Hosting Thanksgiving is intimidating. At least, I know I was intimidated the first time I took on the task. That was back when I was just a sophomore at a college 3,000 miles away from my family in California. I couldn't reasonably go home for Thanksgiving seeing as I'd be flying home for Christmas just a month later. Instead, I could either convince a friend to bring me to their family Thanksgiving, or I could throw one for myself and anyone else without a place to go. Armed with the confidence of a 21-year-old (and a moderately large kitchen), I decided to take on the challenge. I figured if I used what I'd learned from watching my mom host Thanksgiving year after year, it couldn't possibly be that hard.
I realized early on in the process that I was completely wrong and totally in over my head. I must not have been paying much attention to my mom, because I had no freakin' clue what I was doing. I spent way too much time fussing over my turkey and not enough on my other dishes; I was short on kitchen tools I'd had no idea I'd need, like pie tins, meat thermometers, and roasting pans; and I seriously overreached by attempting to make dishes that would have been ambitious even on a normal day.
That first year was...interesting. Though it may have not been the tastiest, I did learn a lot, and I've continued to learn more and more about what it takes to host a great Thanksgiving with every year that's followed, much of which I wish I could tell my younger self. If I had a time machine, these are all the tips I'd give myself before I hosted my first Thanksgiving.
Don't go it alone!
If you can't find someone to help you throw Thanksgiving, it's worth reconsidering if you even want to throw it at all. I've found that if I want to host a big crowd, doing the whole thing by yourself is damn near impossible, especially if you've never done it before. When it's just you, you're personally responsible for every dish that does (or doesn't) make it on the table, and that's a lot of pressure! On the other hand, having a partner in crime is both more fun and less stressful, because you have someone to share the duties with, and share a laugh with when things don't go as planned (as they are often wont to do). Even if you can't find someone who's willing to split the work, having a friend pitch in a dish or two can be more than enough to make things easier on you. Pro tip: keep a bottle of bloody Mary mix on hand while you and your co-host spend Thanksgiving morning prepping—it might end up being more fun than the actual dinner!
Make a (very detailed) menu, grocery list, and schedule.
Before I even think about turning on the oven, I start a Thanksgiving Google Doc to help me keep track of everything I want to make and exactly how and when I'm going to make it. Since it's easy to share, it makes collaborating a cinch—you don't even have to be with your co-host IRL to get some planning done.
When it comes to my actual cooking though, I keep things old school with pen and paper. I switched from digital to analog after a few close calls between my computer and wet ingredients. If my paper to-do list gets dirty, I can just write a fresh one, but if my laptop gets dirty, I might be out a thousand dollars, and that definitely wouldn't be a budget-friendly Thanksgiving. Not to mention, there's really nothing as satisfying as physically crossing things off a physical to-do list, especially on a day like Thanksgiving.
I do all this the weekend before Thanksgiving, so that I know which dishes I need to prep a couple days ahead of time, and exactly what I'll need to do the day of. Rather than having to remember everything on my own, I can just glance at my to-do list instead, so nothing gets forgotten and my mind is free to listen to music. Another pro-tip: queue up a few great podcasts to listen to while you're cooking—it'll make the time go much faster!
Everything doesn't have to be fresh out of the oven—embrace make-ahead recipes.
If it weren't for make-ahead recipes, my Thanksgiving table would be a sorry sight. It's physically impossible for me to make everything I want the day of—there just isn't enough space in my oven. Luckily, even recipes that aren't billed as make-ahead usually include make-ahead instructions and will hold up for at least a couple days. For example, I don't make any of my desserts the day of. Most pies will stay good for at least a three or four days in your fridge, which means the weekend before is prime pie-making time. And if you want to serve them warm, you can just pop them in the oven a few minutes before serving and no one will have any idea they aren't fresh.
Desserts aren't the only thing you can make ahead, though. There are plenty of side dishes that stand the test of time as well. Cranberry sauce is best served cold, so you can make it days ahead and not have to worry about a thing. Though you'll want to wait to add the marshmallows until just before serving, you can totally prep the rest of your sweet potato casserole a day or two before. And this goes for most casserole-based side dishes. Avoid adding anything that may make them soggy too soon (like those marshmallows, for example), but otherwise you should be good to go. And if you're not sure about what to do, double check the recipe. There are almost always make-ahead instructions, especially if the recipe is designed for T-Day.
Choose low-fuss recipes that easily feed a crowd.
Another reason casserole-style dishes are great is because they easily feed a crowd, and you don't have to dirty a bunch of dishes to make them. Avoid finicky recipes that need to be prepared one at a time. For one, they probably won't make as much food as family-style food would, and they'll be a bunch of extra work for you. Make things as easy on yourself as you possibly can.
On that note, you also shouldn't make a bunch of dishes you've never made before—now is not the time to get experimental.
Obviously if you've never hosted Thanksgiving before, making brand new recipes might just be part of the deal. But if you have, even once, or you've watched your family make the same thing every year, stick with that recipe! Don't make simple things overly complicated. Your guests expect you to make mashed potatoes, not reinvent the wheel. Getting experimental is fine for casual gatherings, but not when you've got a headcount of ten, and you know they're going to be hungry for very specific things. Not only will keeping it simple save you work, it can actually also help you save money, as specialty ingredients are often the main reason things get expensive.
If it's your first time hosting, you may need to buy a couple of new kitchen tools.
If you're making all the traditional Thanksgiving dishes (turkey, casserole, pie), you're going to need a few pieces of equipment that you might not already have. For one, a meat thermometer is essential. It'll guarantee you know exactly when your bird is safe to eat and perfectly cooked. You'll also need a large roasting pan for your turkey. And, depending on the cooking method you choose for your bird, you may also need a turkey baster and an oven bag. The first time I hosted T-Day I had one casserole dish, but I was planning on making, like, four casseroles, so I needed to buy a couple more to make that happen—ditto pie pans. To be sure you have everything, triple check all your recipes before you go grocery shopping for the tools that you might need.
Luckily, most supermarkets sell disposable versions of all of these tools. I wouldn't normally recommend buying disposable kitchen supplies (because they're environmentally unfriendly). But, if you don't cook that often (especially on a large-scale like this), you might be better off buying a cheap aluminum turkey pan that you can later throw away, rather than an expensive roasting pan you'll only use once a year.
Shortcuts are totally fine and don't let anyone tell you different.
Confession: I love using Trader Joe's boxed stuffing as a base for my stuffing. I doctor it up to make it fancy with fresh veggies, homemade stock, and lots of herbs, but the boxed mix saves me time I would otherwise have to use making homemade croutons. Croutons (which are just dry, stale bread) don't need to be fresh to be best, especially when they're going to be drowned in stock and butter like they will be in a stuffing recipe. Store-bought items that are also free game in my opinion: Libby's canned pumpkin purée for pumpkin pie (most professional bakers actually say it's better than making your own pumpkin purée!), dinner rolls, and frozen pie crusts.
Keep dietary restrictions in mind.
Even if I'm not sure if any of my guests have dietary restrictions, I always try to include a few vegetarian and vegan options on the dinner table (just in case). It's just courteous! I'll even take a dish that does include meat and keep half of it vegetarian. For example, I love bacon in my sweet potato casserole, but I know that's not the case for everyone, so I split the casserole into a vegetarian half and a non-vegetarian half. To differentiate them, I decorate each side with marshmallows facing a different direction—that way no one accidentally ends up eating the wrong one.
Don't overthink the turkey.
Despite what you may have heard, making a turkey is not that hard. And even if it were, your guests aren't showing up for the turkey—they're showing up for the sides. Pick a simple recipe (I like this one from the Barefoot Contessa, which calls for citrus and herbs and a simple salt, pepper, and butter coating), make sure you give it at least four to five days to defrost (this will vary depending on the weight of your turkey, which you can find out more about here.) But at the end of the day, if it doesn't turn out perfect, don't stress. As long as it's safe to eat and it's there, your guests will surely be occupied with other, easier dishes.
Don't be afraid to ask for help.
Even if you're not actively collaborating with a friend to host Thanksgiving, you can still ask your friends for help. Tell them to bring stuff! This will add a bit of variety to your dinner table and give any of your guests who like to cook an opportunity to flex their skills—maybe they wanted to host but couldn't find someone to do it with! And always, always, always have your guests take care of the booze and non-boozy drinks. When you're already spending so much on all the other ingredients, buying beverages should be the last thing on your mind.
Basically, keep things simple, get your friends involved, and give yourself enough time for all the little, unexpected mistakes that are bound to happen. If you do, you'll totally have this in the bag.