I hosted my first Thanksgiving in 2012. Until then, I usually just cooked for my family, but I’ve shied away from making the meal an event. It’s a noble choice to volunteer to host Thanksgiving, and with great power comes great responsibility. But that doesn’t mean it’s not also fun. As someone who has been hosting Thanksgiving on and off for the last 11 years, I’ve learned a lot. So here’s everything you need to know about hosting Thanksgiving for the first time if you’re planning on doing the traditional turkey meal.
1. Plan your menu
This is the most important thing to do ASAP. You may have ideas about what you want to make based on traditions and who you have attending your dinner. Take people’s tastes into consideration, but remember, this is your dinner. You don’t have to make three kinds of potatoes to make everyone happy. If you’re looking for ideas, there are millions of recipe sites out there. Pinterest is a good place if you have a very specific idea in mind, but you still have to weed through a lot to find something you like.
When it comes to preparing a full spread like Thanksgiving, I like to look at places like Food Network. They give you curated, Thanksgiving-specific ideas, and if you search for a specific thing like green bean casserole, they will give you options based on skill level and ingredients. You can also find a variety of recipes from a lot of different cooks. My go-to turkey recipe is from Sandra Lee on Food Network. It’s cranberry-glazed, and I’ve been making it pretty consistently for 15 years.
I also like the New York Times cooking section and pay for a subscription. It is obviously not necessary (I know the NYT is a messy organization), but I have found some great recipes for sides, especially for veggies since my future father-in-law is a vegan and those are recipes I have on hand. Last year, I made stuffed mushrooms using a recipe from the Times and a lemony green bean dish. This year, I’m excited to use their roasted brussels sprouts with garlic recipe.
For desserts, I love Sally’s Baking Blog. She does season specific desserts, and again, has recipes for a variety of skill levels. I made her Caramel Apple Cheesecake Pie last year, and it was a hit, albeit a bit labor intensive.
2. Think about your turkey
A general rule of thumb is one to one-and-a-half pounds of meat per person who will be eating turkey. Since this is your first time hosting, don’t make yourself nuts getting a turkey that requires a special order. Your local grocery store will have some good options, as will a store like Whole Foods. Most grocery stores will also have a good sale on their turkeys per pound.
You don’t have to buy your turkey today, but you need to get it no later than Monday if you’re buying frozen. For a frozen turkey, you need to make sure you have the space for it to thaw. I tend to line my vegetable crisper with paper towels and leave the turkey in there to thaw. You’ll need to change the paper towels obviously, and make sure you clean the drawer once you take the turkey out. If you’re buying fresh, then you have until no later than Tuesday.
3. Buy your non-perishables
This is the best week to buy your non-perishable items. That means anything dry or shelf stable. Sugars, flour, canned items. If you’re like me and don’t want to make gravy from scratch, grab some packets. They’re super cheap. It’s a good time to buy things like chicken broth or stock because the closer you get to Thanksgiving, the harder it will be to find that stuff. This is usually the time a lot of this stuff is on sale too, so you’ll likely get a good deal. Even if you think you only need one, get two just in case. Most of these things have long expiration dates, so it’s not the end of the world if you have anything left over.
This is also a good time to look through your seasonings and make sure you have things like salt (Diamond Crystal kosher salt is great), black pepper, poultry seasoning, garlic powder, cinnamon, and any dried herbs. Again, you want to get ahead of the popular items. Last week, I got brown sugar, stuffing, cranberry jelly, chicken broth and stuffing because I know those will go quickly. I still need to get pasta and sugar.
4. Get your common perishable items that keep well over time
When I say this, I mean things like milk, heavy cream, cheese that comes from the refrigerators, and most importantly butter and eggs. Check your recipes to see what type of butter you need, but for stuff that doesn’t specify, use what you have. Butter freezes, so it’s good to have in advance, and if there’s any leftover, you can keep it frozen. Last year, I waited too long to get heavy cream for my mashed potatoes and had to improvise with half-and-half. One of the recipes I make requires orange juice, so I’ll probably get that now.
Things like cream cheese, cranberries if you need fresh, and frozen veggies are also okay to get at this stage, because they’ll keep for a week until it’s time to use them.
5. Make sure you have your tools of the trade
Things you will absolutely need:
- A turkey roaster with a rack
- A meat thermometer
- Dry measuring cups
- Wet measuring cups
- Measuring spoons
- A brush for things like butter or glaze on a turkey
- A turkey baster
- A potato masher (if you’re making mashed potatoes)
I like using disposable pans for most things, because I’m lazy af and don’t want to wash a million pots (or rather, have my partner wash them all, lol). Now is the week to buy all of those, because you don’t want to be like me last year and get stuck with a disposable pan that is too big for the oven. You can get a disposable turkey roaster if you want to. I invested in a real one because I roast a lot of birds.
You’re also going to need a bunch of Tupperware or other kinds of food storage. Get some cheap ones if you want to send people home with leftovers, and keep the better quality stuff for yourself. Make sure you have aluminum foil, Ziploc bags of a variety of sizes, parchment paper, and cling wrap. Also, make sure you have a lot of paper towels!
6. Put together your table
Once you have a rough estimate of how many people you’ll have around the table, make sure you have enough cutlery, plates, and drinkware. You don’t have to spend a lot of money if you don’t have a lot to spend; mismatched plates and cutlery adds charm to a table. But if you do want things that match, Target and IKEA are great places to find inexpensive options that are also cute. Make sure you have servingware like a platter for your turkey, bowls for veggies and mashed potatoes, and a cute bowl or platter for the rolls if you’re serving them.
Also important! Make sure you have someplace for everyone to sit. It’s okay to ask that people bring folding chairs if they have them. If you’re making dinner and hosting, the least someone else can do is bring a chair!
7. Let people help
If people ask you what they can do to help or if they can bring anything, let them! I try to outsource drinks to my guests, so it’s one less thing to buy. I’m also open to people bringing an appetizer, desert, or vegetable-based side dish to make my life easier. Like I said, tell people to bring chairs if needed or see if one of your guests has an extra table. No need to do extra work if there are people who want to help and have what you need!
8. Start you prep two days before
Tuesday is when you should do your last grocery shop. That’s when you get the most perishable of your items like potatoes, fresh veggies, cheese that comes from the deli counter or any soft cheeses, fruits and any fresh herbs. Check and see if your grocery store has pre-chopped celery and carrots or onions to save yourself time. Some grocery stores will have Thanksgiving-specific herb blends. Make your life easier however you can. If you plan on serving appetizers, get what you need. A pre-made crudité or charcuterie plate is a time saver. Make sure you have crackers of bread if you plan on serving cheeses or dips.
Tuesday is also a great day to do a cleaning out of your refrigerator to make sure you have enough room for dishes you plan on pre-making but also for leftovers so you don’t have to do it after you’ve been cooking and entertaining all day. Put your mind at ease.
9. Create a run of show
Time management is crucial for hosting a successful Thanksgiving. If you’ve given your guests a time to show up, you need to be prepared for them when they arrive. One of the best ways is to premake as many things as you can. I always do the stuffing, mac n cheese, and candied yams the night before, along with the desserts. Anything that involves copious amounts of chopping and peeling is best done in advance. This way you can stack them in the fridge and cook through on Thursday. Just make sure you take them out of the fridge at least an hour before you want to cook them.
The main event of Thanksgiving day should be your turkey. Take it out at least an hour before you need to start prepping it so you can make sure it’s fully thawed. Know that you’re going to need at least three hours to cook it plus rest and carving time, so if you want to have dinner around 5, that bird needs to get in the oven no later than 1pm.
The rest of the timing is based on the cook times of everything else you need to make. Be mindful not only of cook times but oven temperatures. You need to give the oven time to cool or heat up depending on the need. My goal is to have everything done as close to the time people are going to show up — within 15 minutes. You don’t want to be frazzled when your guests show up.
Our Thanksgiving dress code is chill, but I always make sure I have time to change before my guests show up. I don’t want people seeing me in my clothes that are covered in food goop. Plus, you want to feel relaxed and comfy when everyone turns up.
Good luck, and you got this!
feature image by LauriPatterson via Getty Images