How to Host Your First Thanksgiving

Throwing your first Thanksgiving is an important milestone in every hostess’s party career. Not only does it mean you take cooking and entertaining seriously, but it also shows that you’re a prominent party planner among your friends and family members. If you’ve decided to tackle the occasion, congrats! I hosted Thanksgiving for the first time 12 years ago, and although I ran into some obstacles, I still remember it vividly and can confidently say that all 15 of the people who attended had an amazing time. To ensure that your Thanksgiving is a memorable success, you’ve got to put in the prep time. I basically devote all of my free time in the month of November to Thanksgiving! You may not be able to do the same, but at the very least, begin by reading the tips outlined here, then think big and have a good time—here’s how to host your first Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is 22 days away, and while that may seem like plenty of time, there are a lot of logistics to figure out when it comes to Turkey Day. Start planning now. Not tomorrow. Today. If you haven’t sent out invitations, do so, and ask friends and family to RSVP. You’ll need to know how many people are coming in order to get the proper size turkey. Send a text or Paperless Post and be sure to inquire about special dietary needs. If several vegans are coming to dinner, you’ll want to plan main course options other than the turkey.

From terrific table décor to the proper playlist, the little details make Thanksgiving more special. When someone says, “What can I do to help?”, delegate them a task. Consider the person and their talents. For example, my sister’s boyfriend is a bartender, so naturally when he offers to help, I can ask him to make a specialty cocktail and trust that it will be a good one. Ask your graphic designer friend to print out menus. Have your interior design–obsessed gal pal come early to set the table. Request that the couple with an enviable garden supply fresh herbs and flowers. Even if none of your friends are creative types or foodies, give them some sort of task. Have them pick up ice on the way over, bring a bottle of red wine, or order a pumpkin pie from the local bakery.

Figure out your menu at least a week in advance, and practice making any of the dishes you are uneasy about. I’m not saying you should make an entire Thanksgiving meal before Thanksgiving, but if there are one or two items you’re nervous about, then give them a shot. Worried about making gravy for the first time? Roast a small chicken and practice the technique with the pan drippings. Then eat the chicken and use the bones to make a flavorful stock for Thanksgiving.

Unless you love waiting in long lines and navigating through incredibly crowded aisles, do not go grocery shopping the day before Thanksgiving. Do your big shop on Monday or Tuesday and only go to the market on Wednesday or Thursday if you absolutely have to. Also, do not go to the store without a grocery list. You won't be able to aimlessly wander the aisles and get everything you need to create a spread of six to eight dishes. Go with a list and you won’t forget stuff; plus, you'll avoid having to make multiple time-consuming visits to the store.

If the pumpkin pie recipe you want to make involves roasting an entire pumpkin, you can skip that step and use canned pumpkin instead. Don’t have time to make chicken broth? No one will know if you use a good quality boxed broth. Simplify recipes wherever you can. When pressed for time, let the store do the work for you. Buy pregrated parmesan for the mashed potatoes, a container of sliced veggies for the crudité platter, and a bag of pomegranate seeds for the punch. No one will know if you used Stovetop to make the stuffing—jazz it up with fresh herbs and vegetables.

Not everything has to be homemade. Make some of the dishes and fill out the rest of the menu with store-bought items. For appetizers, instead of making elaborate canapés, assemble a cheese plate with fresh grapes and nuts. Not everyone is into baking, and if you aren’t, order pies from your favorite bakery. Transfer them to pretty serving platters, and your guests won’t even know that they aren’t homemade.

If your job allows you to do so, take Wednesday off of work. Use this day to prepare for the party. Brine the turkey, set the table, figure out which serving dish will be used for the green bean casserole, wash the wineglasses, and do whatever else needs to get done.  

You want to be able to enjoy Thanksgiving, so do as much as possible in advance. Once you know how many people are coming, check to make sure you have enough plates and utensils. Also, do you have enough chairs and a table that is big enough to seat all your guests? What about a tablecloth? Napkins? Serving dishes? Wineglasses? These are logistics that can be figured out at least two weeks in advance. If you are borrowing champagne flutes from your older sister’s best friend, ask her to bring them by a week early. Figure out the seating chart a week before Thanksgiving. Set the table on Tuesday night. Make any food items that can be done early, and keep them in the fridge for a few days.

If something goes wrong, don’t freak out. Take a deep breath and figure out how to resolve the situation. Gravy not thickening? Add a cornstarch slurry and whisk away. Burned cranberry? Ask a friend who is late to the party to pick up a can of cranberry at the store. As the hostess, it is your responsibility to make guests feel comfortable and at ease. They will not feel this way if you are stressed and freaking out. No one will know that you didn’t have time to put together the Pinterest-worthy place cards. Let it go and move on.

If you’ve got a lot of cooking to do on Thanksgiving, set the appetizers up in the kitchen. Invite your guests to help you. Give them an apron and make it a cooking party. Everyone into watching the football game on the TV in the living room? Ask each guest or couple to join you for some prep time in the kitchen. You’re not hired help, so get your friends and family members to keep you company while you are cooking. 

It’s Thanksgiving, and you’re hosting it! Be grateful for your friends and family. Be thankful for the roof over your head and the oven to roast your turkey in. Be mindful of the delicious food you are eating. Pour yourself a bourbon, and toast with your loved ones. It’s a holiday: Be happy and have fun!

What's your advice for the first-time Thanksgiving hostess?

Opening Image: Vanessa Rees for Saveur