10 rules to get you through your first Thanksgiving

A survival guide to hosting (and enjoying) your family’s favorite holiday.

’Tis the season to be hosting—a sentiment that’s normally met with equal parts stress and excitement. But for a first-timer, Thanksgiving can be a terrifying task to undertake. This isn’t your best friend’s birthday party or happy hour with the crew—it’s the one time of year when you gather with friends and family to give thanks and feast on your favorite fall dishes.

You might already be feeling the pressure, but don’t worry. Just follow these simple rules, and the rest should fall right into place.

Rule #1: Accept help

Try as you might, you’re not a superhero. The good thing is, no one expects you to be. Before the big day, think about where you could use the most help. This way, when someone asks, “How can I help?” you’ll know exactly how to answer. Chances are, your guests will be happy to arrive a little early or lend a hand with prep. You can also find small, helpful tasks to delegate like putting someone in charge of serving beverages.

Autumn from Pennsylvania was a new parent when she took on her first Thanksgiving endeavor. “We hosted at our house when our daughter was about 6months old,” she says. With a newborn in the mix, assistance was essential to their success. “Even though you’re in your own house, it’s still busy trying to cook, clean and care for a baby. You can’t be afraid to ask for help.”

And remember, potluck is your friend! Asking guests to bring their signature side dishes and desserts will not only take some weight off you, but also allow your friends and family to feel included and show off their favorite dishes. Even asking guests to bring a bottle of wine will help you check something off your own list.

Rachel from Oklahoma takes Thanksgiving potluck to another level. “Whoever hosts doesn’t prepare the turkey or main meat course,” she says. “This allows the host family more time to focus on preparing everything else.”

Rule #2: Plan everything ahead

Lists will get you everywhere when it comes to planning. First, set up a shareable spreadsheet online and have your guests fill in what they plan to bring.

Ask about any dietary restrictions or allergies your guests may have. Find out whether you need to provide any vegetarian or vegan options. Then break out your whiteboards and checklists. It’s time to create your menu, grocery list and schedule.

Do yourself a solid and start shopping early. The longer you wait, the more difficult it’ll be to find common ingredients and utensils, like green beans and turkey basters.

Pro tip: Measure your oven before you buy. The last thing you need is to realize your perfectly thawed turkey won’t fit.

Take inventory of your flatware, silverware, serving dishes, etc., and make sure you have enough for every dish and every seat.

Rule #3: Be a boss

Sure, this is a time for family and warmth, but don’t be afraid to be a little bossy. Set a firm RSVP date and stick to it. Of course, life happens and things come up, but kindly ask your guests to do their best. You have enough going on with this being your first time hosting. The last thing you need is a family of five showing up unexpectedly.

Rule #4: Prep as much as possible

This goes without saying, but don’t leave anything until the last minute. Nikki from Florida has hosted her share of Thanksgiving feasts and attests, “Trying to multitask and navigate the kitchen can be stressful, so preparation is key!”

Complete all nonfood tasks the night before. Clean up. Arrange the seating. Set the table. Do whatever you need to do to feel comfortable about having company over.

Pro tip: For easy cleanup, line the oven with foil, use a tablecloth and line the trash can with extra bags ahead of time.

Consider which of your side dishes work best with reheating, and make them the night before.

Remember to thaw the turkey! At least 1 day before take the bird out of the freezer. There’s nothing worse than waking up ready to go, only to realize you have a frozen-solid bird on your hands.  

Rule #5: Don’t try anything new

The day of, that is. Long before that, feel free to experiment. Spread your creative culinary wings and fly. Just don’t do it on Thanksgiving.

Tricia from Kansas learned this the hard way. “Know your cooking limitations, and don’t plan too many items that are out of your wheelhouse. I was a little overzealous my first year. I quickly discovered that simplicity is best,” she says.

Try out new recipes at least a month in advance. If it works, great! Now try it again. If the recipe needs tweaking—or replacing—you have time to figure it out.

Rule #6: Don’t make everything from scratch

There’s no shame in the prepared foods game when it comes to hosting a big meal. People will appreciate the time you took, no matter what. So, store-bought sweet potatoes casserole or premade gravy is perfectly sensible when you consider everything else you’re putting on their plates.

Save the kitchen sweat for heirloom recipes and the time-tested family favorites you love.

Rule #7: Have welcome beverages and snacks ready

You might think the last thing you need before Thanksgiving dinner is more food, but the truth is that people will be waiting. And whether they’re catching up with one another or catching the game on TV, they’re coming over hungry.

Aubrey from Missouri opts for snacks, games and a signature drink to help her guests pass the time. “We have it ready to go in a punch bowl,” she says. “I have yard games outside and card games around the house, so I don’t feel the need to fully entertain while putting the meal together.”

Autumn is also all about setting snacks out. “No one will mind a late dinner if they can socialize and snack.”

Rule #8: Plan for leftovers

You put a lot of work into a large, delicious meal. Chances are, there will still be a lot to go around. No one will say no to taking some turkey off your hands or skimming some sweet potato pie to go. Make sure you have extra reusable food storage containers to give away—or whatever else helps guests get food from your home to theirs.

Pro tip: Print your favorite leftover recipes onto takeaway cards to send home with your guests.

Rule #9: Relax

Leave room for mistakes—like not thawing the turkey. No matter what happens, your guests will do what they can to help. Chances are, there will be at least one store open somewhere for emergency situations. If not, you’ll be thankful for the snacks and drinks you set out at the start.

Rule #10: Have fun

Join everyone else and give yourself a big pat on the back. Celebrate your successes, and laugh off the things that didn’t go your way. Thanksgiving is about being together, not cooking to perfection.

Keep the mood light, and have a happy Thanksgiving as host. You’ve earned it.

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