12 Essentials to Know When Hosting Thanksgiving for the First Time

updated May 9, 2022
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(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

Are you hosting Thanksgiving for the first time this year? Hosting and cooking this great American meal is a big milestone for a cook, but it also can be a moment of some anxiety and nerves.

Well, our readers have quite a lot of advice for you. We asked them for their best advice on hosting Thanksgiving dinner, and here are 12 essentials, distilled from the most frequent points we heard. If Thanksgiving seems daunting, these 12 essentials will make it less so. They’ll show you how to get organized, stay calm, and enjoy Thanksgiving more than ever!

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

Our readers shared so many great tips and pieces of advice! Way more than I can fit in here. So be sure to read the whole thread if you want a little help for your own Thanksgiving this year.

→ What Is the Most Important Thing You’ve Learned About Hosting Thanksgiving?

1. Never turn down help.

Thanksgiving is often a potluck affair, and that’s the beauty of it. Let friends and family bring things, and be shameless about delegating the parts of the meal that stress you out.

Delegate, delegate, delegate. Just because you’re hosting doesn’t mean you need to make every single thing. Pick the dishes that are most important to you (read: if it’s not my recipe then I’m not eating it) and then ask your guests to contribute! – MajkenMay

Divide and conquer! Whether it’s your spouse, family members, or friends, don’t be afraid to reach out and let those around you help. – misplacedtexan

The host makes the turkey and gravy. Make sure guests are bringing items that don’t require using the only oven upon arrival. Mashed potatoes can be brought by someone in a crockpot. Appetizers should be covered by someone who doesn’t arrive late! Non-cooks can bring drinks, rolls, whipped cream and pie. – amberminty

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

2. Make as much ahead as possible.

The stressiest part of a meal is the last-minute rush. Our readers reiterated one of our favorite tips for Thanksgiving (and any big dinner): When you’re planning your menu, look for dishes that can be made ahead. (Or just use our make-ahead Thanksgiving menu and check out our Make-Ahead Schedule. Even if you can’t make a full dish ahead, look for ways to peel off pieces, like toasting nuts or breadcrumbs.

Make things ahead. I work full time and do the full dinner except for the turkey, my parents do that. I start the Tuesday of Thanksgiving week making casseroles and pies, things that can be reheated the day of Thanksgiving. Cranberry sauce also can be made days in advance. I do one thing each day when I get home from work and it all works out. – Michconnors

3. Don’t experiment with new recipes.

Thanksgiving is all about the classics, so stick with the tried-and-true. Our readers said this over and over. Leave your brain free to deal with the turkey (especially if it’s your first time).

The biggest advice I want to give is that Thanksgiving (or any other major holiday meal) is NOT the time to experiment with a new recipe! – Grossvater

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

4. Start early on your non-food prep.

It’s not just the food that needs to be prepped. You probably are pulling out serving dishes that need to be washed, or extra silverware, or counting your napkins to make sure you have enough. Do all of that the week before. Double-check your serving plates and utensils and iron your tablecloth, if needed!

Spread out prep tasks. Maybe a week in advance I iron table cloths. Another day I wash and dry china, crystal, and serving pieces. Another day I clean house or go grocery shopping. Closer to time, I set the table and do some prep work in the kitchen. Spreading out the work makes it seem a little less overwhelming. – misplacedtexan

5. Consider making the turkey the day before.

Sure, you can make rolls and cranberry sauce days ahead. Casseroles can sit in the fridge before baking. But do the turkey ahead? Wow! I heard from several readers who suggested this and they say it makes everything much easier.

If you don’t care about presentation of your perfect turkey you can like many have already said you can cook your turkey the day before, carve it and place it in your crock pot with a coil of tin foil to elevate the meat. You can then use the bones to make a fantastic stock for your gravy and use some of it in the bottom of the crock pot for when you reheat your turkey. – peariso

Make the turkey the day before. I know some people think “day old” isn’t as good but, you know what? It is. I did this last year and no one knew except for whoever was in the kitchen at the time and I swore them to secrecy! 🙂 Use the time you would have spent fretting over the bird and spend it with your guests instead. I’m so glad I did. – Map Girl

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

6. Set the table the night before.

Don’t fuss with the table on the day of. Set it the day ahead and you have your goal in sight all day. (Tip for cat-owners: Throw a sheet over the table so curious kitties stay away.)

Set the table the day before. I feel like I can handle anything if the table is set. – Nami13

Set the table the night before, and think through who will sit where. Put out your serving vessels and serving utensils as well, and put a little note in each one of what goes where. It is embarrassing to have to root around in your messiest cupboard for the turkey platter in front of guests. – clutterbuggy

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

7. Have a cocktail (or wine) ready to go.

Have wine chilling in the fridge or a pitcher of sangria ready to be poured. If everyone has a drink in their hand, they won’t care if dinner is served an hour later than you planned. (As for pitcher drinks, may we suggest sparkling apple cider sangria?)

I always have a pitcher or two of a festive cocktail ready in the fridge: homemade cranberry simple syrup (super easy to do and I make it with leftover cranberries while I make cranberry sauce, sometimes the night before), vodka, club soda, and juice from a few limes. (Bonus: keep the cranberries in the simple syrup—they look beautiful floating around with the bubbles). That way, when guests come in I can hand them a glass, get them socializing, and get them out of the kitchen. – ErikaI

8. Don’t make a big deal over appetizers.

Thanksgiving is a huge meal! Don’t stress about appetizers. Ask someone else to bring one, or just put out some store-bought crackers and dip.

Appetizers are totally overkill! Set out some crudites if you feel people need to nibble. – breezyslp

9. It’s fine to buy parts of your meal.

Know a great bakery? Buy a pie. Hate making gravy? Buy some from a specialty grocery. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with buying a few pieces of the meal, especially if it makes for a more relaxing day. We heard this over and over from the readers.

From-scratch everything is usually too much work (unless you’ve delegated quite a few things to other guests). Don’t be afraid to buy the rolls or appetizers or whatever it is that makes you cringe. – LitNerd

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

10. Make a timeline and master list of everything that needs to happen.

Avoid last-minute overload by counting backwards from the time dinner is served and scheduling out prep time and oven time. This list can stick on the fridge or wherever you’ll see it. I also find it helpful to set alarms on my phone for really key moments, like putting the turkey in the oven.

Every year I do a reverse timeline. Start with what time service is, and count backwards for each item. No more worrying about things not finishing at the same time! – Kerri C

Take a deep breath. Make a list in advance, then add to it as things occur to you. – cooksalot55

11. Don’t forget to shower!

And on that master list of events, schedule in time to primp or shower. You need to schedule it in — seriously.

Plan to shower early, and put it in your schedule. Last year, I had an unexpected guest show up 4 hours early, and he needed to be entertained. I had played tennis with my folks (a holiday tradition) before he arrived, And I had planned to shower after spatchcocking my bird. Not only did I now have an audience for the butchery, I couldn’t shower as planned immediately after being arm deep in a turkey belly. Frustrating. – fi_burke

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

12. Relax, have fun, and live in the spirit of the holiday!

And the most important piece of advice? Relax! Remember people are there to gather with you and one another, not to be entertained. Ask for help, laugh a lot, remember the turkey can rest for an hour while you finish everything else, and above all, find moments of gratitude in a busy, messy, loud, and delicious holiday.

It’s cheesy, but remember what the day is about: being thankful! At the end of the day, it’s about taking a moment to be grateful and sharing a meal with those you love. People will remember the laughs and the hugs and the stories much more than they’ll remember the meal. And as traumatizing as a failed recipe may seem at the time, it really will be a funny story down the road. – misplacedtexan