The Ultimate Thanksgiving Dinner Guide for the First-Time Host
Last year I hosted Thanksgiving for the first time, which meant that 7 people filled my house on this very important holiday, expecting to be fed and entertained!
Even though that’s not a huge number compared to the epic Thanksgivings my grandmother has hosted for our very large extended family every year, to say I was nervous would be an understatement.
Especially since Grandma would be one of my special guests.
I may have gone a little bit (okay, a LOT) overboard with careful planning and preparation in the weeks leading up to the big day, but because of my compulsive attention to detail, I was able to pull off an almost-stress-free-and-flawless first Thanksgiving as hostess.
Related: 5 Easy Ways to Keep a Gratitude Log All Year Long
If you’re hosting your first Thanksgiving and terrified of doing it wrong, consider this your guide to a smoothly run holiday from someone who feels confident she could do it again.
Plan a Stress-Free Thanksgiving!
Keep track of every detail including your guest list, menu, day-of schedule, and to-do list leading up to the big day. This year, Thanksgiving will run smoother than EVER.
PLAN: 2-3 Weeks before the big day
If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time at all, you know I’m a big believer in planning ahead. No less so when it comes to hosting Thanksgiving for the first time! Planning reduces the chance of forgetting anything—and also makes sure you get everything done before and on the big day.
There are three major elements to any Thanksgiving plan:
1. The Thanksgiving Meal Plan
This step involves more than just quickly listing out the menu. That’s the easy part! It’s the turkey that requires extra preparation. I’ll be honest—the turkey completely intimidated me (which is why I was so happy to have Grandma nearby to help).
You need to know:
- What size to buy (rule of thumb: 1 lb per person)
- How long it needs to thaw (Betty Crocker has all the details)
- How to prepare it (I made this recipe which uses oven bags. Oven bags are super convenient and result in an especially juicy turkey. Yum!)
- How long to cook it (a 12-15 lb turkey will take approximately 2 hours; a 20-24 lb turkey will take about 3-4)
- How to carve it (YouTube is your friend)
For the rest of the menu, pick dishes that will be easy to make (there’s no gold star awarded for the most complicated!) and have some dishes to assign to others if/when they ask what they can bring. Keep in mind substitutions for any dietary restrictions too.
Here were my go-to dishes for Thanksgiving Day:
- White Cheddar and Cranberry Dip to serve with crackers as an appetizer
- Veggie tray (I bought a huge one from Sam’s Club for less than $10, which saved me so much time!)
- Loaded Bacon Cheddar Mashed Potatoes
- Orange-Vanilla Glazed Fruit Salad
- Crescent rolls (I used a can and I’m not ashamed!)
- Cream Cheese Corn
- Deviled Eggs
For dessert, I did an apple pie, peanut butter pie, and chocolate pie. (My family isn’t super into pumpkin!)
2. The Decorations
Ahhh, decorations. Totally not necessary, but it’s such a fun excuse to dig into all the projects you’ve saved on your Pinterest boards!
I also went a step further and chose a theme (coastal with aqua and natural accents) to make sure everything fit seamlessly together. Using a theme made it a LOT easier to narrow down on what decorations I wanted to make and/or display.
Here are the types of decorations you’ll want to think about:
- The centerpiece (I spray-painted some plastic pumpkins and arranged them on a pretty plate)
- Any wall decor to hang above the buffet (Like my GRATEFUL banner)
- Decor items to sprinkle throughout the buffet
- Tablecloths, napkins and rings
- Place cards (my friend Michelle offers a lovely printable)
- Favors to take home
Of course, you do not have to do any of this, and if decorating stresses you out, skip this part. But you may just find (like me!) that this is your favorite part of the planning process.
3. The Activities
You don’t have to plan every minute of the day, but it’s good to have a few activities on hand (especially for kiddos) so everyone continues to have a good time and doesn’t get bored.
- For the kids, assemble an Activity Bin ahead of time. You can even add some Thanksgiving-themed crafts inside too!
- For fun Thanksgiving ideas for the adults, put on the football game, play an actual board game (Joseph has tons of ideas!) strategize your Black Friday plan, take family photos, play Thanksgiving Bingo (which was cheesy at first but ended up being a big hit!). And if you have an extra guest room or two, have it ready with an extra cozy blanket and offer it to those would prefer to take a nap instead. (Good ol’ tryptophan!)
Lastly, plan out everything you need to accomplish each day the week of Thanksgiving, (i.e. cleaning, grocery shopping, meal prepping) so it’s out of your head and onto actual paper. Because there was SO much to remember, I created a two-page spread in my bullet journal to keep track of everything.
PREP: The day before
The day before Thanksgiving, you’ll want to do as much as you possibly can to avoid the frantic scramble right before the big meal. Take it from me—I crossed so many things off my list that we didn’t have all that much to do on the actual day except make sure food went into the oven at the right times!
My Top 7 Thanksgiving Tips:
- Gather and confirm you have all the needed ingredients. Not every store is open on Thanksgiving, so give yourself peace of mind and double-check just in case you need to make a last-minute run the day before.
- Create your day-of timeline. Calculate backward from dinner time so you know exactly what needs to be in the oven when. Also create a list of tasks you can assign to other family members. That way when they ask to help, you’ll have a job all ready for them!
- Use washi tape to hang recipes on your kitchen cabinets. My kitchen looked a little funny, but this was super helpful to see everything I needed to make at a glance, rather than flip through several cookbooks or binders.
- Lay out and label all food dishes (including serving ware) with sticky notes. Not only does this prevent a last-minute search for serving spoons and bowls, kitchen helpers won’t have to ask what goes where. They can just look at the sticky note and give you a hand!
- Set the table. Lay out everything the way you envisioned and snap a photo of your pretty table for Instagram. 🙂
Mason Drinking Jars | Aqua Nantucket Dinnerware | IKEA Placemats (similar)
- Make food ahead of time. There’s plenty of prep work to be done before the actual day. You can peel potatoes, put them in water, and keep them in the fridge overnight; bake pies; assemble dry ingredients in a bowl, etc.
- Clean the kitchen so it’s fresh for the big day. Start with a clean slate by washing any dishes, wiping down countertops, and cleaning out the fridge to make room for yummy leftovers.
Thanksgiving Eve will most likely be an exhausting day, but I promise you’ll get through it! And when you wake up the next morning, you are going to LOVE being so prepared. Your guests will appreciate it too.
PULL IT OFF: The Day of
Hooray! It’s Thanksgiving Day!
Using the timeline you created the day before, assemble each dish, rotate them in and out of the oven, and relax in between timer sessions. You’ve done most of the hard work already! Now it’s time to follow the plan you’ve worked so hard on and make sure everyone’s plates, drinks, and bellies are full.
And remember: the point of Thanksgiving is not to pull it off perfectly; my absolute top Thanksgiving tip to you is to give thanks and truly enjoy the people you get to celebrate with.
For instance, I didn’t finish the DIYs before family members started arriving at our door, I spilled blueberries for the fruit salad all over the kitchen floor, and I pulled a too-jiggly peanut butter pie out of the fridge that hadn’t set—but it was still a memorable Thanksgiving where we enjoyed each other’s company—even in the middle of all the “mishaps.”
Those mistakes just gave us extra laughs!
And even though my family did poke fun at me for being WAY over-prepared (we’re a pretty sarcastic bunch, so I didn’t mind!), they told me later that it was the smoothest Thanksgiving they’ve ever had.
Mission First Thanksgiving…ACCOMPLISHED.
What are you most nervous about when it comes to hosting Thanksgiving this year?
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