When we lived in the Middle East, we used to host 15-30 people for Thanksgiving dinner each year. We'd invite any and all Americans we were aware of who might be in the country on their own during the holiday: college students, missionaries, teachers, foreign aid workers, military personnel, businesspeople, and of course friends. Sometimes we had total strangers take us up on our invitation. We enjoyed sharing this most wonderful of American traditions with our fellow Americans living abroad and making new friends in the process.
Believe it or not, I miss hosting a big crowd for Thanksgiving. One of the things I'm grateful for is all that I learned from the experience. In addition to learning tips and tricks for hosting a big dinner, I also learned to appreciate the value of a shared culture, the comforts of home, and the blessing of being surrounded by close family and friends.
As I undertake my annual Thanksgiving preparations, I thought I'd share some of my favorite tips. Whether you're hosting a big group or an intimate gathering, I hope you find them helpful. Most, if not all, apply to any large or intricate holiday celebration you might be planning, not just to Thanksgiving.
AFFILIATE DISCLOSURE: This post contains affiliate links. This just means that there are product suggestions included within the text. Should you click on one of the links and decide to make a purchase, I will receive a small commission. I only suggest products I love and have experience with that are directly related to the content in this post. Thank you for your support! View my Disclosure Statement for more information.
Clean Out Your Fridge
I wouldn't be an organizer if I didn't start by recommending a little, well, organizing. A week or so before Thanksgiving, take a little time to clean out your refrigerator. Toss out anything old, unsavory, or expired. Combine any duplicates (like those two open bottles of ketchup) into one container and organize the contents of your refrigerator. Leave as much space as possible for pre-prepped items which will then become leftovers.
Use Stuff Up
While you're cleaning out the fridge (and possibly the freezer), identify food items that need to be used. Plan meals accordingly for the days leading up to the holiday. Try to limit your leftovers in those days before the big day as well by prepping only what you need to feed your household at each meal.
In addition to clearing out the fridge, the week prior to the holiday can be used to get the entire house in order. Enlist the whole household in dusting, scrubbing, and tidying up. Assign each person a responsibility. Give the bathrooms special attention. If you are expecting overnight guests, make sure there are clean sheets on the beds, and the guest room is in order.
Do Your Baking in Advance
Whether you are baking a whole slew of pies and other desserts or just one for a small gathering, this is something that can be done at least one, if not two days in advance. I like to dedicate a day to baking. One of the benefits of this is that you aren't forced to use your oven to do double duty.
If you are making homemade bread or rolls, doing so the day (or even the evening) before is also a good idea. Again, it frees up your oven for other things, and rolls are something that can be easily reheated right before serving. In fact, you can place them in the still warm oven while the turkey rests before carving.
Prep Whatever Food You Can in Advance
I always make my cranberry sauce in advance. It keeps well in the fridge, and it's one less thing to worry about on Thanksgiving Day. I also try to prep other sides in advance or at least prep the ingredients by chopping vegetables and prepping other ingredients. Then on the big day, all that needs to be done is the actual assembly and cooking.
Stock Up on Holiday Essentials
Nothing makes cooking more frustrating than not having the right tool for the job. Check out this assortment of my favorite tools for preparing and serving Thanksgiving dinner.
1 - Bamboo Charcuterie Board Set
2 - Nonstick Roasting Pan
3 - Stainless Steel Turkey Baster with Syringe
4 - Waterproof Digital Instant Read Meat Thermometer
5 - 8 Piece Serving Utensil Set
6 - Bamboo Turkey Carving Cutting Board
7 - Bread Basket with Cover and Removable Liner
Set the Table the Day Before
The most obvious benefit of setting the table in advance is that it frees up time on the actual day for other activities. Chances are, if you have a separate dining room, you only use it on special occasions. If this is the case, setting the table in advance won't disrupt your dining habits. If, however, you will be eating Thanksgiving dinner at the same table where you eat on a daily basis, explore other options for the 24 hours prior to Thanksgiving. Eat on barstools at the kitchen counter, use tray tables, set up a folding table, or have a picnic on the living room floor.
If setting the table a full day before Thanksgiving is too disruptive (which might well be the case if you have small children), then use the time to prep table linens; set out dishes, glassware, and silverware; and prep your centerpiece so that after breakfast on Thanksgiving Day, all that needs to be done is to place things in their proper place.
Splurge on a Centerpiece
I highly recommend splurging on a pretty centerpiece for your Thanksgiving table. Make it yourself or buy something pre-made. It can be as elaborate or as simple as you like. When we were young and poor, I was happy to just have candles placed on my mother's lace tablecloth. Compared to our daily routine of sippy cups and plastic plates, it felt fancy. These days I add a festive store-bought bouquet since table setting isn't my forte.
Make a Seating Arrangement
If you are hosting more than your normal household, I recommend crating a seating arrangement, especially if you are setting more than one table. This will prevent guests from milling about uncomfortably uncertain where they should be seated. It will also ensure that couples are seated together, and if there tends to be tension between certain members of your party, this will also help to prevent altercations. Placing simple name cards at each place setting adds an air of festive elegance to the atmosphere and makes guests feel special.
This applies both in advance and on the actual day of the event. Chances are if you are hosting guests, they will ask if there is anything they can bring to contribute to the meal. Say yes! This will ease your burden and make your guests feel involved and useful. Is there a part of the meal you struggle with or don't enjoy preparing? Ask if they'd be willing to make that item. You can also ask them if they have a favorite family recipe they'd like to prepare. If they aren't much of a cook, ask them to bring drinks, or ice, or an appetizer or dessert. Just check with them in advance to find out what they plan to prepare so you don't end up with two of the same dish.
On the actual day of Thanksgiving, folks will be asking what they can do to help. Put them to work. No one likes to stand around feeling useless. Have them fill the water pitcher, serve drinks, chop vegetables, set prepared items on the buffet table, or any number of other tasks. The job doesn't have to be a big one to ease your workload and make them feel involved.
Purchase Some Stuff Premade
Don't feel like you have to make everything from scratch. It's perfectly acceptable to buy your rolls or pies or even your turkey premade/cooked. It will not affect your guest's enjoyment in the least, but it may well save your sanity.
If you're short on refrigerator space (and you probably are), and the weather is cool enough (which it probably is), try setting drinks containers outside on a patio, deck, or porch. Choose someplace sheltered and make sure drinks are in a waterproof container. Of course, you wouldn't want to place drinks outside if there was a danger of them freezing. Another option is an unheated garage. If you don't want to brave (or risk) the elements, you can chill drinks by placing them in a cooler full of ice.
Speaking of ice, I always like to bag the contents of my ice maker several days prior to an event. Empty the ice into a large, zippered baggie and place it in the freezer. Depending on how far in advance you think to do this, you can collect enough ice for both serving drinks and keeping them chilled.
Plan for Leftovers
Most of us love Thanksgiving leftovers ...in moderation. Too much of a good thing grows tiresome pretty quickly. Investing in a set of disposable food containers will allow you to share the wealth with your guests, so that they, too, can enjoy Thanksgiving leftovers, and you will not have to worry about growing tired of them.
Plan for Little People
Plan activities in advance to keep children occupied while dinner is being prepared. Have a special movie for them to watch. Set up outdoor games if the weather is decent. Designate a teenager or adult to supervise children's activities and keep them occupied.
Set up a Snack Station
Thanksgiving "dinner" is often served in the afternoon, after the typical lunch hour but before most people usually eat dinner. Since Thanksgiving requires tons of time and effort to prepare, most people don't prepare or consume three square meals that day, but the wonderful aromas wafting from the kitchen combined with the odd eating hours mean that everyone is hungry long before the big meal is ready. Setting up a snack station with simple but yummy tidbits like nuts, a fresh veggie charcuterie board, and/or crackers and dip outside the kitchen will allow family members and guests to graze to their hearts content without being underfoot in the kitchen.
Use Real Plates
If ever there was a time for real dishes, it's Thanksgiving dinner. If you don't have fine China, or if you don't have enough plates to serve all your guests, don't worry. An inexpensive set of plain white plates looks lovely with any decor.
Serve Dinner Buffet Style
I started serving Thanksgiving buffet style when I was hosting large groups and couldn't fit everyone at one table. Even now that I am serving a smaller group, I much prefer setting up a buffet. Doing so allows me to have a pretty table scape without having to worry about how to fit all the food on the table. During the meal, no one has to pass heavy, and sometimes very hot, plates around. People can help themselves to seconds without disturbing one another and everything is easier to access. Buffets are also much easier for parents with small children as they can fill multiple plates at one time.
Separate the Drinks from the Food
If you're serving your meal buffet style (which I recommend!), designate a separate place for drinks away from the food. People often like to fill their plate, set it on the table, and then go back to fill their glass (or vice versa). Having drinks in a separate area allows them to do so without disrupting the flow of the food line.
Use Your Crockpot
Keeping some dishes warm while others are cooking is perhaps the biggest challenge of preparing a multicourse meal. Use your crockpot to keep mashed potatoes warm. You can also use your crockpot or Instapot to prepare certain dishes, thus freeing up oven and stovetop space.
Serve the Littles First
Invite parents of very young children to dish up their kids' plates before calling everyone to the table. Little people often won't eat food until it's lukewarm, so prepping their food in advance will allow it time to cool to their liking. In addition, it will save time when everyone else comes through the line.
Relax and Enjoy
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, but there have been years when I didn't enjoy it as much as I would have liked because I allowed myself to become overburdened. I have enjoyed Thanksgiving most when I have had the company and help of loved ones throughout the day. I have enjoyed it least when I felt like I was slaving away in the kitchen while everyone else had a good time. A little thought and preparation can make a world of difference, not only in the experience of your guests, but also in your own enjoyment of the day.