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The holidays are great—who doesn’t want to get together with friends and family and eat and drink for hours? But hosting an event like Thanksgiving can also feel like a blessing and a curse. Sure, it’s nice not to have to travel during one of the craziest times of the year, and it can be cozy to have friends and family come to you. On the other hand, it’s a hell of a lot of work. Cooking for a big group requires a lot of forethought, time, and prep—not to mention the costs of all that food and booze can add up quickly.
But before you throw in the towel on playing host, just know it’s possible to make this daunting undertaking a little bit more manageable. If you’re a first-time host, avoid rookie mistakes by stealing tips from experts who have tons of experience planning and executing flawless meals and events for large groups. Instead of learning through your own trial and error, learn through theirs.
Below, get seven helpful hints for how to juggle the many tasks involved with hosting—and up your odds of throwing an amazing Thanksgiving.
The last thing you want to discover the morning before guests arrive is that you’re short on chairs or wine glasses—or that you bought all the special ingredients required for the meal, but are almost out of an everyday staple like olive oil. It’s also not a bad idea to buy dupes of certain helpful, high-use items like chopping knives or colanders. “Check your kitchen toolbox and make sure you aren’t missing anything essential,” says Los Angeles-based private chef Theodore Leaf. “I like to have several peelers on hand so when people offer to help, the work can get done much faster.”
Procrastinators will want to shake off the impulse to save everything to the last minute when it comes to Thanksgiving. “To help you stay organized, write a prep schedule and start a few days ahead!” says Hunter Pritchett, Chef Partner at Los Angeles-based restaurant The Chicken or the Egg. “Get the casseroles built the night before and bake them on the big day with the Turkey; make the cranberry relish the day before to allow the flavors to mellow out.” Leaf also suggests pre-cutting all your veggies, so you don’t have to waste as much time with prep work. You can even pre-cut potatoes—just store them in a plastic bag filled with water to keep them fresh.
Get Your Décor Done
It’s smart to set the table and get centerpieces or bouquets ready in advance, since these things don’t require freshness (well, at least not as much as food, that is). Also, it can set a positive tone. “Every time I actually set the table the night before, I wake up the morning of Thanksgiving feeling calm,” says Leaf. “There’s something about knowing that everyone has a place and your flowers look great that starts the day off on the right foot.”
It can be tempting to do everything yourself to ensure it’s done to your satisfaction, but letting go of some of the control will make the whole undertaking infinitely less stressful. “Thanksgiving is a collaborative potluck all about sharing and family—so use them!” says Pritchett. “Have your guests bring sides or desserts so you can focus on the turkey and gravy.” Be thoughtful about which jobs you give to whom. Does one person have great handwriting to write the place cards? Does someone else make a great cocktail? “Enlist the help of friends and family, but make sure they’re the right person for the job,” says Leaf. “Uncle John might not be the best at julienning carrots, but he sure is great at setting up folding chairs!”
Set up a Self-Serve Bar
If you can delegate bartending to someone, great—but if not, don’t try to do it yourself; instead, make it self-service. “Any good hostess knows that you must offer your guests a drink when they arrive, but it’s very stressful to be the bartender and the hostess,” says Jessica Petti, Director of Operations at Brooklyn Winery. “Set up a space with glassware, ice, a specialty cocktail if you have one, beer, wine, and sodas. Point it out to your guests when they arrive, and let them go at it!” Easy.
Ask for Contributions
Don’t let an internal tally of costs kill your buzz when you want to be present and enjoying the holiday with your loved ones. It’s OK—nay, expected—to ask guests to contribute to the spread. “The cost of hosting Thanksgiving can be stressful, and one easy way to mitigate that is to ask friends and family to bring liquor,” says Leaf. “The best way is to pre-select what you want and send your guests to a specific shop so they can bring the right pairing and quantity. You don’t want the celebration to end too soon because you ran out of booze.” True that.
Phone in Dessert
If there’s one part of the Thanksgiving feast that you don’t belabor, make it the end, says Petti. “While making a homemade pie is amazing, ain’t nobody got time for that,” she says. “If you’re running out of time for dessert, either see the last tip, and ask someone to bring it—or phone in dessert. Everyone will love to try a treat from your favorite bakery, and having something delivered is so much easier than spending the day baking.” And often just as delicious!
Originally published November 2016. Updated November 2017.