I have REALLY been looking forward to blogging this week because now is the IDEAL time to share with you some tips on hosting Thanksgiving! If you’ve volunteered for (or been lovingly tasked with) the job, then you’ve got a little over a week before the holiday. This is a good time to start finalizing your game plan, and all of the information I’ve pulled together for this post is meant to help you with just that. No matter what your biggest worry is – from a small space to a big crowd to minimizing your social anxiety to simply getting through your first hosted holiday in one piece – these tips should do the trick.
This will be my third year hosting Thanksgiving for my family in my 800 square foot apartment, and I can confidently say that each time so far has been exciting and enjoyable. If you know me or have been following my blog, that might sound counterintuitive; I’m a very anxious, very introverted person, and I need personal space in order to keep my cool. So, hosting a boisterous group of people in my teeny living room for an entire day and cooking a full Thanksgiving dinner for them in my kitchen – and volunteering to do so – does not sound like a very Molly thing to do, let alone something I’d really enjoy. But thankfully for me – and you – I was fortunate enough to cut my Turkey Day teeth in a small, easily controlled, 800 square foot Petri dish and as a result have learned how to well execute – and enjoy – this holiday from the entertaining end of things.
It all started in the fall of 2013, when my mom and dad – who are HUGE on hosting holidays – started renovating their kitchen. Brian and I had recently moved into our first place together – the tiny apartment I’m writing this post in – and I was still really adjusting to living somewhere else. Our apartment felt like the farthest thing from home.
In early November, as the holiday season approached, we were suddenly left with the conundrum of what to do for Thanksgiving. With my parents’ kitchen demolished, the first floor of their house felt far from home as well (and their lack of oven presented other, more obvious challenges). My Grabby had a fully intact kitchen, but at her age had little ability to put together a Thanksgiving dinner. As we considered the possibilities, I started to wonder if our little apartment kitchen might do the trick, just this once.
So Brian and I volunteered to host Thanksgiving in the apartment. Our kitchen was small, yes, but our oven was fully functioning, and there was plenty of seating for the group if we added a few folding chairs. I had made many Thanksgiving staples before, and would be able to put together dinner and at the same time demonstrate how all of my years of playing ‘tis-the-season sous chef for my mom had paid off. Besides, Brian was just starting to perfect the art of pie crust, and what is your traditional American Thanksgiving if not capped off by pie?
The night before that Thanksgiving, I was STRESSED OUT, and regretting – ever so slightly – having signed up to host. I vividly remember standing at the stove late that night, stirring make-ahead gravy and watching Brian mop the floors in my peripheral vision and feeling like we’d never finish all of the prep work in time. The thought of ruining a holiday for my family – a thought manufactured by my worry-addled brain – added to that brief moment of misery.
But what’s really nice about the brain, despite its ability to push its own buttons, is that it tends to erase the trivial, bad stuff and replace it with the happy stuff, especially when both kinds of stuff coincide (how’s that’s for a crudely worded statement?). What’s also really nice? If you’re well prepared, all that worry will be just that – worry – and nowhere near the reality. The reality of that Thanksgiving is that it was filled with the happy stuff, with minimal bad stuff to be replaced. My memories of that day are some of the happiest holiday memories I have – my first (and completely perfect, I might add) turkey, Brian’s first French silk pie, the first time my family saw our furnished apartment, our first time hosting a holiday. My mom, dad, and grandmother stayed so much later than planned, all of us cocooned on the couch with coffee and wine, our small space encouraging the closeness. When they left, we stood out on the sidewalk and waved goodbye and for the first time since we’d moved in, I felt sorry that they were leaving, not that I wasn’t going with them. It was the first time our apartment felt like a home. We’ve hosted Thanksgiving ever since.
If you’re well prepared and in the right mindset, Thanksgiving should leave you feeling just the way we felt that first year we hosted: happy and homey. While you can’t control everything about Thanksgiving, you can control your space, your offerings, and the flow of the day. Keep the major tips below in mind, and you’ll be able to keep a firm grip on all of those things and ensure a day that’s lower in stress, smoother in flow, and full of the happy stuff.
1/ Start gearing up mentally. Frame hosting as a positive event.
This is important to do before you start doing any other prep work for the holiday. Whether you’re hosting for the first time, hosting in a small space, or having social anxiety over managing guests, begin framing the event in a way that gives your mind less opportunities for worry. If you’re judging your space or your abilities in a negative light, it will be hard to get excited about the day and even harder to handle your tasks (or any mishaps that might arise).
Just the act of picturing your space with its positives in mind will change the way you approach planning and hosting. Instead of worrying so much about what won’t work well, you’ll more clearly be able to see and highlight the aspects of your space that work really well.
For example: if you have a tiny apartment, envisioning Thanksgiving as a day spent trapped in a hot, tiny, crowded room is going to cloud all of your preparations with negative energy. If you reframe the smallness of your space, and start thinking about it as an easily controlled, easily cleaned, cozy spot to spend a holiday – you can begin thinking about how to really highlight those positive aspects.
Have a good-sized home but a large crowd of guests coming? Nix the thoughts of tons of people pressed up against your walls – and you – and instead consider the plusses of the situation. A big crowd means more helping hands to delegate to (unless you’re a control freak, like me), more hostess gifts (no shame in looking forward to that), and less pressure to entertain guests, as they’ll probably entertain one another and you. It also means more cushion between certain individuals who might not get along well!
Have the jitters about first-time hosting? Think about this as an opportunity to show off your home or your cooking, or a great and legitimate excuse to – again – delegate to those who can bring a side dish or do some heavy lifting in the kitchen.
2/ Write down EVERYTHING you have to do to prepare.
This takes ten minutes and will save you more than ten headaches in the long run. Just write a list of everything you need to do in order to be ready for guests on Thanksgiving Day. Organize it by category or “deadline” if possible, so that it can function not only as a way to clear your mind but as a timeline to keep you on top of everything, from the trivial (do we have Tums?) to the major (do we have a turkey?).
Here’s a starter. It’s obviously not exhaustive, but should give you an idea of how I organize my to-do list.
|5 DAYS BEFORE||– Review grocery list and shop for as many ingredients as possible
– Confirm what your guests are bringing, if anything
– Take inventory of any temporary furniture you’ll need to use (folding chairs or tables, extra seating) and make sure it’s working and clean
– Start big cleaning tasks
|4 DAYS BEFORE||– Finish decorating
– Arrange furniture as you’d like it
– Continue or finish big cleaning tasks
|3 DAYS BEFORE||– Make cranberry sauce
– Make anything that can stay in the fridge for a while, like herb butter or pie crust
– Finish any cleaning tasks
|2 DAYS BEFORE||– Make make-ahead mashed potatoes and pies
– Make sure you’ve got all of the little things you might need for guests – like Tums, aspirin, extra TP, you name it – and pick it up NOW. Make this your last trip to the store.
|1 DAY BEFORE||– Prep any appetizers, like crudités or hot dips that can be popped in the oven in the morning
– Prep chopped vegetables for stuffing or roasting
– Set up everything you can – for example, a beverage station with red wine, corkscrews, glasses, and cocktail napkins
– Review your turkey roasting recipe so that you know for sure by when you need to get it in the oven in the morning
|MORNING OF||– Make stuffing and stuff/prep bird
– Assemble any appetizers
– Budget yourself at least an hour to JUST RELAX – have a cup of tea, take a shower and get ready, call loved ones, watch some football – before guests arrive.
What’s nice about where Thanksgiving falls – a Thursday every year – is that the bigger, more annoying prep tasks on this list like cleaning, grocery shopping, and deciding on the layout of your space happen on the weekend before the holiday, so you can at least attend to them during the daytime and save yourself from having to do them after work on the weekdays or when its crunch time.
3/ Keep it simple. Remember: quality over quantity.
This is especially important if you’re not requesting help with any major part of Thanksgiving dinner (like side dishes or desserts), or if it’s your first time cooking for a crowd. Resist the urge to try new recipes or get experimental. The simpler your menu items are, the more you can concentrate on ensuring that they’re really good and the more likely it will be that all of your guests will be willing and/or able to enjoy them. That being said, if you’ve got an experimental group or enjoy a challenge, go for it.
Similarly, resist the urge to make three different kinds of the same thing (if you can). I learned this myself the first year I hosted, when at the end of the night I had a ton of leftover vegetables because everyone loved one dish more than the others. I made more work for myself, and it ended up being wasteful. Make one type of dish that you know your guests will like – or enthusiastically try – and make it excellent. Save yourself the money, the time shopping, the time prepping, the time cooking, and the space on your table that could be taken up by a wine bottle or two. 😉
Outside of food, don’t feel like Thanksgiving needs to be a formal affair if you don’t have the time, space, or resources to make your space look like a Martha Stewart catalog. She’s overrated anyway. The success of Thanksgiving hinges primarily on good food and good company, not the kinds of dishes you’re using. Don’t waste time worrying about complicating your décor. Simplify, simplify, simplify.
4/ Decide how – and when – you want your guests to be involved in the prep, and communicate that clearly.
Choose a time when you’d like guests to begin arriving, and let them know in advance. When you’re deciding on a time, make sure it allows you enough room to do any morning prep with minimal stress. Don’t tell your guests you’d like them to arrive by a certain time, especially if you’re socially anxious or have a lot on your plate. Giving them a deadline means they could arrive way earlier than when you’re ready. Give them a starting time, and they’ll (hopefully) trickle in, making crowds seem more manageable and ensuring you can have a few minutes of one-on-one time with everyone.
Let guests know how you’d like them to contribute so everyone’s on the same page. Let them know too – tactfully and kindly! – if there are certain things that you’d like them to know – maybe you don’t like shoes to be worn in your house, or you’d prefer everyone to keep out of the kitchen before the meal.
If you’re socially anxious, like I am, this can be a difficult piece of advice to take because sometimes there’s nothing more intimidating than telling someone what you do or don’t want them to do. If you suck it up, though, it will save you the anxiety of feeling uncomfortable or agitated in your own personal space for a whole day. Just like you might set boundaries for yourself on a regular day, set them on this day too.
Like I mentioned at the start of this post, I need personal space to function calmly, especially when cooking for guests. My tiny apartment kitchen only amplifies that need. Before people come over, or right when they arrive, I try to make sure I invite them to sit down and relax, or tell them that I need no help and that I’d love for them to just make themselves at home. It gives me the breathing room to stay calm – and losing my lid would not be very Thanksgiving-y. That being said, if a lack of helping hands would make you lose your lid, invite guests to take on extra tasks – setting the table, carving the turkey, taking drink orders – that will keep you feeling good.
5/ Anything you can do ahead of time, do ahead of time.
Consider this tip a rule, not a tip. It’s maybe the most important one on this list. It goes for any kind of Thanksgiving you’re having, from formal to casual to first-time to fifth-time to held-in-a-lean-to to held-in-a-mansion. It also goes for any possible prep task you can think of, from furniture rearrangement to chopping vegetables.
This is for a couple of really important reasons:
- Thanksgiving, at its core, is a designated moment in time for being present with others and being thankful for what is, as opposed to being consumed with lonely kitchen tasks and worrying about what is to come from second to second. Leaving too many recipes and tasks until Thanksgiving will really put a damper on your ability to savor the day.
- The more that you can do ahead of time, the more relaxed you’ll feel when it’s time for guests to arrive. You’ll be calmer, you’ll be a better host, you’ll have time for a hot shower in the morning – or a cup of coffee in front of the Macy’s parade, or whatever floats your Mayflower – and you’ll actually enjoy yourself!
- The traditional Thanksgiving menu is almost made to be made ahead. So many of its components will keep for at least a day in the fridge, and many – like cranberry sauce – just taste better the more they sit and “marinate”, as my dad says. You can even make the turkey ahead of time, if you’re a boss like Ina Garten. Our first year hosting, I found a killer make-ahead gravy recipe that relieved my worries of having not enough – and not good enough – gravy on Thanksgiving Day. This year, I’m planning to make everything but the stuffing and the turkey at least a day before, and Brian is planning to bake any and all pies at least 24 hours prior to the festivities.
These tips are all about making sure you have the mindset and time to enjoy and appreciate this holiday, no matter what hosting obstacles you see in front of you. I hope they’ve done just that, and that they help you to prepare, prioritize, and focus your energy on having a really lovely Thanksgiving.
Tomorrow I’ll be sharing tips especially for those of you who are celebrating Thanksgiving – or Friendsgiving, or any celebration of thankfulness! – in a tiny home or apartment, and on Friday I’ll be sharing my favorite Thanksgiving recipes (most of which can be made ahead of time). Be sure to subscribe and follow along so that you don’t miss anything!