Family Life Home Ownership

How to Plan Thanksgiving (Without Losing Your Mind)

Get out the cranberries and prep the pans – Thanksgiving is almost here! Thanksgiving is more than an annual chance to catch up with your extended family or feast with your friends. It’s also an opportunity to create some great memories with your loved ones and celebrate all the blessings you have in your life. 

First, however, you have to get through all the prep work without getting overwhelmed. While the task may seem overwhelming, careful planning can take the guesswork out of the occasion. Here’s how to take the fear out of the upcoming feast.

Start Planning Early

It’s probably not a big shock that the key to a stress-free Thanksgiving is planning – the earlier, the better. A detailed, written plan will help keep you on track and make sure that nothing is forgotten. Whether it’s your first time to host the dinner or you’re a seasoned pro, the following tips can help you put it all together: 

  • Put Your Guest List Together. Whether you plan to go big or keep it small, think about whose company you most enjoy and send out your invitations accordingly. Make it clear that you need RSVPs so you know how many chairs to have and how much to cook.
  • Get a Cleaning Schedule in Place. The pre-feast cleaning is often the most stressful aspect of the month leading up to the holiday. Don’t leave everything to the last minute. Either adopt a “spring cleaning” approach where you tackle one room at a time or see if there’s room in your budget for a maid service.
  • Figure Out the Budget. Thanksgiving can get a lot more expensive than you might expect if you aren’t watching the budget. It can be tempting to pour money into decorations and little “extras” as you go, but those things can add up fast (and exacerbate your stress).
  • Decide Where to Delegate. Is this going to be totally your show? Or would you prefer a cooperative event? Decide early if you’re handling all the meal preparations or if you plan to ask guests to bring a side dish or dessert. 

Finally, don’t forget to take inventory of your cooking tools well before it’s time to start. You don’t want to have to track down a turkey-sized pan and extra casserole dishes the day before the big event. While you’re shopping for the groceries you need, pick up some disposable carry-out containers and aluminum foil so that you can send your guests home with leftovers, if you like.

Pre-Cook as Much as Possible

The real secret of a stress-free Thanksgiving is pre-cooking as much of your meal as you can in the days leading up to the feast. Starting the Sunday before: 

  • Bake Your Cookies and Pies First: If you’re doing holiday cut-outs and pumpkin and pecan pies, get those out of the way as early as possible. They freeze beautifully and can simply be thawed again.
  • Make All the Cold Dishes the Day Before: Is Grandma’s broccoli salad a must -have on Thanksgiving? Is the meal incomplete without fresh cranberry-orange sauce? If you cook the cold dishes the day before, that will take a lot of stress off your shoulders on the big day.
  • Bake the Bread and Casseroles Next: Your famous holiday potato bake won’t suffer from being made the night before, nor will the green bean or sweet potato casserole. Once they’ve been cooked, you can easily reheat them while your turkey is resting. 

Here’s a bonus tip (and one that may be the real secret to a stress-free event): Keep the menu limited and stick to the basics. There’s no better recipe for disaster than trying to deep-fry a turkey for the first time when you have 20 guests coming. Stick to classics, like deviled eggs and cornbread, not crab legs and calamari. It’ll make your job easier and your guests happier.

Set the Table for Success 

When Thanksgiving comes, don’t aim for perfection – focus on having fun. That means taking a relaxed approach to the feast wherever possible. 

Unless you have a very small gathering and a fairly large table, it’s usually better to serve everything buffet style. Put the mulled cider or wine in a crock pot and use it to anchor the drink station. Place all the desserts on a table or counter by themselves so that people trying to “fill the corners” with seconds from the main meal don’t have to compete for space with those trying to grab a piece of pie or a cookie.

A buffet approach encourages people to go back for extra helpings, keeps people engaged and clears room at the table for plates and drinks. Once the meal is mostly over, you can bring out those take-out containers you bought and encourage your guests to help themselves to the leftovers from the feast — and the pans may practically clean themselves!

Be a Gracious Host

Have you ever been to someone’s house on Thanksgiving where nobody seemed to know what to do with themselves after the meal was over? You want to avoid that, if possible. 

Let the dishes soak and worry about the clean-up on Friday (or, at least, until after your guests have gone home). Have some simple games planned to keep folks engaged and entertained. If the weather is good, you can head outside for cornhole tossing or a loosely defined game of pickle ball. If the weather is cold or dreary, games like “Would You Rather?” or “One Night a Werewolf” are both popular examples of indoor entertainment.

Hosting Thanksgiving dinner is a beautiful thing to do for your loved ones. Whether it’s your first time cooking up a spread or something you’ve been doing for years, a little extra organization and a streamlined cooking schedule can help you keep the whole holiday stress-free.