5 Mistakes to Avoid When Hosting Your First Thanksgiving Dinner

updated May 13, 2022
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(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

Thanksgiving is not a competitive cooking contest. Thanksgiving is a celebration of togetherness, and the unique joys of carbohydrates. Even if things go wrong — and something is bound to! — your inaugural Thanksgiving dinner can still be a smashing success. You can over-char your Brussels sprouts and still get compliments. You can serve store-bought bread and people will still have fun.

That said, while a few mistakes will hardly doom your dinner to disaster, it is generally nice to try to avoid them, if only on principle. To that end, here are five all-too-common missteps to avoid this year.

Will something else go wrong? Possibly! Just take comfort in the fact that it won’t be one of these things.

1. You decide to experiment with ambitious recipes you’ve never made before.

I am always tempted to decide that a high-pressure dinner situation is, in fact, the perfect time to try out a recipe I have never made before, often using ingredients I do not regularly work with. But I’ve learned not to fall for it, and you shouldn’t either.

A great thing about Thanksgiving is that most of the recipes are pretty basic. And people love them! Give the people what they want.

That said, it is also totally reasonable to want to try out something new this year — have you seen all our new recipes? Do it, but first give it a test run on a day when you do not have 25 people showing up at your house for dinner. (The exception to this is the turkey itself. Give it a practice run, if that would make you feel better, but remember: It’s basically a big chicken. You’ll be fine.)

2. You don’t defrost your bird early enough.

While we are on the subject of turkeys, know that frozen turkeys take forever to defrost — three to four days in the fridge is standard. The rule of thumb is 24 hours for every five pounds of bird, although it can be longer because everything always takes longer than you think it will.

You can speed up the process by thawing it in a cold water bath, but you need to change the water every 30 minutes, and it still takes many, many hours. If need be, you can also cook it frozen, but even that is not speedy — roughly six hours for a 14-pound turkey.

3. You wait until Thanksgiving Day to start cooking.

It’s not that you can’t cook Thanksgiving in one day (as long as you’ve already defrosted your turkey); it’s just that your life will be significantly better if you don’t. People, even nice ones, are inherently stressful, especially when they are invading your home. When your guests arrive, you want to be finishing up, not covered in flour and Googling pie recipes.

Luckily, we have you covered with cooking schedules that plot out what you can do in advance, and how far in advance you can do it. Here is one. Here is another. You don’t have to follow any of them exactly.

The point is, start early. This way, the stores won’t be closed when you realize you forgot the celery and don’t actually own a pie plate.

4. You believe that recipes will take the amount of time they say they will.

They will not. Your turkey will take forever. You will use the 20 minutes of prep time for one recipe just reading (and re-reading) said recipe.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, leave plenty of time. Time is your friend. Assume everything will take at least 50 percent more time than the recipe.

If you finish early, which you won’t, you can sit back and bask in your incredible feat of domesticity, or argue with your mother or something.

5. You carve your turkey right away.

Just because the turkey is out of the oven does not mean the turkey is ready to serve. To get a really tender, juicy bird, you need to let it rest, tented in foil, for a good 20-plus minutes. Plan for this! It is important. People on reality cooking television shows get eliminated for this kind of thing all the time. We wouldn’t want your guests to send you packing when you’re the host!

Have you committed any Turkey Day don’ts that first-timers should be aware of?