Ah, Thanksgiving. The one time each year when people who have never considered hosting a formal dinner party... host a formal dinner party. Look, I get it. I’ve been writing about food full-time for over a decade, and in the food world, Thanksgiving is the No. 1 biggest holiday of the year (followed, natch, by the Super Bowl).
Food editors pull overtime in July developing recipes for November, each year trying to hit the bullseye of Thanksgiving content that feels both new and familiar. It’s a delicate balance — Thanksgiving is all about tradition, so you can’t mess with the classics too much, but you don’t want things to feel staid. And you certainly can’t just repeat whatever you did last year. All of this is to say that there’s an absolutely overwhelming amount of Thanksgiving information out there, and if you’re hosting, it can be nearly impossible to figure out where to begin.
If you’re planning a Thanksgiving for the first time, or just need a crash course in holiday entertaining, here is everything you need to know to help things run smoothly. Consider the dirty work of of selecting the most delicious, most reliable recipes for all the classics done, and enjoy a decade’s worth of tips and tricks on how to pull it all off with limited time, space, and budget. Now that’s something to be thankful for.
Cook the Basics
As the host, you’re likely responsible for providing most of the food, or at the very least, the marquee items: turkey, side dishes, and pie. There are countless ways to approach each, depending on your time and skill level, so I’ve chosen my tried-and-true favorites for the most essential dishes three ways each: classic, with a twist, and fast and easy.
The best turkey recipes
- Classic: Brined and Roasted Turkey (Martha Stewart)
- With a Twist: Chile-Rubbed Turkey (Bon Appétit)
- Fast and easy: Spatchcocked Turkey (Serious Eats)
The best Thanksgiving sides
- Classic: Best-Ever Macaroni and Cheese (Edouardo Jordan, chef-owner of Junebaby; Seattle Times)
- With a Twist: Charred Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Dates (Travis Lett, chef-owner of Gjelina; Bloomberg)
- Fast and Easy: Apple-Herb Stuffing (Smitten Kitchen)
Best pie recipes
- Classic: Craig & Kathleen Claiborne’s Mississippi Pecan Pie (Food52)
- With a Twist: Brandied Pumpkin Pie (NYT Cooking)
- Fast and Easy: No-Cook Peanut Butter Pie (Real Simple)
Outsource Everything Else
Here’s a little secret about hosting: You don’t actually have to cook everything, and in fact, there are certain things that are just plain better store-bought. Save yourself the time and hassle of making every single thing from scratch, and round out your table with a few key premade items.
Maybe your oven is otherwise occupied by things like a giant turkey, or maybe you’re just not into baking. This is why bakeries exist. Find the best one in your area and order your pies ahead of time to avoid any last-minute dessert snafus.
Save yourself the hassle of homemade. No one will know if you just perk up the canned stuff by stirring in some orange juice, citrus zest, and a cinnamon stick.
Three words: Pillsbury Crescent Rolls. They will be eaten, but if there are any leftovers, they can be used to make sandwiches the next day.
Decorate, at Least a Little Bit
Hosting a textbook Thanksgiving means stepping up your typical dinner-table aesthetic. But you don’t have to go full Pinterest to make a big visual impact. Here are a few low-lift touches to make your table shine.
Disposable plates don’t have to look disposable. Check out these plastic plates with a decorative gold filigree edge; these Instagram-friendly amethyst purple watercolor and rose gold paper plates; or this chic navy-and-bronze-trimmed design.
Keep it simple. “Eucalyptus or other hearty greens, simply trimmed and laid organically on a table, are a really easy way to create a low-key table centerpieces,” says Eater Young Gun Annie Kamin (’19). “I like to use seeded eucalyptus and incorporate any extra herbs I have on hand, like sage, rosemary, and thyme.”
“Don’t underestimate the power of candlelight in setting a cozy tone for an evening,” adds Kamin. “I like to overdo it (as I do with most things), [so I] use a mix of candles of different heights.” Adding a candle to the bathroom also contributes a restaurant-y touch.
Devise a Serving Strategy
Maybe you live in a giant, beautiful house with its own formal dining room. If that is the case, feel free to put every item on its own piece of carefully selected servingware and make a magazine-worthy tablescape. If you are, however, dealing with spatial limitations, you can still serve a multicomponent meal and make it look good.
- You will run out of oven space. Schedule cooking times accordingly, and plan a menu with a mix of things you can heat in the oven, on the stovetop, or in the microwave, plus things that you can serve cold or at room temperature to avoid losing your mind.
- Where do people go immediately upon arrival in any living space? The kitchen. Where do you need the most space on this day full of cooking? The kitchen. Per Kamin, “Trick people into congregating elsewhere when they arrive by luring them away from the kitchen with a bar setup and assortment of snacks literally anywhere besides your oven and stovetop.”
- Serve things like potatoes, casseroles, mac and cheese, and cornbread straight out their cooking ware, saving both space and time on cleanup. Le Creuset is often on sale at Williams-Sonoma, and you can find beautiful cast-iron pieces at garage sales and vintage shops.
- Let the sides take center stage on the table, and, after a brief show-and-tell moment with the turkey, retreat to the kitchen to carve the bird in a private, less nerve-wracking setting. Pass the slices around on a platter when you’re done.
Ask for Help
Thanksgiving is a time for coming together. As such, there’s absolutely no shame in asking your friends and family to lend a hand. Some easy requests:
Ask your guests to bring wine, beer, cider, after-dinner drinks, or anything else they’d like.
Cut down on leftovers by encouraging guests to bring and pack their own.
Ask a friend to stay late and help you put your house back in order post-party. Even if it’s more for moral support than anything else, it will make the task less daunting.