7 Steps to Host Your First Thanksgiving Dinner

table set for thanksgiving dinner

Learn 7 steps to host your first Thanksgiving dinner for a large crowd, including tips for planning, shopping, decor, and dining.

I remember hosting my first Thanksgiving dinner. My twins were a year and a half and my oldest just two years older. Oh, the stress I put myself through! What is it about cooking that turkey bird that sends the blood pressure and anxiety completely through the roof? What if I burn the bird, or worse, undercook it? I had no idea what I had signed up for.

It’s hard to believe that experience was almost 9 years ago. Since then, I have hosted almost every Thanksgiving dinner for my friends and family and have done it successfully every time. How do I do it? These are my 6 easy steps to successfully cooking a stress-free Thanksgiving meal.

cold case at a grocery store thanksgiving dinner

1. Plan 4 Weeks Ahead

It is impossible to cook a stress-free Thanksgiving dinner if you exclude planning and preparation. It is ideal to start this step at least 4 weeks ahead of Thanksgiving Day. 

Questions you’ll want to ask yourself:

  • How many people you are hosting? 
  • How many are children vs. adults? 
  • Are there any food restrictions for your guests?
  • Where do you plan to host? 
  • Do you have enough seating? 
  • Will it be buffet style or styled like a family meal? 
  • What time do you plan to start dinner? 

Over the years, Thanksgiving dinners at our house have accommodated 40-60 people, including 15 or more children, with various special diets. Even if inconvenience shows up unannounced at your door, answering these questions now will help you think through possible obstacles before they happen while you still have time to figure out solutions.

food items in a grocery store cart thanksgiving dinner

2. Meal Plan

In this step, which ideally should happen about 4 weeks ahead of Thanksgiving Day, you should determine what will be on the menu. 

Questions to ask yourself about the meal plan:

  • Will you have the traditional turkey bird? 
  • Will you serve other main dishes? 
  • For vegetarians (or other special diets), what main focus do you want for your table?
  • What other items, such as starches, carbs, veggies, etc. would best complement your offering? 
  • Do you need appetizers?
  • What kinds of drinks will you serve?
  • What will you serve the children? 
  • What about desserts?
  • Will you use your own dishes or buy disposables?

For our Thanksgiving dinner, in addition to the turkey, I typically include 2-3 meat dishes, 2-3 veggie dishes, 1-2 starches/carbs, plus 1-2 salads. 

Drinks usually include a mix of non-alcoholic beverages, wines, and other “adult” beverages. And because dessert is always my highlight (ha!), I always include at least 3-4 dessert options.

ingredients and stand mixer on a table thanksgiving dinner

3. Organize Your Grocery List

Using your menu, create your grocery shopping list. Think through each menu item and physically look through your fridges, freezers, and pantries, and figure out what you will need to purchase. Doing this will help you avoid a last-minute trip to the store on Thanksgiving day. 

Please note that if you are purchasing a fresh turkey or other meats/items from a local farm, this may need to be ordered now. Also, don’t forget to add cutlery, serving utensils, serving dishes, Thanksgiving decorations, and any other items to add Thanksgiving cheer to your home.

thanksgiving dinner plate

4. Shop and Delegate

It would be best to have everything on the shopping list purchased two weeks before Thanksgiving Day so that everything you need to fulfill your menu will be right at your fingertips on cooking day. If you don’t have enough room in your fridge for the cold items, buy all of your non-perishables in advance and plan to buy those a few days prior. 

Don’t forget if you are purchasing a frozen turkey, be sure to check the thawing time necessary based on its weight. You need to defrost the bird in the fridge for several days so make sure you have room for this!

This is also your opportunity to begin delegating responsibilities to others who may be attending dinner. Even if you plan to cook the complete meal yourself (as I do), you can still give shopping lists to your spouse/partner. 

Guests are often looking for gifts to bring their host and yours may be happy to bring a specific beverage or other meal items on your list to help compliment the meal or atmosphere.

pecan pie thanksgiving dinner

5. Decorate / Brine Your Turkey / Prepare Ingredients

Two days before Thanksgiving, begin to set up/decorate your hosting area. At my house, my husband and children are responsible for cleaning house and putting up decorations, including the Thanksgiving table. 

Take serving bowls, serving utensils, plates, napkins, warmers, and other related items out of storage and in the vicinity of where you will have quick access to them. Also, check if items need to be wiped down or washed. 

At this time is also when you should begin to brine your turkey if you plan to do so, as well as begin cutting up any veggies or other ingredients that may need to be precut. Starting this now will save you huge amounts of time and effort on Cooking Day.

twin toddler boys eating thanksgiving dinner

6. Cook Your Thanksgiving Dinner

Based on the number of meals I am making, I tend to start my cooking process between 7-9 am on Thanksgiving Day. Start with the dishes that will take longer to cook and may potentially take up oven/stove space, such as your turkey. Typically, once these have cooked they are safe to set aside until the actual start of your Thanksgiving dinner, and will maintain their heat (if covered).

Once these items are done, begin cooking your complimentary items. As items are cooked, place them directly into the appropriate warmers and serving dishes and cover with plastic wrap or aluminum foil as needed to keep warm. 

Starting the cooking process early allows me to not only complete the cooking process before my guests arrive, but I am also able to get myself cleaned up and showered before the doorbell begins to ring. Be sure to leave space in the serving area for any meal items you have delegated for guests to bring. 

If you have desserts that need to go in the oven, I have found it sets a beautiful atmosphere to put the dessert in the oven at the start of the dinner. The smell of an apple pie baking in the oven gives everyone something to be thankful for!

7. Enjoy 

Following these steps removes the anxiety and the frustration I initially experienced with hosting Thanksgiving dinner. As we busy ourselves learning how to raise our children throughout the year, the whole point of Thanksgiving is to take some time to be thankful with those whom you are most thankful to have in our lives. This key truth is what I keep in the forefront of my mind each year that I host Thanksgiving, and following the above steps allows me the freedom to successfully do so.

andrea ormsbyAndrea Ormsby helps twin moms learn how to laugh more and stress less. Sign up for a strategy session with her via bit.ly/getmomcourage, or find out more about her and her services via www.andreaormsby.com

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