Hosting Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be stressful. Learn how I make it a memorable and enjoyable event from start to finish. From decorating and menu planning to entertainment and guests, I’ve got you covered when it comes to hosting Thanksgiving dinner this year.
Like decorating, entertaining is an art. We learn how to better perfect it over time with practice. But aren’t there secrets to mastering entertaining at home? It does take a little planning and patience, but I’m certain you can create a stunning Thanksgiving event that will go off without a hitch.
Let’s start with entertaining, in general.
Entertaining is not just about making your home look nice and comfortable (as important as those are). It’s about adding enough style, entertainment, food and drinks, and company in the comfort of your own home that make people want to keep coming back.
Entertaining isn’t a way to brag about what you can do with all your wonderful homemaking skills and how magnificent your life is… It’s more so about others.
It’s about bringing family and friends together. Sharing stories. Back and forth banter about school, your boss, so-and-so’s plans for the coming season. Watching your favorite sports team play as you and your favorite uncle yell at the tv screen. Eating the best comfort foods of the season. Most of all, it’s about creating joy-filled moments that everyone can look back on with comfort and delight.
Entertaining on Thanksgiving holds an even stronger meaning, though.
Thanksgiving is special. We gather around long dinner tables, filled to the very edges with foods many of us eat only once a year. We share long stories over coffee and dessert with people we haven’t seen since the summer months or longer. That sense of family and togetherness begins to rekindle as we mentally prepare ourselves for the winter holidays that shortly follow.
In my experience, though, people tend to overemphasize the food on Thanksgiving and could actually use a few pointers on providing the entertainment (along with a few tips on the art of conversation).
I’m going to discuss a few tips and ideas for hosting Thanksgiving this year, whether large or small, extravagant or simple. I hope this gives you something to think about before you prepare for your big day.
Hosting Thanksgiving Dinner
Most of us know that Thanksgiving is about togetherness with family. But sometimes friends fit into this mix too. Invite who you want, but remember to include any friends or family who may not have somewhere to go this year. Loneliness can be a terrible thing to experience over the holidays. Show some kindness and extend an invitation to an older couple you know, a single friend who can’t travel home this year, or a coworker who doesn’t have any family nearby.
When hosting Thanksgiving, you get to decide how big or small you want your Thanksgiving dinner to be. So don’t let others pressure you into something that doesn’t feel possible. If you only have the space for a smaller gathering, only invite x amount of people. Be mindful of your budget, too, if you’re providing the majority of the food.
Let me just say, who you invite can make or break any type of gathering. Invite who you are comfortable with having in your home. Families can be complex and relationships are sometimes complicated… Do what is best for you and your family. Everyone (yourself included) deserves a joyful Thanksgiving experience. Holding boundaries is perfectly fine if you can’t invite everyone.
As far as formal paper invitations go, those are completely optional. I have personally never used them for a family gathering like this, but if you have a long list of invites or you just can’t resist a good card design, go for it.
Hosting Thanksgiving comes with a few givens. You provide at least some of the food and a place for everyone to gather. Which means at the very least your home should be clean and comfortable. However, I like to kick it up a notch and do a bit of decorating on this forgotten holiday sandwiched between Halloween and Christmas.
I recommend decorating a front porch where people enter your home or, if weather permits, a patio where people can gather before and after the meal. (You can see how I decorated my patio last fall for a bit of inspiration HERE).
Adding small touches really makes such a difference. Even a festive fall wreath on the front door will do. People will notice the effort.
This year I am decorating my porch with mums and stacked decorative pumpkins, along with a few pansies in a hanging planter. Nothing extreme, but it will be beautiful and welcoming.
I also recommend adding a few fall touches inside your home, since this is where most of the mingling will happen. In my home, I have decorated for the fall season already so not much will need to be added in. I use lots of natural elements like neutral pumpkins, cinnamon, pine cones, and dark dried florals to set the tone.
My advice: Try to play with different fall colors, scents, and textures for a breathtaking experience anyone would be excited for. Even lighting a few candles in the main gathering area will help set the mood.
In the kitchen, choose fall-colored cloth napkins that you only break out on special occasions, or purchase some festive ones from a specialty store. Use real cocktail glasses if alcohol is on the menu. Create a beautiful tablescape for the dining table like this one HERE for something truly authentic.
The point is to make people feel like it’s a special occasion. Really, you want to make them feel special. Use those “only for special occasion” tableware and decor you don’t normally use.
If you have the stove space, you can even simmer a pot of spices and citrus on a very low setting for a few hours to add a fragrant fall scent that people will be longing for.
The grand meal
Hosting Thanksgiving is largely centered around the big feast. And who can complain? This is the only time of year I get homemade rolls, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and deviled eggs all at once. (Can you tell I’m all about the sides?)
Some people stress and worry over the turkey getting done, having enough room in the oven for all the food at once, or serving a variety of desserts so everyone gets what they like.
Well, Thanksgiving menu planning doesn’t have to give you mountains of stress.
Here are my plans for this year that you are welcome to borrow yourself.
I have already asked both my mom and mother-in-law to supply the meat (both a turkey and meatloaf). This alone takes a lot off my plate. (Besides, I’m a vegetarian so the odds of me cooking a delicious turkey are very slim).
For bread, I will make some tasty rolls from scratch (you can see my famous roll recipe HERE) a week before Thanksgiving and freeze them. Those will be thawed the day before and warmed minutes before dinner is served. Easy.
I am having a couple of people bring a side dish each, so that will help me too. But I plan on making about three side dishes myself. Luckily, I think all of them can be prepped the day before and stored in the fridge until I need to cook them. I recommend sticking with a few traditional sides that most people at your gathering will enjoy.
Some classics: mashed potatoes, roasted butternut squash, au gratin potatoes, green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, corn casserole, broccoli rice casserole, deviled eggs, cranberry sauce, stuffing, sweet potato casserole.
Before dinner snacks
Finger foods before dinner can be optional, but it is really nice to have some olives or crackers and cheese to snack on while everyone’s mouths are salivating from the kitchen aromas. Keep these very simple, so you can focus on the main course.
After dinner dessert
I strongly recommend serving desserts that are room temperature so you don’t have to worry about warming up more food in between cleaning up the dinner and visiting with guests.
Desserts at my house this year will involve one pumpkin, one chocolate, and one cherry dessert. I figure this is enough variety for the amount of guests we will have here. One fruit (classic and seasonal), one pumpkin (for all the pie lovers), and one chocolate dessert for the picky eaters (and those who just love their chocolate).
One of these desserts is fast and involves zero baking. While the other two will be from scratch, they will be made days before and frozen until they need to be thawed out the day before.
For drinks, I recommend maybe having wine or beer on hand to offer guests. But this can quickly get expensive and some families are not big drinkers. You can provide some beer and wine and tell guests to bring their own if they are hoping for something harder or more specific.
For kids and those who just don’t want alcohol, I always like to offer a non-alcoholic drink like a non-alcoholic sangria that I mix up the morning of the gathering. It is perfect for this time of year and is basically just several juices mixed together.
In our house, we aren’t big soda drinkers, but it’s nice to have a few on hand during holiday get-togethers for guests. Offer wedges of limes and lemons to water drinkers, but no fancy set-up is required (especially if you are short on space).
A note on hosting Thanksgiving dinner & meal prep
Do not be afraid to ask others for help. I love hosting and rarely ask others to bring anything. But when it comes to such a big event with so many different foods, it would be silly to turn down help. That being said, feel free to take full reign over the planning of the menu if that is easiest for you.
Then ask guests if they would rather bring a casserole or whatever else you need them to bring to make it easier to keep track of.
Most guests are happy to bring what you request. If they are just dying to bring something else, let them… but be sure to ask someone else to cover the dish you had hoped they would bring.
I recommend staying really traditional with the Thanksgiving Day menu. It is a day to be celebrated and traditional Thanksgiving food is what most people are yearning for. People get these foods once a year, so don’t go hosting a party with all the superbowl dips and a few sandwiches. I’m sorry to break it to you, but it just isn’t the same… Save those for another occasion.
Good conversation is vital to hosting Thanksgiving. And quite frankly, it’s often forgotten when people think about hosting Thanksgiving dinner or any other holiday for that matter.
Obviously you don’t need to write an elaborate script to follow, but it’s nice to have a few conversation starters or humorous stories rolled up your sleeves for those awkward silences or for short bursts of laughter to keep everyone in a good mood.
This comes pretty naturally to outgoing people, but if you’re a host who is more soft spoken it’s a great idea to use this tip. I recommend making a mental list in your head of some conversation starters–with some conversation steerers when things get too out of hand or uncomfortable if you have that sort of family.
Guiding the conversation in a room full of lots of different people really is an art form. And being a good conversationalist in general is a huge part of hosting and entertaining. (Luckily, I have a pretty outgoing husband and other family members who keep things pretty fun.)
Try to set up tables and chairs in a way that allows guests to mingle and prevents people from feeling secluded in a corner. If you have a large enough space, try to guide guests to certain areas before, during, and after dinner.
For some of us this isn’t possible, but for those with a sitting room for mingling before dinner, a large dining area for the dinner, and a patio for after-dinner drinks, this is a wonderful idea. It helps the flow a lot and allows the host to prepare in peace and tidy up while people move to a different space after the meal.
Without fail, people always seem to congregate in the kitchen. The kitchen really is the heart of the home and some people want to be of service to you. We have such a small kitchen, though, so for me this makes it really stressful when people are gathering around me and trying to hold long conversations when I’m making finishing touches.
It is totally okay to accept help if you need it. But get comfortable with gently redirecting guests to other spaces for mingling to leave you enough room for finishing cooking and putting dishes out. (But also, be gracious and allow yourself plenty of time to greet guests before hiding out in there. The last thing you want is to seem rude.)
After dinner entertainment
Dinner is over, people are letting their food digest until dessert, and some are about to roll over drooling because they’re so stuffed to the brim. However, you can provide some sort of entertainment for those sticking around for dessert.
Here are a few entertainment ideas I have:
- Football game on a patio using a projector and screen
- A hilarious card game like Who’s Most Likely To to keep adults preoccupied
- Easy fall crafts at a designated table for the little ones
- Background music with a makeshift dance floor for the adults who’ve had too much to drink and can’t sit still
There are so many ways to entertain people. Sometimes with the smallest things. Get creative and have fun!
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