, simply reheat then in the oven for 10 minutes.

Weekend Before Thanksgiving

  • Clean out the fridge. Make space in your refrigerator and freezer so you have plenty of space for Thanksgiving food.
  • Defrost turkey. For a 15-pound turkey put it in the fridge on Sunday so it can thaw by Wednesday, and then you can dry brine it for 24 hours.
  • Shop for perishables. Complete your shopping and buy vegetables that store well: onions, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, root vegetables, winter squash.
  • Prep food items. Wash and store your produce so it’s ready to use when you’re ready to start cooking. Chop onions and celery for dressing. Shred cheese for mac-n-cheese and store in a zip top baggie in the fridge.
  • Make cornbread. If you’re using cornbread as a base for a stuffing or dressing recipe, bake it now, crumble, and store in a ziplock bag in the refrigerator.
  • Make cranberry sauce. It can be covered and refrigerated for up to 5 days ahead.
  • Get extra ice. If you have the freezer space, grab an extra bag for Thanksgiving or start making extra ice.
  • Purchase beverages. Get drinks that don’t require refrigeration until after they’re open, or made.  
  • Get flowers. If you get them now they have time to open by Thursday. Keep them in water in a cool place until ready to make a centerpiece.

EXPERT TIP: Did you realize it can take several days to defrost a turkey? Plan on one day for every 5 pounds of turkey.

Have it fully thawed the day before roasting so you can dry brine it for 24 hours, and it’s ready to cook on Thanksgiving. 

2 to 3 Days until Thanksgiving

  • Side dishes. Start preparing make-ahead dishes, or ingredients for dishes.
  • Condiments & Sauce. Make any creamy dips, salad dressings or cranberry sauce.
  • Pies. If you didn’t freeze your pie dough, make it now. Make pies and refrigerate or store as required.
  • Fresh Vegetables. Finish shopping for fresh veggies and prep them if needed.
  • Make soup. If you’re serving pumpkin curry soup or butternut squash soup, make it now and refrigerate. Reheat in the slow cooker, on the stove top, or in the microwave before serving.
  • Set the table. Create a tablescape and add flowers and place cards.
  • Label serving dishes. Put a sticky note on each platter, bowl, or casserole dish you’ll be using and label what goes on it.

The Day Before

  • Dry Brine the turkey. If you have room in your refrigerator, dry brine the turkey 24 hours before it’s ready to cook. Roasting an air-dried turkey is the key to crisp skin.
  • Dressing. Assemble oven-baked stuffing or dressing in a casserole dish, and refrigerate until it’s ready to be baked.
  • Potatoes. Peel potatoes and store them covered in cold water, in the refrigerator. Or make mashed potatoes ahead and refrigerate. Reheat them in the slow cooker or microwave.
  • Macaroni and Cheese. Assemble creamy macaroni and cheese and refrigerate so it’s ready to bake tomorrow.
  • Make Marinated Green Bean salad.

Thanksgiving Day

  • Take the turkey out of the fridge for about an hour so it can come down in temperature before roasting. 
  • While the turkey cooks, prepare side dishes, appetizers or drinks.
  • Prepare beverages. Follow my tips for serving wine for entertaining. Chill white wine and set up a drink station that’s easy to self-serve. Make party punch to serve a crowd.
  • Empty the dishwasher. Make sure it’s empty and ready to load. 
  • Bake the pies early in the day if you haven’t already. Or, you can cook them while you’re eating dinner. If you do that, remember to allow for cooling time after they’re done baking. You can warm pre-baked pies during dinner too. 
  • Prepare an easy appetizer or cheese board.
  • Once the turkey is out, you can make the gravy using the drippings. 
  • Heat casseroles or sides in the oven while the turkey rests. Make sure you’ve pulled any pre-prepped dishes from the fridge for 30 to 40 minutes so they can come to room temperature before going into a hot oven. The shock of going from a cold fridge to a hot oven can break baking dishes
  • Carve the turkey and enjoy the meal with good company.

A little advanced planning will make hosting Thanksgiving so much easier. Make lists, schedules, and don’t try to do everything yourself. Relax and enjoy!

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