Top Thanksgiving Hosting Tips
Trying to juggle all the components of Thanksgiving can be stressful, so we've taken the guesswork out of it. Here is our ultimate list of tips for making this the most successful Thanksgiving ever.
Tips for the Table
A week in advance, make sure you have enough chairs, napkins and dishes to accommodate guests. If you’re missing anything, rent it now. Go ahead and order flowers and confirm your guest list as well.
Vintage is in vogue. "We utilize wood farm tables, either whitewashed or in oak, and mismatched antique flatware—mixed pieces like you might have from relatives," says Leslie Bauer, owner of event design at Wine Country Party & Events. Combine those with little etched glasses or Venetian tumblers. It creates a shabby-chic look that's simple but elegant. In addition, you can mix china patterns. It's fun looking for pieces at flea markets or consignment stores.
To create a more contemporary look, limit yourself to just two colors. Keep the plates mostly white; perhaps use square dishes. Include something reflective, such as gold or silver flatware, to add pizzazz and bring the table to life.
Bring in the tones of autumnal fruits and vegetables, such as pomegranates, persimmons, pumpkins and gourds, for the centerpiece. Pick just one of those colors for your napkins and have a muted ivory or tan tablecloth.
Hollow out pumpkins or gourds and use them as vases. If you're hosting a casual dinner, use Mason jars for your flowers, with satin ribbons tied around the glass.
Cake plates can hold pillar candles or nuts. Use beautiful autumn leaves as place cards, with the guest's name written in silver or gold.
If you're hosting a large gathering, consider renting not just chairs and tables, but also dishes and glassware. "You don't have to wash them," explains Bauer. "You just put them back in the rack and send them away. It makes cleaning up a breeze."
Tips for the Bird
If you're using a frozen turkey, pick it up the week before to avoid the rush.
Four days prior to Turkey Day: If you're using a frozen turkey, start thawing it in the refrigerator. Every five pounds of turkey requires 24 hours of thaw time—i.e., a 15-pound bird needs three days to thaw.
If you're using a fresh turkey, pick it up the day before Thanksgiving.
"You’ll lose between 45–50% of the weight of the turkey to bones, etc. Take that into consideration when figuring out how many pounds your turkey should weigh for your number of guests. Count on 6–7 ounces of turkey meat per guest," says Chef MartÍn Rios of Restaurant MartÍn in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Chef Michael Chiarello suggests taking the chill off the turkey before cooking: "Bring the unstuffed turkey out of the refrigerator for 90 minutes to two hours before roasting. It will cook more evenly and quickly."
Consider flattening your bird—Spatchcocking—a traditional method of cooking chicken after removing the spine, flattening and butterflying the bird—is a technique that accelerates roasting and "can shave up to an hour off your turkey cook time," says Chef Wes Morton of Art and Soul in Washington, D.C. Prep and season the turkey the day before, then on the day of, temper the bird and place it in the oven to roast.
On the big day, Stuff and roast your turkey. Here are suggested cooking times, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture:
Always use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of your turkey and stuffing. Roast until an instant-read thermometer (inserted deep into the thigh but away from the bone) reads 165°F and juices in the thigh run clear when pierced with a fork.
4 to 8 pounds (breast) – 1½ to 3¼ hours
8 to 12 pounds – 2¾ to 3 hours
12 to 14 pounds – 3 to 3¾ hours
14 to 18 pounds – 3¾ to 4¼ hours
18 to 20 pounds – 4¼ to 4½ hours
20 to 24 pounds – 4½ to 5 hours
6 to 8 pounds (breast) – 2½ to 3½ hours
8 to 12 pounds – 3 to 3½ hours
12 to 14 pounds – 3½ to 4 hours
14 to 18 pounds – 4 to 4¼ hours
18 to 20 pounds – 4¼ to 4¾ hours
20 to 24 pounds – 4¾ to 5¼ hours
Let turkey rest out of the oven for about 20 minutes before carving.
Tip from a home chef: “I like to roast my turkey in the Weber. It frees up oven space and imparts vibrant taste to the bird. (If you're doing this for the first time, check that your turkey does actually fit onto the grill.) Since my family and friends are all wine lovers, I often add a blind tasting to the festivities. Ask guests to bring wines around a theme, such as Zinfandel or Burgundy. Hide the bottles in brown bags so you can't read the labels and get everyone's take on the different tastes. It's fun to see how the different wines open up during the meal.” —Risa Wyatt, Seattle
Tips on Shopping
The week before Thanksgiving, finalize your menu and wine pairings, and write out your shopping list for the recipes you've selected. Break it down into ingredients you can purchase ahead of time like canned goods versus perishables to buy closer to T-Day.
Chef Rios: "Shop early, especially for specialty ingredients. Stores don’t stock large quantities of the most special holiday items and you don’t want to miss out."
Several days before the big day, buy all the non-perishables for your dinner, such as onions, flour, potatoes, etc.
One day before Thanksgiving, buy last-minute groceries like salad greens, fresh breads and seafood.
Tips on Cooking
“Simple things can bog down your day-of cooking schedule, so set aside time in advance to prep your ingredients,” suggests Morton. Chop up all the herbs and vegetables, sort and measure the spices, and make the stuffing and cranberry sauce in advance of the big day.
Create a cooking schedule. Know what dishes you'll cook in advance (and when) and which will be prepared at the last minute. For foods prepared in the oven, coordinate cooking temperatures so you know which dishes you can prepare together. Also, double-check that you have all the pots, pans, serving dishes and utensils you need.
Make dishes or components you can freeze ahead of time, such as soups, stocks and pie crusts.
Go ahead and make cranberry sauce—flavors meld deliciously after sitting for a few days.
Create your menu so that you won't forget to serve dishes you've slaved over.
The day before, assemble casseroles and ingredients for stuffing. Finish your stuffing the next day by adding any wet ingredients, like eggs.
Actress, model and at-home entertainer Molly Sims thinks beyond the bird: "I grew up in the south, so entertaining and cooking for family and friends is in my blood. It’s fun to breathe new life into favorite holiday traditions. No Southern girl can enjoy the holidays without a gooey potato dish." Sims pulls out all the stops by setting up a mashed potato bar. Set out favorite spud-toppings like chives, shredded cheese, bacon, soured cream and broccoli and let guests go to town.
Remember the vegetarians. "My good friend is a vegetarian and when she comes for Friendsgiving, I always make sure there are veggie options she can enjoy," says Sims.
Right before mealtime, Cook and rewarm appetizers, side dishes and desserts as per your timetable. In case of oven gridlock, use the microwave or outdoor grill for reheating items.
Make last-minute dishes such as whipped cream.
For dessert, think outside the crust: Poach skinned and cored pears in Port or Madeira, and refrigerate them. When you’re ready to serve dessert, top them with a dollop of mascarpone, a drizzle of honey and a handful of candied pecans.
Tips on Wine and Drinks
Choose wines for your meal ahead of time. Select bottles from your cellar or buy the new ones you want. Also purchase liquor, cocktail mixers and soft drinks. If you won't have room in your fridge, consider using a cooler.
Give yourself a break the night before Thanksgiving–consider having take-out foods or leftovers for dinner—you'll be plenty busy cooking all these other foods in advance.
The day before your guests arrive, set up your table and bar.
Molly Sims recommends keeping wine pairings simple: "Stick with two to three food-friendly wines to place on the table rather than focusing on specific wine pairings."
On Thanksgiving day, put white wine in the refrigerator to chill about four hours before guests arrive. If necessary, decant red wines about one-half to one hour before serving.
Mix up a massive punch bowl ahead of time, leaving out any effervescent ingredients, and refrigerate. When your guests arrive thirsty—and you need more time in the kitchen—put out the bowl, add some bubbly or soda water, and voilà, you have a self-serve station.
Because the bird doesn't have tons of flavor, you should instead pair wines with flavors surrounding the turkey, like stuffing. Zinfandel is generally a no-brainer for Thanksgiving. It's affordable and gives a lot of flavor for the dollar. Cabernet Sauvignon can also enhance dishes.
Tips on Hosting
A week before Thanksgiving craziness begins, select some background tunes for your gathering.
Clean-up time! Tidy your house. Make sure tablecloths are washed and ironed. Clean tableware and polish silverware.
Sims suggests creating a holiday-themed scavenger hunt for kids. “The little ones retrieve holiday-themed items to fill a cornucopia,” she says. Meanwhile, older kids can help set the table and package up desserts to go.
"Don’t try to do more than you think you can do. You need to enjoy the day, too," says Chef Peter Pahk.
Pahk also suggests trying a potluck: "A potluck makes entertaining easier on the host and guests get to show off their Thanksgiving specialties."