Your guide to hosting an epic Thanksgiving meal this year
We've got the work-back plan, the hosting tips that really count and the recipes for your best feast yet!
This article was originally published September 22, 2017 and was updated September 17, 2019.
This is the year you're going to master Thanksgiving. Maybe you volunteered to host it or it's simply your turn (and you're nervous!), maybe you insist on hosting every year. Whichever, you're going to stand up to the challenge or create your most stand-out Thanksgiving yet, because we've assembled the ultimate guide to hosting Thanksgiving. It will keep you on track and make sure you've got everything you need to ace it, the recipes, the workback plan, the hosting tips that really count. Read it right now, bookmark it and keep working through the task list over the coming week, for the most organized, and therefore the most relaxed, enjoyable, and tastiest Thanksgiving yet.
Planning the menu
Feeding a crowd requires thinking big and avoiding finicky recipes with a lot of prep time. Beautiful and in-season fall produce is at its peak right now, so skip the complicated sauces and go minimal so vegetables can shine. We'll talk more about the actual menu when we get to the recipes, but the other thing to keep in mind is to choose crowd-pleasing dishes — and we mean the very special crowd you're gathering, since that's the best part of this gathering. It's all about comfort and gratitude for the harvest and the good people you're lucky to have around you.
Your workback schedule
A workback schedule is the secret to an organized party. It keeps you organized and efficient. In the checklist below, we've captured everything from ordering the turkey to cleaning out the hall closet to make room for the guests. If you keep on schedule, you'll even have time for a cocktail yourself before your company arrives. We've thought of everything so you won't have to. And we'll let you take the credit. Let's get started! And we mean now.
Two weeks before:
❏ Confirm your guest list and any food allergies to consider.
❏ Decide on the menu (ideas to kick you off are below, but check back over the week, we'll have more).
❏ Take stock of your pantry items and start a grocery list. It's never too early!
❏ Break your grocery list down into two categories; things that can be bought the weekend before and perishable items to pick up closer to game day.
❏ If you're cooking turkey, call your butcher now and order it. An average-sized turkey weighs about 15 lb and feeds 8-10 people. Ordering more than you need ensures leftovers for sandwiches and soups, so plan accordingly.
Ten days before
❏ Choose the wine, if any, you'll be serving and add it to the list. May we suggest orange wine?! If you're an urbanite, you may consider a liquor delivery service in your area. There are some great ones out there now and with the time you'll save their fee is often justifiable.
❏ Make-ahead and freeze any items on your menu that you can.
One week before
❏ Hit the liquor store and buy provisions (if you're not opting for delivery).
❏ Shop for all your non-perishable items.
❏ Gather serving dishes and confirm you've got a plate, tray, or bowl for everything.
❏ Count cutlery and arrange to borrow any missing pieces from your neighbour before they go away next weekend.
❏ Clean the old coffee machine you only use for large gatherings, and ensure everything is set for warm post-dinner drinks. Low on decaffeinated coffee or teas? Add it to the list.
❏ Reach out to your guests and confirm numbers.
❏ Spend a moment thinking about how you're going to set a festive table. Need some ideas? We've got some here.
❏ Plan your music and organize playlists.
Three days before
❏ If your turkey is frozen, now is the day you should start thinking about defrosting it. The safest place to do this is in the fridge, so make some space on the bottom shelf and set the turkey on a baking tray. You need about five hours of thawing time per pound of meat, so calculate your bird's weight to figure out when you have to do this.
❏ Shop for the perishable items on your list. Keep fresh herbs in tip-top shape by storing them properly.
Two days before
❏ Set the table and any centrepieces that don't involve fresh flowers.
❏ Set up the bar with everything except the ice.
❏ Organize your entrance to make space for guests' outerwear.
❏ Clean the powder room and make sure it's stocked with toilet paper, soap, and hand towels.
❏ Make any desserts on your menu that will keep for two days.
❏ Reach out to guests and remind them of the upcoming event (how could they forget?!). Reiterate any parking or driving directions and confirm there's no changes to the guest list.
One day before
❏ Wash and cut the vegetables and store them in the fridge covered with a damp paper towel in an airtight container.
❏ Measure out your dry ingredients so they're at the ready. This is called acing your mis en place and it's a tip that pros use. Read up on cooking more efficiently here.
❏ Set out napkins and a garbage area for your guests to dispose of them in.
❏ Move any frozen items to the fridge so they can defrost overnight.
❏ Assemble the dishes and cook ahead whatever you can before the turkey goes in.
❏ Clean up and run the dishwasher.
❏ Start cooking the turkey! A 15 lb bird needs about 4-5 hours of roasting time and 20 minutes of rest, so plan accordingly.
❏ Put out any fresh flowers.
❏ Chill the drinks.
One hour before guests arrive
❏ Start reheating any dishes you've cooked in advanced. Do this in a 350F degree oven, covered, so they won't dry out.
❏ Fill up any ice buckets for the bar.
❏ Empty the clean dishes from dishwasher, tidy any other mess.
Half an hour before guests arrive
❏ Get changed into your party clothes, pour yourself a cocktail, and sip on it while you unload the dishwasher and wait for your guests to arrive. Chances are, if you've followed this workback schedule, you'll have a few spare minutes to kick your feet up before the real fun begins. Bring on Uncle Dave's super funny-not-funny jokes!
Four rules every good Thanksgiving host knows
Our workback will help you stay on schedule, but here are a few more things to consider when you're going for hosting gold.
- Say yes to help. If someone offers to bring something, assign them a dish that'll compliment the menu and help take the load off.
- Greet your guests with a drink. Not only is this a generous gesture, it also signifies that it's time for them to relax and enjoy themselves too. Make sure there are non-alcoholic options too.
- Match your music level to the sound in the room. Set it louder at the beginning of the night and decrease the volume as your guests arrive and things get noisier.
- Send guests home with leftovers. Start saving your takeout containers for this purpose, or ask guests to bring their own.
How to put your menu together
A smart Thanksgiving menu not only feeds a crowd, it's got just the right mix of dishes too. We've got all the best recipes for this fall feast, but before we get started, just a few things on putting your menu together.
Sides: Two vegetable sides are sufficient for a smaller party, three or more feels like a feast! Still, there's nothing wrong with keeping things simple and sweet. Double the recipes if you have to, leftovers are always great (even required!) for Thanksgiving.
Mains: Sure you've got the bird, but you may want to consider a vegetarian main as well so that you're covered for any surprise guests who don't eat meat. Definitely have a very thoughtful vegetarian main if you know you have a meat-free eater coming. This feast must be special for all, of course.
Dessert: The best fall desserts, like apple pie, can be made ahead and frozen. Serving two distinctly different desserts, like pie and chocolate cake, will ensure there's something for everyone.