If you are hosting Thanksgiving for the first time this year, you’re probably wondering where to start. Hosting Thanksgiving for the first time is a big milestone whether you’re hosting three people or 30, especially if you’re taking over hosting duties from a family member who has established some long-standing traditions.
The first time I cooked Thanksgiving dinner was for a “Friendsgiving” in college. It was also the first time I had ever dared venture into the body cavity of a turkey, and it certainly wasn’t the last. As much fun as it can be to cook the big meal, it’s also a daunting task. We asked readers for their best advice on hosting Thanksgiving for the first time and by keeping these tips and ideas in mind, you’ll be able to get the details out of the way so that you can enjoy the big day — and maybe even squeeze in a little time for a shower, too.
Make a menu plan
When you’re trying to pull off the orchestrated affair, planning ahead is key. When you’re planning your menu, go beyond bookmarking recipes and delegating side dishes. Make a special note of how long each dish takes to cook and whether it needs the oven, stovetop, crock pot and at what temperature.
“Write out a time table that includes anything you’re putting into the oven. Start with the time you’re eating and work backward, including the time in and out of the oven as well as the temperature. I’ve found that can usually adjust the suggested time or temperature for most dishes in order to fit everything in the oven when necessary, but this is also a great way to figure out ahead of time that one dish should be in at 500 degrees F and the others need an hour at 300 degrees F.” – Kristen Green Seymour
Making a meal prep schedule will help you keep your dinner on schedule, too — and keep your guests from getting too tipsy in the meantime.
“For God’s sake, start your bird on time. I went to Thanksgiving a few years back and arrived around 11:00 a.m. The 20-pound bird was STILL IN THE BRINE. Hours and hours later we ate, but not before everyone got completely sauced while waiting.” -Chris Poeschl
Read more: How To: Prepare to Cook Thanksgiving Dinner
Often the most intimidating part of a Thanksgiving meal, the big bird doesn’t have to be serious business. Reserve your turkey early — most grocery stores will take holiday orders 3-4 weeks ahead of time — to ensure that you can start with the best possible bird. Traditionally, experts suggest 12-14 pounds of turkey for eight people, but you should also take into consideration whether the people at your table are light eaters or if they’ll load up the plate for seconds and thirds.
“There is nothing better than a fresh, not frozen, turkey. You need to order it ahead of time. Don’t use brine. It doesn’t need it. Make a good stuffing. Williams-Sonoma sells boxes of stuffing mix that are expensive, but a good start.” – Virginia Mann
Instead of a frozen bird, opt for a fresh turkey. Many home cooks prefer the flavor of fresh vs. frozen turkeys, the latter of which are typically pumped full of antibiotics. Before you buy or order your turkey, ask your butcher when it was harvested, where it came from and bonus points if it’s cage-free, vegetarian-fed and antibiotic-free. You can also ask your butcher to cut your bird for easy preparation.
“Ask the butcher to cut the turkey into 8 pieces. Roast the breast halves and wings, braise the legs and thighs. Everything gets cooked perfectly and the bird is done in 90 minutes, so your oven isn’t hijacked all day.” – Beth Lipton
Make a grocery list
Going grocery shopping for Thanksgiving without bringing a grocery list is like going to the grocery store hungry, right after you’ve been to the gym. It’s a bad idea. Even if you get all of the basics, there are going to be items that you don’t have in your pantry that you will wind up needing at the last minute.
“Make a list and do all of your shopping the weekend before, as early in the morning as you can go before the stores get busy. As the week goes on, the stores will get more and more crowded. After you make your list, check your pantry and spice cabinets to see what items you already have, or what items you need, you’ll end up with three jars of pumpkin pie spice and on Thanksgiving morning, realize that you’re out of flour or forgot a key ingredient for your gravy.” -Daryl Callahan
Set the table ahead of time
Crossing this task off the list will save you a little bit of stress, so set the table as far in advance as you can.
“Set the table at least a day or two before so that you won’t have to scramble at the last minute. Place all of the serving dishes out and mark them as they are so you know exactly where everything goes and you have all your serving pieces for sweet potatoes, green beans, cranberries.” – Julie Darling
Read more: Thanksgiving Entertaining Tips from Julie Blanner
Make as much in advance as you can
The great thing about Thanksgiving food is that so much of it can be made in advance and reheated on Thursday. You can make mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn pudding and cranberry sauce the day before or early in the morning, and then use your slow cooker to keep things warm.
I have two slow cookers and plan on using both for turkey day to free up oven space. In fact, you can even make some of your favorite dishes in a slow cooker and use coveted oven space for the turkey and pies.
Use a slow cooker for side dishes to free up oven space and make the timing less frantic.” – Kalyn Denny, Kalyn’s Kitchen
Read more: Top Ten Recipes for Slow Cooker Sweet Potatoes from Slow Cooker from Scratch
Read more: Top Ten Slow Cooker Recipes for Mashed Potatoes from Slow Cooker from Scratch
Read more: Top Ten Recipes for Slow Cooker Cranberry Sauce from Slow Cooker from Scratch
Read more: Slow Cooker Pear and Sausage Stuffing from Pinch of Yum
Keep your hors d’oeuvres simple
There’s nothing worse than filling up on snacks while the bird cooks, only to be too full of cheese to properly enjoy what I like to call ‘the pie course.’ Serve something light that your guests can graze on as they arrive, or in case any last-minute delays leave your guests feeling hangry.
“With so many crazy variables in a Thanksgiving menu (Will the turkey be done on time? Will any guests be running late??), it’s always a great idea to have one or two quick and easy appetizers on hand, just to keep the masses happy and keep those hungry grumpies at bay! It can make all the difference – buying you a little bit of time if things get derailed and a bit off schedule. I like hummus with basil and sun dried tomatoes, simple, easy and elegant.” – Shelley Fulton
Read more: Make Ahead Homemade Crackers (for the freezer) from Martha Stewart Living
Go ahead, buy your pies. Or at least, some of your pies
If you’re anything like me, you’ll go overboard on dessert. Don’t. In my family, the pie to person ratio is historically around 1:1. I can tell you that is, while delicious, completely unnecessary.
“I find [baking] kind of stressful. So to cut back on an already stressful time, I make one thing and outsource the rest! On Wednesday, I’ll make something simple like brownies or my mother-in-law’s caramel pound cake recipe and then pick up pies from a local bakery.” -Stephanie Bankhead
Read more: 20 Festive Pies for Holiday Dinners
Read more: Spiced Apple Pie in a Jar
Say yes to help
People like to break out their favorite old family recipes and contribute to Thanksgiving dinner. When friends and family offer to bring dishes, let them! As the host, you can pick what you like to make and delegate the rest. If you like to bake, make homemade pies and pumpkin gingersnap cheesecake .
“Have guests bring their favorite side dish, along with the recipe. Host is then free to focus on turkey, table and mingling, guests feel good about contributing and everyone gets to enjoy a new recipe. Make it comfortable and unpretentious, Thanksgiving is a time to relax with family and friends.” – Anita Mettille
Read more: Pumpkin Cheesecake Pie with Gingersnap Crust
Above all else, make sure to stop and take it all in. If you try to do too much, you’ll end up spreading yourself so thin that you forget to take a moment to sip a glass of wine, cut yourself a big slice of pie and enjoy the people gathered around the table with you.