Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned about hosting, feeding, and entertaining a small army on Thanksgiving—lessons that even small-scale gatherings can benefit from.
1. DON'T MESS WITH SUCCESS
In a world saturated with Food Network programming, cooking blogs, and Instagram food porn, you might think you need to change up the menu every year and offer something new and inventive to wow your guests. But on Thanksgiving, cozy comfort is the name of the game, and there’s a good chance your guests are looking for a taste of the familiar.
If you know your guests love good old-fashioned sausage stuffing, it’s perfectly okay to stick with what works. Not only will you be keeping them happy, but you’ll be saving yourself the stress of troubleshooting a new dish. If you find an exciting new recipe you’d love to try, of course you can experiment with adding new sides or mains to the lineup—but only if you feel like your spread is lacking something. No matter what, aim for broad crowdpleasers on the Thanksgiving table. Your great uncle probably isn’t the adventurous foodie you wish he were.
2. DO THE BABY MATH
Your cousins and their spouses are all set to attend your Thanksgiving dinner, and half of them are bringing babies along, sometimes multiple children per family. Where does this leave your head count?
Keep in mind, a newborn is different from a cruising 10-month-old, and a 10-month-old is different from a busy toddler. All of these kids will have a different impact on how much seating you’ll need and how much food you plan to serve.
If you’re unsure whether your niece needs a highchair or a regular chair, or whether your nephew is old enough to chow down on mashed potatoes, don’t be afraid to ask. Parents will be grateful that you’re considering their needs, and they’ll be honest about what’s easiest on their end. You don’t want to end up with too little food on the table because you assumed half the kids were still bottle feeding.
3. BE REALISTIC ABOUT YOUR PETS
It doesn’t matter whether you own a dog, cat, rabbit, snake, parrot, guinea pig, or ferret—if there are animals in the house, they will find their way to the Thanksgiving food and likely sneak at least a nibble of it.
Even the best-behaved dog will lunge at morsels dropped to the floor off guests’ forks. Cats can easily access any surface with green bean casserole on it. Your youngest cousin will absolutely do the whole “polly want a cracker” routine with your parakeet and stuff a Triscuit through the bars of its cage. If you have animals that can’t be around any type of human food, it’s best to send them elsewhere while you host your gathering or close them off in a room guests can’t wander into.
4. TELL YOUR GUESTS SPECIFICALLY WHAT TO BRING
You might find it easiest to give everyone the same assignment: a bottle of wine, or the dessert of their choice. Or, if you have the organizational skills to keep track of inventory, you can make more customized suggestions, such as, “Oh, everyone always raves about your corn pudding—would you be able to make enough to serve 12?” This is a great way to make your guests feel valued, and to make Thanksgiving dinner feel like a collaborative effort rather than a solo performance.
And while it’s fine to tell your guests, “You don’t have to bring a thing!” you must understand that you’ll probably be presented with more autumnal candles than you could light in a lifetime. People don’t like showing up empty-handed; don’t make them.
5. MAKE A GAME PLAN FOR OVEN SPACE
At least a week prior to Thanksgiving, take all the pans and baking dishes you plan to use and try fitting them into a cold oven together to see what fits where. Remember, don’t let the pans touch each other, which can cause hot spots and burns. When you’ve got that figured out, write down the order in which you plan to cook everything (along with oven temps and cooking time for each dish) so that all you have to do is follow the checklist on the day of.
Don’t forget to include guests’ dishes in the game plan, too, if any of those require oven space. Since things get chaotic in the kitchen, you might want to graciously turn down any guest’s offer to bring a dish that needs tending at the stove, like gravy. And store-bought or bakery rolls will ease up on the kitchen chaos, too. No one expects a fresh baked dinner roll.
6. KEEP EVERY NON-ESSENTIAL PERSON OUT OF THE KITCHEN
Even the biggest, most beautiful home kitchens will feel a little claustrophobic on Thanksgiving, as your guests crowd in to see how everything’s coming along and offer their help. As a host, the goal is to minimize kitchen traffic and preserve optimal maneuvering space. You’re about to slice into a 20-pound bird, after all, and you need elbow room.
The solution: keep everything out of the kitchen that guests might need. Put the beer, soda, and bottled water in a cooler and stick it in the hallway, the entryway, the back porch, wherever. Keep wine in an ice bucket near the dining area. Arrange glassware on a sideboard somewhere, if you can (though not where any toddlers can crash into it). Set out condiments so no one has to root around in the fridge for them. However you can reduce everyone else’s need for your precious cooking space, do it.
7. MAKE IT CLEAR WHERE THE GARBAGE IS
You can always keep an industrial-sized garbage and recycle bin on your porch and direct people outside with their trash, too, or put up little signs designating garbage and recycling in the kitchen so people make a beeline for the trash without crowding the area. Remember not to let recycle bags get so overloaded with bottles that you can’t lift it during cleanup later.
8. START THE PARTY WITH AN OPEN DISHWASHER AND USE IT
Before your first guests arrive, make sure the dishwasher is fully unloaded and ready to be inundated with dirty dinner dishes. This will require cleaning up as you cook, or at least assigning someone else to do so while you tend to the turkey and stuffing. The less overloaded your countertops, the more at ease you’ll be when you open your door to the gues
9. KEEP CHILDREN ENTERTAINED AND MESS-FREE
You should absolutely offer sots who are about to absolutely annihilate your home.
mething to entertain the toddlers in your crew, but stick to stuff like crayons, which can only break into so many pieces, or colorforms, which still manage to wow children of the digital age. Your table linens will thank me. (Also, avoid having any toys like bouncy balls or hot wheels cars, which act as tripping hazards for all your other guests.)
10. SETUP A BUFFET
If possible, turn your kitchen counter (or a card table, or whatever surface makes sense) into a buffet station, letting people grab a plate and go to town straight from the baking dishes. This saves you the hassle of washing more serving ware, but it also lets people relax once they’re seated, knowing they won’t constantly have to be passing around dishes to anyone who wants seconds. And for any of your less mobile guests, a buffet lets them stay out of the fray while someone else prepares their plate. Buffets just make sense, if you have the layout for them.
11. REMEMEBER WHAT REALLY MATTERS
Thanksgiving is all about togetherness, right? Well, if you’re all under one roof, you’ve accomplished that part, so don’t worry if you’re not all seated for dinner at the exact same moment. It’s never going to be perfectly coordinated: Some guests might come late or leave early. Some might be dealing with a toddler tantrum right as dinner hits the table. Others might run over to the TV if something exciting is happening in the game. Some folks might still be heading up the rear of the buffet line as others polish off their first plate. All of this is fine—indeed, it’s because you’re all so comfortable with one another that this is the way dinner might look.
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