5 Reasons Why We Eat Thanksgiving Dinner So Early

updated Oct 31, 2023
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thanksgiving feast with turkey and other sides on table
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne; Prop Styling: Stephanie Yeh

Soon we’ll sit down for Thanksgiving dinner, one of the most anticipated (and laborious) meals of the year. But while we refer to this meal as dinner, many of us actually sit down to eat far earlier than we do for other dinners. During the week I regularly eat dinner sometime between 7 and 8 p.m., yet on Thanksgiving, that time jumps up to 3 p.m. I’ve even eaten as early as noon!

Why is it that we eat Thanksgiving dinner so early, anyway? Of course, the reasons for eating Thanksgiving dinner early will vary from family to family and region to region. I love that my family’s early afternoon dinner sets the stage for a big meal that we can casually linger over for hours. And, by the time early evening rolls around, I’m ready to dive back in for a turkey sandwich and more pie.

Here are a few of our favorite reasons for holding one of the year’s most anticipated dinner parties in the middle of the afternoon.

Quick Overview

Why Is Thanksgiving Dinner So Early?

There are many reasons, but primarily: Historically, dinner became before supper; it makes for a more relaxed day; it’s simply tradition; it’s more convenient for traveling guests; and, of course, to watch football.

1. The historical answer.

Perhaps the answer lies in history. We didn’t always observe the meal times we recognize today. “Dinner” was once the main meal of the day, served around one or two in the afternoon, while “supper” was a much lighter meal, or even just a snack, eaten around sundown.

2. A more relaxed day.

Planning for a 3 p.m. dinner shifts the momentum of the day. An earlier meal creates a more relaxed celebration, plus there’s plenty of time to digest before going to bed.

3. It’s tradition!

Growing up, we had a standing tradition of arriving at my grandmother’s house at 2 p.m., then sitting down for a 3 p.m. dinner. When it came time to host my own Thanksgiving, I didn’t think twice about using the same schedule. I saw no reason to change what worked for so many years, and many other families likely feel the same.

4. Convenience for guests who travel.

Thankfully, I’ve never traveled more than 30 minutes on Thanksgiving Day. There are many people who do travel, though, and even some who log a few hours of travel time. An earlier dinner accommodates these traveling guests and lets them return home at a reasonable hour.

5. Football!

While football is completely lost on me, I know countless Americans eagerly anticipate the Thanksgiving Day games. Perhaps some dinners are scheduled to coincide with the end of the early afternoon game, or to begin well in advance of the late afternoon game.

What time do you eat Thanksgiving dinner? Are you happy with the traditional early afternoon start time, or do you push it later?