My family hosts Thanksgiving dinner every year, which is to say, my mom hosts Thanksgiving dinner every year. It’s her affair; the rest of us are conscripted to our various roles, from carving the turkey (Dad) to baking the pies (me) to taste-testing the dips while everyone else scurries around before guests arrive (sibling who shall remain anonymous). Still, I’ve learned a lot about hosting large-scale events from these Thanksgiving Day feasts, because there have never been fewer than 20 guests present and often more than 30. Irish Catholics, amirite?
The resulting party is always fun, memorable, and a welcome chance for guests to relax and enjoy way too much good food. And as hosts, we’ve learned from certain mistakes made throughout the years, even if they’re just minor hiccups in planning or execution. Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned about hosting, feeding, and entertaining a small army on Thanksgiving—lessons that even small-scale gatherings can benefit from.
Don’t mess with success
In a world saturated with Food Network programming, cooking blogs, and Instagram food porn, you might think you need to change up the menu every year and offer something new and inventive to wow your guests. But on Thanksgiving, cozy comfort is the name of the game, and there’s a good chance your guests are looking for a taste of the familiar.
If you know your guests love good old-fashioned sausage stuffing, it’s perfectly okay to stick with what works. Not only will you be keeping them happy, but you’ll be saving yourself the stress of troubleshooting a new dish. If you find an exciting new recipe you’d love to try, of course you can experiment with adding new sides or mains to the lineup—but only if you feel like your spread is lacking something. No matter what, aim for broad crowdpleasers on the Thanksgiving table. Your great uncle probably isn’t the adventurous foodie you wish he were.
Do the baby math
Your cousins and their spouses are all set to attend your Thanksgiving dinner, and half of them are bringing babies along, sometimes multiple children per family. Where does this leave your head count?
Keep in mind, a newborn is different from a cruising 10-month-old, and a 10-month-old is different from a busy toddler. All of these kids will have a different impact on how much seating you’ll need and how much food you plan to serve.
If you’re unsure whether your niece needs a high chair or a regular chair, or whether your nephew is old enough to chow down on mashed potatoes, don’t be afraid to ask. Parents will be grateful that you’re considering their needs, and they’ll be honest about what’s easiest on their end. You don’t want to end up with too little food on the table because you assumed half the kids were still bottle feeding.
Be realistic about pets
It doesn’t matter whether you own a dog, cat, rabbit, snake, parrot, guinea pig, or ferret—if there are animals in the house, they will find their way to the Thanksgiving food and likely sneak at least a nibble of it.
Even the best behaved dog will lunge at morsels dropped to the floor off guests’ forks. Cats can easily access any surface with green bean casserole on it. Your youngest cousin will absolutely do the whole “polly want a cracker” routine with your parakeet and stuff a Triscuit through the bars of its cage. If you have animals that can’t be around any type of human food, it’s best to send them elsewhere while you host your gathering, or close them off in a room guests can’t wander into.
Tell your guests what to bring, and be specific
“Let me know what I can bring!” might sound helpful on its face, but actually burdens the host with more work. (This is something party hosts have always known and everyone else will never learn until they host an event themselves.) It might be burdensome to hand out assignments to your guests, but here’s what you absolutely must not say: “Oh, just go ahead and bring whatever you like.” This will result in 65 packages of napkins, 39 bottles of wine, and one shrink-wrapped gas station package of crackers and cheese.
You might find it easiest to give everyone the same assignment: a bottle of wine, or the dessert of their choice. Or, if you have the organizational skills to keep track of inventory, you can make more customized suggestions, such as, “Oh, everyone always raves about your corn pudding—would you be able to make enough to serve 12?” This is a great way to make your guests feel valued, and to make Thanksgiving dinner feel like a collaborative effort rather than a solo performance.
And while it’s fine to tell your guests, “You don’t have to bring a thing!” you must understand that you’ll probably be presented with more autumnal candles than you could light in a lifetime. People don’t like showing up empty-handed; don’t make them.
Make a game plan for oven space
Who doesn’t love playing Oven Tetris on Thanksgiving? So many casserole dishes need to squeeze in there alongside the turkey, all for different amounts of time and at various temperatures. You’ll need a game plan to get through it.
At least a week prior to Thanksgiving, take all the pans and baking dishes you plan to use and try fitting them into a cold oven together to see what fits where. Remember, don’t let the pans touch each other, which can cause hot spots and burns. When you’ve got that figured out, write down the order in which you plan to cook everything (along with oven temps and cooking time for each dish) so that all you have to do is follow the checklist on the day of.
Don’t forget to include guests’ dishes in the game plan, too, if any of those require oven space. Since things get chaotic in the kitchen, you might want to graciously turn down any guest’s offer to bring a dish that needs tending at the stove, like gravy. And store-bought or bakery rolls will ease up on the kitchen chaos, too. No one expects a fresh baked dinner roll.
Keep everyone away from the kitchen
Even the biggest, most beautiful home kitchens will feel a little claustrophobic on Thanksgiving, as your guests crowd in to see how everything’s coming along and offer their help. As a host, the goal is to minimize kitchen traffic and preserve optimal maneuvering space. You’re about to slice into a 20-pound bird, after all, and you need elbow room.
The solution: keep everything out of the kitchen that guests might need. Put the beer, soda, and bottled water in a cooler and stick it in the hallway, the entryway, the back porch, wherever. Keep wine in an ice bucket near the dining area. Arrange glassware on a sideboard somewhere, if you can (though not where any toddlers can crash into it). Set out condiments so no one has to root around in the fridge for them. However you can reduce everyone else’s need for your precious cooking space, do it.
Make it clear where the garbage is
“Where can I toss this?” There’s a 21st-century tendency to hide our garbage cans away in little drawers and cubbies, and unless you make your garbage can placement obvious to your guests, you’ll be fielding this question all night. For the ultimate in practicality, you can just set up extra garbage cans in every room where people can toss empties or ditch Hershey Kisses wrappers, though this option will strike some as overly pedestrian.
You can always keep an industrial-sized garbage and recycle bin on your porch and direct people outside with their trash, too, or put up little signs designating garbage and recycling in the kitchen so people make a beeline for the trash without crowding the area. Remember not to let recycle bags get so overloaded with bottles that you can’t lift it during cleanup later.
Start the party with an empty dishwasher
Before your first guests arrive, make sure the dishwasher is fully unloaded and ready to be inundated with dirty dinner dishes. This will require cleaning up as you cook, or at least assigning someone else to do so while you tend to the turkey and stuffing. The less overloaded your countertops, the more at ease you’ll be when you open your door to the guests who are about to absolutely annihilate your home.
Keep children entertained (and mess-free)
Oh my god, if I can impress upon you just one rule of entertaining, it is this: no Play-Doh at your gathering. I don’t care if you thought ahead and bought a tarp for the entire play area. Play-Doh will trail around your house in the form of tiny crumbs, which will get squashed into little cow patties all over your carpet and hardwood, which will harden into shatteringly sharp shards that are hazardous to pry up from the floor with your fingernails.
You should absolutely offer something to entertain the toddlers in your crew, but stick to stuff like crayons, which can only break into so many pieces, or colorforms, which still manage to wow children of the digital age. Your table linens will thank me. (Also, avoid having any toys like bouncy balls or hot wheels cars, which act as tripping hazards for all your other guests.)
Set up a buffet
Family-style dining, in which serving dishes are passed around the table so everyone can feed themselves, can get chaotic in a setting of more than a dozen people. It also requires a lot of space in the center of the table, which might already be crowded with rolls, butter dishes, and a decorative ceramic turkey of some type.
If possible, turn your kitchen counter (or a card table, or whatever surface makes sense) into a buffet station, letting people grab a plate and go to town straight from the baking dishes. This saves you the hassle of washing more serving ware, but it also lets people relax once they’re seated, knowing they won’t constantly have to be passing around dishes to anyone who wants seconds. And for any of your less mobile guests, a buffet lets them stay out of the fray while someone else prepares their plate. Buffets just make sense, if you have the layout for them.
Remember what really matters
Thanksgiving is all about togetherness, right? Well, if you’re all under one roof, you’ve accomplished that part, so don’t worry if you’re not all seated for dinner at the exact same moment. It’s never going to be perfectly coordinated: Some guests might come late or leave early. Some might be dealing with a toddler tantrum right as dinner hits the table. Others might run over to the TV if something exciting is happening in the game. Some folks might still be heading up the rear of the buffet line as others polish off their first plate. All of this is fine—indeed, it’s because you’re all so comfortable with one another that this is the way dinner might look.
By the end of the night, everyone will have eaten their fill regardless of whether you stand on ceremony. Some guests might slap a turkey sandwich together to eat with one hand while running after their kids while ten different conversations happen over one another at the dinner table and the cousins’ new boyfriends are all awkwardly deposited in the living room to watch football with plates of food in their lap beside uncles who are already snoring. All of this is fine. None of it is elegant. It’s hospitality in its purest form.
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