Our 12 Foolproof Tips for Hosting Thanksgiving
Hi friends, Kaitlynn here!
Today, I’m bringing you all the things you need to know to successfully plan and host Thanksgiving next week. But before we get to the good stuff (go ahead and scroll down if you’re too anxious) I want to share a little backstory with you.
For as long as I can remember, Thanksgiving has been my absolute favorite holiday - even ousting “Birthmas”, my Seth Cohen inspired mega holiday that combines my December 24 Birthday with Christmas. The amalgamation of family tradition, food, and the acceptability of a 3:00 pm glass of wine makes Thanksgiving the unbeatable holiday. My family has never been huge on tradition - no annual trips to the lake or “last day of school” rituals - but damn, do we pack ‘em in on Thanksgiving. My favorite tradition? The chef.
Way back in the 1970s, my dad’s mom got too sick to cook Thanksgiving dinner, so my grandpa stepped up to the plate to get dinner on the table. I’m not sure if that’s how my grandma had planned it (she has a notorious disdain for cooking), but from that Thanksgiving on, the Colbert men assumed the roll of Thanksgiving chef.
When my dad was in his early 20s, the title was officially passed on to him and Thanksgiving became his annual masterpiece. Menus were poured over, family votes were had (no one can forget the great chouriço stuffing debate of 2014 or the near panic the year he tried to change the sweet potato recipe), and I gleefully assumed the role of sous-chef , diligently studying the true process of cooking Thanksgiving dinner - be it for 24 people or five.
When my dad passed away in November of 2016, my mom and I had made plans to jointly tackle a small family Thanksgiving. Two days beforehand, my mom came down with a nasty cold that left her sneezing, sleepy, and most importantly, without the ability to taste anything. Call it serendipity, but life came full circle and it was my turn to take over as chef de cuisine of Thanksgiving dinner. Guys, this is going to be a whole chapter in my upcoming untitled memoir.
ANYWAY. That’s how we got here - to the place where I’m going to lay down the facts you need to know on how to host Thanksgiving dinner. I believe a lot of things about Thanksgiving: it should be savored, it should be spent with family and the friends who are your family, it should involve copious amounts of good wine; but most of all, I believe that Thanksgiving is about logistics.
And ya girl loves some logistics.
So as we continue on, I’m going to walk you through all the things that I’ll be doing starting next Monday to make sure Thanksgiving is a well-oiled machine and that you’ll be serving pie and sipping beaujolais while people wonder “how does she do it?!" come next Thursday.
Monday: Strategy is everything.
A lot of us want to dive right into to the fun of Thanksgiving - pie making, setting the table - but I promise, preparation goes a long way, my friends. It’s important to note that by this time you should have your menu locked in, but if you’re still struggling to find the perfect mashed potato recipe, figure that out before proceeding any further.
Once my menu is set, the first thing I do is figure out the places I need to be, when I need to be there, and any little errands that may need to get run during my prep days: Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. (Sidebar: I also like to use this time to think about what meals we’ll be eating leading up to Thanksgiving because refrigerator management is real, friends. More on that later.)
Tip #1: Map out your week
I like to get up early on Monday morning, grab a cup of coffee, and sit down with a good old yellow legal pad to map out my strategy for the week.
My prep days typically little something like this:
Monday: Non-perishable grocery shopping, specialty shopping (spices, wine), pie crust making (my favorite recipe can be found here)
Tuesday: Perishable grocery shopping, cleaning, meal timeline creation, laundry (outfits to wear, and most importantly, kitchen towels)
Wednesday: Food prep (slicing, dicing, browning, the works), setting the table + assigning platters, pie baking, refrigerator assessment (ie: making sure that there is enough space in your refrigerator for all the things that need to be in there. I promise you that there is no more frustrating a feeling than carrying a large pan of stuffing that can’t be baked for several more hours, and realizing that there’s no room in the refrigerator. Swearing ensues. Questioning why you took on this massive feat. Calling your mom to ask for help #blessLaura. Just do it beforehand.)
Tip #2: Create a shopping gameplan
Before you jump in the car to start your grocery shopping, a gameplan is critical. Some (ahem, my mom and my husband) may say I’m a bit neurotic about my shopping plans, but I swear if you follow my ways, life will be made substantially easier.
Thoroughly review each recipe. This is best done with a partner. Go through each recipe’s ingredient list and confirm if that ingredient is “in stock”, or if it needs to be added to your grocery shopping list. As a Thanksgiving principle, always have more flour and butter on hand than you think you’ll need. Make that ongoing list on your yellow legal pad. In addition to reading the recipe’s ingredient list, make sure you read the step-by-step instructions just in case the recipe author snuck in some additional ingredients in the notes. Use this time to double check that you have all the necessary cookery to execute each recipe.
From there, organize your master shopping list. I do this by store:
Regular grocery (think Meijer/Kroger/Target)
Specialty grocery (if you’re on the east side, I typically go to Nino Salvaggio)
Specialty shops (your spice shop or wine merchant)
Other” (like Sur La Table or Potterybarn).
Map out which items need to be purchased from which store and reorganize your shopping list (draft two, as I call it).
Then, literally map out where the stores are located and figure out the best way to do your shopping. I hate - and I mean hate - doubling back (ie: driving to grocery store A but passing grocery store B on the way and then having to turn around and go back to grocery store B), so I take a UPS-like approach to my shopping plan and try my best to complete a little circle as I make my way through my shopping.
If you’re feeling extra type A, reorganize each “sub shopping list” so that it can be easily executed in the store. Group your fruits/veggies/meats/dairy/etc so that you’re not running from aisle to aisle once you’re in the grocery story. Skip this step if you’re like my husband and are convinced you can visualize everything as you go.
Grab your list, a pen, a fresh latte, and a zen-like attitude (people will be rude, y’all. Try your hardest not to punch the dude who cuts you off to get to the leeks) and head off to the first part of your grocery shopping.
Tuesday: Oven management is critical.
By now, your grocery shopping should be done and our cleaning should be well under way (make your momma happy and dust everything). This is the perfect moment to pause and think through the logistics of Thanksgiving day.
I remember, vividly, the celebratory day that my parents had double ovens installed. But unless you’re Ina Garten or own a catering kitchen, you’re likely working with two ovens or less, and in the words of my dad, “oven management is critical”.
Tip 3: Note your needs.
Sit down with each of your recipes, this time thoroughly reviewing the step-by-step instructions. Break out that yellow legal pad - maybe by this time you’ve given it a name - and start noting mechanical needs. This may look something like this:
Best Mashed Potatoes
Stovetop boil - 30 minutes
Oven at 400° for 25 minutes.
Oven at 375° for 45 minutes
Once you have all of your recipe needs noted, it’s time to put together the timeline. Whether it’s a wedding day or Thanksgiving a timeline is a timeline my friends, and in this instance, your turkey is the bride. The star of the show. The tops. Base your timeline around the needs of your star. Personally, I like to devote an entire oven to my turkey and then work the sides in shifts in the second oven. I’ll cook big things like the stuffing earlier in the day and then once the turkey is out and resting, use the “Turkey Oven” to rewarm all of the dishes.
Tip 4: Organize then re-organize.
Next, I take my timeline and then re-write a clean copy with all of my tasks and subtasks divided by the time of day. It’s a bit of a science and it’s important to understand the pace you work at — for instance, don’t give yourself 20 minutes to prep the mashed potatoes if you know that peeling and chopping isn’t your strong suit. I note all of my cook times and temperatures, as well as which oven the item will be cooked in. This becomes your master plan. Repeat to yourself: “This is my Thanksgiving plan. There are many like it, but this one is mine.”
Tip 5: No place for dirty laundry.
If you asked my mom what her number one Thanksgiving complaint is, she would tell you it’s my need (and my dad’s need before me) to use every single kitchen towel that she has in her house. She has a lot of kitchen towels. She’s also right. Whoops.
So prepare yourself well and do a few loads of laundry while things are still quiet. Make sure that your outfits for Wednesday and Thursday are ready to go (cooking is not a spectator sport, friends, so before dinner is served I like to wear something cute but also something I wouldn’t mind spilling turkey juice on if ya catch my drift), and that all the kitchen towels, aprons, napkins, and tablecloths are ready for their finest hour. There’s nothing worse than being in the 3:00 pm weeds on Thanksgiving and realizing that you’re out of kitchen towels. Trust me.
Tip 6: The final countdown.
Y’all. If there’s one thing that I can stress, it’s that you do not want to be caught in the grocery story chaos of Wednesday. It’s like Black Friday, but with angry grandmas vying for the last bottle of buttermilk. Take a moment as your day winds down to make sure that you have everything you need on hand to avoid running out for a “quick errand” on Wednesday.
Wednesday: Today, we prepare for glory.
To quote Abe Lincoln, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”. Consider Wednesday your axe sharpening day.
Tip 7: Slice, dice, brown.
I like to dedicate Wednesday to the cooking tasks that suck up valuable time on game day. I go back to my original prep list from Monday and start to tackle pieces of every recipe. Things I like to do: brown sausage for the stuffing, bake the sweet potatoes so they’re ready for mashing when I need them, chop every onion, carrot, and stalk of celery that I’ll need throughout the day. Then I’ll use Ziploc gallon bags or deli containers like this to store the prepped ingredients.
Critical reminder: label, label, label! Keep masking tape and a sharpie in your apron pocket so that you can label all of your prepared ingredients. You’ll thank me tomorrow.
This is also your reminder to take care of any beverage prep you need to do. If you live in a colder climate (what’s up Mitten!) set your wine and beer on back porch or garage to chill, make sure you have enough ice, and lay out your bar.
Tip 8: Set the table.
Whether your family eats Thanksgiving dinner on paper plates or the finest china, get everything set a day beforehand. Think through your different dishes and decide what will need to be on the table (will everyone need two forks? A soup spoon?). My family generally eats Thanksgiving in our formal dining room, so I’ll start by laying out table linens and chargers, then add plates, silverware, and napkins. I generally keep tabletop decor simple with plenty of space for food, but if you plan to serve food in a different room, then lay your centerpiece now!
Another critical piece? Your serviceware. Gather all of your platters, plates, bowls, crocks and gravy boats so that you’re not digging through cupboards moments before Thanksgiving dinner begins. I like to label what each platter will hold with a little sticky note (or that same masking tape and sharpie that’s in your apron pocket). Make sure that each dish has the appropriate serving utensil as well. Arrange the platters in their “final landing spot”, which is a great reminder to make sure that your table/buffet/card table is clean and cleared.
Once your table is set, take a moment to make sure that you have all the trappings to create the perfect Thanksgiving ambiance. Make sure that your lighters work, your sound system is functioning, and that you have a great dinner playlist (if you need some inspiration, check out our most recent We’re Loving).
Tip 9: Hanger is the enemy.
We’ve all been there. We all know the devastating effects of hanger, so ward off starving family members by thinking through a simple lunch on Thanksgiving day. I serve dinner around 5:30/6:00 pm so I’ll shoot for an easy lunch that can be served around noon. That way folks are hungry, but not starving, when dinner hits the table. After all, we don’t cook for hours and hours to have dinner demolished in 30 minutes! My favorite thing: whip up a batch of soup (I’ll be making a Curried Butternut Squash + Apple recipe that’s a family fave) on Wednesday to serve alongside an easy salad. Simple and satiating!
Thursday: Game day.
When I wake up on Thursday morning, the first thing I do is put on Eminem’s Lose Yourself and then repeat Denzel Washington’s speech from Remember the Titans. (Kidding! Kind of.)
This is the day we’ve prepared for so now it’s all about execution!
Tip 10: Keep your friends close and your recipes closer.
One of the best tips I’ve ever read about Thanksgiving is to make sure that you have printed, paper copies of all of your recipes. You don’t want to worry about spilling wine on Nana’s generations old roll recipe or trying to keep a cookbook open while there’s butter all over your hands. Put your apron on - arm yourself with a pen, thermometer and kitchen towel- then hang your timeline on the refrigerator, and finally tape up each of your recipes on the kitchen cupboards so you can easily follow along without worry about turning the pages or digging papers out from underneath bowls and cutting boards.
Tip 11: Execute with flexibility.
One of my favorite childhood memories is waking up one Thanksgiving morning to the sound of my dad yelling “open the door!” - I ran downstairs only to find him throwing a tray of flaming walnuts onto the back patio to be extinguished by snow. Classic broiler mishap.
All this to say - things will go wrong. That’s okay. Cooking is meant to be fun and even the most world renowned chefs have made a mistake or two in their day. If something goes wrong, roll with it. Follow your plan to the best of your ability and remember what the day is really about.
Tip 12: Enjoy.
It’s important to remember that the point of all this Thanksgiving preparation is so that you can actually enjoy the day. Much like a well executed wedding timeline, it’s about creating white space so that you can savor all that’s happening around you - taking a moment to sit down and watch the parade or a little bit of the Lions game, giving your grandma a call to tell her your thinking about her, laughing with your family instead of freaking out that you can’t find the marshmallows for your sweet potatoes. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because of all of my wonderful family memories, not because of the fancy food or wine selections (but, I don’t mind those either). With a little bit (okay, a lot) of front-end prep, you can spend the day creating new memories, drinking lots of good wine, and enjoying the food you worked so hard to prepare.
So friends, that’s what I’ve got for you.
Create a kickass timeline. Cook some delicious food. Love your people well.