Hosting your family’s Thanksgiving dinner can be a stressful event, but it doesn’t have to be. With these stress-reducing tips, you’ll host the best holiday meal ever.
It’s hard to believe that Thanksgiving and Christmas are just around the corner.
It’s a great time to get together with family and friends.
But it can also be really stressful. Especially if you’re the one who has to host Thanksgiving dinner.
You’re usually making food that you don’t cook that often, and serving for a larger crowd than you usually do.
And there’s always the aunt who comments on the one piece of cat hair that has managed to find its way onto the sofa since you cleaned it (an hour ago).
All of which adds to your stress level.
But don’t let that ruin your fun!
Having hosted many holiday dinner parties at home, I have come up with a few tips for hosting Thanksgiving that I use all the time to help keep the event stress-free.
Keep reading to find out my secrets for making this the easiest Thanksgiving meal ever!
Speaking of cats, if you have pets that shed (like I do), keep a pet brush close at hand (the kind with soft bristles).
It’s the easiest way I’ve found to get pet fur off the furniture.
1 | Make food ahead of time
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The best way to be prepared to host Thanksgiving is to do as much as you can before the big day arrives.
Since food plays such a big part in this celebration, creating a menu that includes dishes which can be made ahead of time will make your life easier.
That way you have most of the food prep out of the way before the day of the party.
It also means getting your grocery shopping done early, so you don’t have to deal with the last minute crowds.
Try our holiday meal plan if you need some inspiration.
2 | Create a schedule
Although creating a schedule may seem like overkill, the trick to a successful holiday dinner party is timing and organization.
Getting your turkey, sweet potatoes and green bean casserole to be ready all at the same time is easier said than done!
Start with the time that you want to serve dinner and work backwards to figure out when everything needs to go in the oven.
Make sure to check the oven temperatures of your dishes so that you can create a schedule that will work.
You may also want to add non-cooking tasks to your schedule.
Like when you are going to have your shower.
(That’s experience talking. I have had at least one party where I didn’t end up having one because I didn’t schedule it in, and I ran out of time!)
3 | Plan out your oven space
Holiday meals usually involve cooking a lot of dishes in the oven.
If you don’t have the luxury of double ovens, this can cause a space problem when you are trying to get everything ready at the same time.
Take out all of the pots and pans you are planning to cook things in.
Then try putting them in the oven and figure out how (or if) they are going to fit.
Make sure to check the recipe cooking temperatures.
You won’t be able to have the turkey at 325º F in the oven at the same time with something else that should cook at 400º F.
If necessary, try to find alternatives:
- You can buy a special oven roasting rack* that creates more space for your dishes.
- Or find a crock pot version of your dish (like our Crock Pot Mac & Cheese).
- Hosting a pot-luck dinner is another option so you’re not doing all the cooking yourself.
- You can also get store bought appetizers, sides and desserts so you don’t have to make everything yourself. Not having to make your own pie crust is always a bonus in my books!
4 | Use square and rectangular pans
Along those lines, when you’re trying to fit multiple baking dishes into your oven at once, square and rectangular pans will give you the most cooking space.
Because they fit together well, there aren’t any empty corners in the oven that can’t be used.
Just make sure the pans you want to use will fit side by side in the oven.
5 | Set the table at least a day before
As I have mentioned before, one of the big secrets to reducing stress on Thanksgiving day is to do as much as possible ahead of time.
Which is why setting the table at least a day ahead is a good idea.
In fact, I try to get it done 3 or 4 days in advance.
This gives you lots of time to get everything laid out the way you want it.
And then if you realize your silver needs to be cleaned, you still have time to do it without getting in a panic.
6 | Figure out how you will serve the meal
After your table is set, plan out how you will serve the dinner as well.
- For a family style meal, make sure there is enough room on the table for the serving dishes to be set down and passed around.
- If you are going to serve the plates and then pass them out, have a serving station close to the table so you can ask people what they want as you are dishing it out. Lay out the serving dishes ahead of time so you know where they will go.
- For a buffet, decide where the cutlery, plates, napkins and serving dishes are going to go. And don’t forget the serving spoons and forks! If people will be bringing food with them, leave some space for their dishes to fit in, too. Find more tips on how to set up a buffet.
You may have to move some of your decorations to make the serving dishes fit.
In my cases, my flowers and the decorative pumpkins will have to go elsewhere…3 serving dishes definitely won’t cut it for my Thanksgiving dinner!
And don’t forget to allocate space on the table or buffet for all of the sauces and toppings, like turkey gravy, butter and cranberry sauce.
7 | Have appetizers (and cocktails) available before dinner
Have some make-ahead appetizers and self-serve cocktails available to give your guests something to nibble on in case the turkey isn’t cooked in time (which always seems to happen to me!)
These don’t have to be fancy, but will keep guests who arrive hungry (and thirsty) happy until the meal is ready.
It helps if this is a “self serve” station that is away from where you are preparing the meal (less congestion in the kitchen!).
The perfect time to style a bar cart! Then you can move it wherever you need it to be.
8 | Plan easy tasks for early arrivals
The next tip on my list for hosting a stress-free Thanksgiving dinner is to get your family members involved.
Similar to having appetizers ready, planning some easy tasks for your guests will give them something to do if you’re not quite ready when they arrive. And will help you out at the same time.
The two operative words here are “plan” and “easy”.
Know in advance what you will ask people to help with (write them down if that will help you to remember).
Then make sure these are tasks anyone can do.
Things like filling the water glasses, putting rolls in the bread basket or carrying the salad from the kitchen to the dining room are good candidates.
9 | Empty the dishwasher and trash cans
After you have finished most of the cooking but before your guests arrive, empty the dishwasher and the trash cans.
That way you can keep the kitchen clutter down after your guests arrive by putting dirty dishes straight into the dishwasher.
And there’s lots of room in the garbage can for all those turkey bones.
10 | Keep your decorations simple
If you’re like me, decorating is a bit of an obsession.
I’m often tempted to spend all of my time putting up decorations, and then getting stressed out because I’m late getting the dinner ready.
So I’ve learned to keep my Thanksgiving decorations simple and focus on the food.
Natural elements like pine cones, dried leaves, apples and pumpkins are an easy way to add the feeling of fall without requiring a lot of time and effort.
11 | Use wine decanters
Using decanters helps to aerate the wine, which brings out the flavor, and just looks nicer on the table.
This white wine decanter* has a special glassed-in middle section that you can fill with ice, which will chill the wine really quickly. An extremely handy serving piece if you forgot to put the wine in the refrigerator, or if someone brings a bottle that isn’t chilled.
12 | Play Music
Music sets the whole tone for your meal (and helps to prevent those “awkward silences”).
I like to use Pandora (but other online music stations would work just as well).
Choose a station that suits your crowd.
Then turn it on early in the day and just let it play.
For these types or meals, I usually turn on the Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong channel. On Pandora, there’s a “regular” one and a Christmas version depending on the season. Of course, that’s a personal choice, pick whatever type of music you and your guests will love!
At the end of the day, the real point of a holiday meal is to get together with friends and family. Relax and have fun.
If you are relaxed, your guests will pick up on that vibe also.
People won’t remember that the turkey was an hour late, the peas are burnt, or that your cousin forgot to bring the mashed potatoes. They’ll just remember that they had a good time…and that’s what matters!
Hopefully by following these Thanksgiving tips, you can host a memorable holiday dinner at home and have fun doing it!
Other Thanksgiving ideas you might like
- The best Thanksgiving menu and meal planner
- DIY pumpkin vase centerpiece
- Blush pink Thanksgiving tablescape
- Gold and copper Thanksgiving table setting
- How to roast a turkey
- Old-fashioned turkey stuffing
Or browse all of our Thanksgiving ideas.
Have comments or questions on our Thanksgiving tips for hosting a holiday dinner at home? Tell us in the section below.
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This post was originally published on November 10, 2016 but was updated with new content on October 14, 2023.