Thanksgiving Dinner – how to host your best yet

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and one of the reasons I like it so much is that the emphasis is on gathering and eating. Whether your family likes to gather casually or enjoy a formal Thanksgiving meal, here’s a few ways to ensure your Thanksgiving dinner is a success.

Quick note – The beauty of Thanksgiving is that it can be as casual or as formal as you want. There’s no wrong way to gather with family and friends and share food, so don’t feel like ‘upgrading’ is required. But if you like the idea of changing things up or want to improve your Thanksgiving dinner, there are some suggestions for that, too.

Thanksgiving Dinner Menu

The Thanksgiving Dinner Menu is pretty standardized at this point and most families have their own particular set of dishes and recipes. People who are into Thanksgiving tend to get very attached to one (or more) dishes. If you don’t believe me, try cutting something one year. You might think no one will miss the brussels sprouts or the candied yams but I guarantee you SOMEONE will be disappointed, no matter what you cut.

Having said that, sometimes change is good.

Here are a few ways to improve your Thanksgiving Dinner Menu. I’m not suggesting you try them all this year but something on this list might spark your interest.

Curate your Thanksgiving Dinner Menu

Ok, I know half the fun of Thanksgiving is the enormous spread. And I support that. But it’s ok dispense with dishes only a couple of people like. You know what I mean. When fifteen people come to a holiday like Thanksgiving, there’s inevitably some disagreement over what dishes are essential. Aunt Betty insists on weird jello salad, Uncle Arthur would be devastated if there weren’t noodles. Your mom and grandma have a fundamental disagreement over cornbread versus oyster stuffing. And that’s how you end up with heaps of food and piles of leftovers.

This year, consider scaling your menu back a little and focus on the dishes (mostly) everyone loves. Emphasize quality ingredients and careful preparation over a sea of casseroles. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t serve a robust spread. Or that you need to ditch the casseroles (you’ll pry the green bean casserole from my cold, dead hands, thank you). But think about trimming out a few dishes and let everyone enjoy a simpler menu. The beauty of this is that it can be a great trial run for years to come.

And remember, if it turns out that jello salad really was essential, you can always add it back in next year.

Improve Thanksgiving Dinner by changing it completely

Personally, I love the traditional Thanksgiving meal. But I know plenty of people who are indifferent to it. If that’s the case for your group, feel free to change things up. Serve prime rib, ham or tenderloin instead of a turkey. Go really wild and gather around a magnificent lasagna and a basket of garlic bread. Have barbeque. Or stir fry and dumplings.

The point of Thanksgiving is to gather with loved ones and share a meal. It doesn’t matter if that meal is a turkey dinner or something else entirely.

Speaking of hosting Thanksgiving, here’s Five Ways to Make Hosting Easier

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Ditch the potluck – or make it potluck

I feel like most people handle Thanksgiving one of two ways. Either a designated host tackles most or all of the meal or the meal ends up being potluck and everyone brings a dish. For the record, I don’t think one of those is superior. It all just depends on your particular group and whether folks enjoy cooking and hosting or not. So where am I going with this?

Potluck concerns

Let’s discuss the giant, overcooked turkey in the room -not everyone is equally interested in cooking. I don’t think, by the way, that there are bad cooks. I think there are only inexperienced or indifferent cooks – and both are totally fine. But it’s ok to take stock of  the myriad contributions to the meal. Are most of the dishes prepared well and do most people seem to enjoy preparing and contributing food? Then carry on.

But if things are a little hit or miss, this might be a good time to try redistributing the food preparation. Now, I’m not saying you ban Aunt Betty from bringing her jello mold if it’s dear to her heart. No meal is worth bumming people out or making them feel excluded. But if cousin Susan seems a little grumpy about bringing mashed potatoes AND the potatoes taste like it, find a new potato chef. There’s surely some other way for Susan to contribute.

I’m also not saying the best cook in the family gets stuck preparing the whole meal. But look for ways to concentrate the actual food preparation into the hands (and kitchens) of those are enjoy it and are good at it.

One way might be to make a list of the dishes that everyone enjoys most, and make sure those get the attention of a happy cook. Then farm the less essential sides out. Or even order those as take out. Or, back to the earlier point, cut them out completely.

Just because you’re going potluck doesn’t mean everyone absolutely must contribute a dish just for the sake of numbers.

Improve Thanksgiving dinner with some menu structure

The other issue that can spring up at a potluck style Thanksgiving is a menu that’s a bit hodgepodge meal and lacks cohesion. You might be thinking “but it’s Thanksgiving! It’s supposed to be a mess of random casseroles and a turkey”. If that’s what you and your family enjoy, there’s nothing wrong with that!

But it’s also ok to want a little more structure to the meal. And to ensure the meal is balanced and satisfying. Concentrating the food prep among a smaller group of cooks is one way to help this. The other way is for someone (you, dear reader) to take charge and make a list of menu items for the event. Ask everyone to bring something from that list. Be kind about it but don’t be afraid to politely ask that people stick to the list. If you’re worried about being too rigid or that you’ll end up cutting something folks look forward to, poll your family group ahead of time. Get some data on what everyone enjoys most and make sure it’s on the list.

What about the gravy?

What do you do when Grandma is convinced her gravy is the pinnacle of gravies and no one wants to tell her it’s….not? You’ve got three choices: live with lumpy gravy, designate someone to gently talk to Grandma about handing over the ladle or find an alternative gravy recipe and present it as ‘fun recipe I wanted to try’. In many cases, you’re probably going to be stuck with option 1.

Make your Thanksgiving potluck

But wait, you might say, – you just presented a bunch of concerns about potlucks. Why the aboutface? In full candor, I’m NOT a fan of doing a meal like Thanksgiving potluck style and it’s for all the reasons I just mentioned. But I’m also not a fan of one or two folks getting stuck in the kitchen for hours and hours, unless they really want to be. So if you’re dreading Thanksgiving because you end up doing most (or all) of the cooking, it’s ok to offload that.

You can use some of the previous suggestions to ensure the potluck is a success:  make a list of menu items, ask folks who you know enjoy cooking to help out or get some of the dishes via take out.

Set the mood with a Thanksgiving dinner playlist.

No matter what type of music you choose, take an hour to put together a carefully curated playlist. Think about how long you expect the day’s celebration to go, and make sure you have at least an additional hour’s worth of music.

Like your Thanksgiving, your playlist can be as structured or as casual as you’d like. This might mean selecting five hours of classical music and ordering the playlist with deliberation. But it also might mean putting a selection of classic rock onto a list and then planning to shuffle it. There’s no wrong way to set up your music but I’d encourage you to set it up somehow. Yes, you could just put on a streaming radio or music channel but the music will likely end up a little disjointed and unpredictable.

If possible, play or stream your music from an ad and commercial free source so ads don’t interrupt dinner conversation.

One more thing – once you decide on music and create a playlist, test out your sound system. I don’t mean, necessarily, to see if it works. I mean test it to make sure it’s not really loud at one end of the room and silent at the other. Or that it’s not blaring behind Aunt Muriel’s chair, keeping her from participating in the conversation (unless that’s the goal, in which case, check to make sure it will do the job!).

Got a big shindig coming up? Whether you’re planning an intimate dinner party for six or a big fete, be sure to grab a copy of Co-Host, my party planning workbook.

Use this simple but very effective tool to keep track of every task, chore and dish. You can even use it to plan your cooking schedule.

Splurge a little (or a lot) on the table scape

One fun and fabulous way to improve Thanksgiving dinner is upping your table setting game. Maybe you already pull out all the stops for your Thanksgiving table or maybe your family is committed to eating and watching football. If so, this might not be your particular thing. But for those of you like to gather around the table, I’d encourage you to splash out on a few things to elevate the table.

What does that mean? It depends on where you’re starting from.

Here’s a list of things you can add to your table to kick Thanksgiving dinner table  decor up a notch:

  • place cards and place card holders – yes, it’s formal. And that’s ok. I highly recommend ordering custom place cards from the Punctilious Mr. P. but you can also make or print your own at home.
  • crystal knife rests – these are one of my favorite table items. While they do scream “fancy place setting” they’re also so practical. Once you’ve eaten a meal with a place to prop up your dirty knife, you’ll never want to go back. I have this set.
  • special napkin rings – special is up to you here. Maybe it’s a set of sterling rings that you only break out for holidays or maybe it’s a set of sparkling pumpkins. Whatever you pick, the point is that you’re stepping out of the ordinary.
  • a centerpiece – even just a few small gourds and some mums can kick things up, or you can opt for a large epergne like this. This is another area where you can be fancy, thematic or just funky.
  • upgraded placements and napkins – again, this is relative and again, this should suit your tastes. Maybe your cloth napkins will be a new set that is ‘holiday only’ or maybe you find a set of vintage napkins that are just for Thanksgiving.
  • mold the butter – serving butter in pretty, thematically appropriate shapes is a fun and charming way to elevate the table
  • candles – whether they’re towering tapers or a few simple votives, candlelight really is an instant and easy way to change the entire atmosphere

When it comes to table setting and decorations, remember the Hey Big Splendor philosophy: start where you are, add pieces when you can and only pick things that enhance your experience.

By the way, if you love bargain hunting for table setting, china, linen, silver and more, be sure to check out Splendor on a Shoestring

Here’s more about  Setting a Formal Table for Dinner

Thanksgiving table setting

Use a Thanksgiving dinner seating plan

Unlike a seating chart, which assigns each guest a specific seat at the dinner table,  a seating plan is more basic.  So what’s a seating plan? It’s simply making sure there are plenty of adequately spaced and accessible chairs for all your guests, whether you have 2 or 8.

I’m not here to insist Thanksgiving dinner must only be eaten deccoursly around the table with place cards, though that is my personal preference. But no matter how your meal will be served, you need to ensure there are more than enough chairs and plenty of room in between them.

Try out each seat, make sure it’s sturdy and comfortable. If you’re relying on folding chairs or chairs from other parts of your home, bring them into the main space and set them out in advance. Think about the physical condition and needs of your guests and make sure the seating you have is suitable for everyone.

Spacing it out

Check the spacing between chairs and adjust if need be. If you’re expecting guests who use wheelchairs, walkers or other mobility devices, be sure there’s room for them to easily move around.

Keep in mind that some people with mobility concerns or physical limitations can find it challenging to use soft, cushy furniture or seating that’s very low. Parents with very young children or babies may need room for strollers, high chairs or infant carriers.

Finally, make sure there are side tables or other surfaces for drinks or plates. Even in a casual setting, people still need a place to set things. And, of course, make sure there are enough seats for every single guest, even kids.

Set up a trial run

If you’re serving dinner at the table, or using folding tables, it’s even more important to make a seating plan. Set up as you plan to for dinner, and make sure there’s enough space for comfortable dining. Try to factor in traffic patterns, too, especially if you’re setting up a drink station or buffet. Even a small group can feel cramped if people are constantly having to squeeze through an obstacle course.

It’s amazing how small the dining room table can feel with 8 people around it instead of 4, for example. Setting up ahead of time will let you  adjust your table setting plans or dish placements if need be.

The bottom line is that a seating plan is like a dress rehearsal for your Thanksgiving dinner. It gives you the chance to stage everything in your space and make sure it’s going to work as you intend. Guests will appreciate that you’ve taken time to plan for their comfort and safety and it will save you stress on the day itself.

Consider an actual Thanksgiving dinner seating chart

I’m a big fan of place cards and assigned seating at the dinner table. While I do like the formality of it, there’s also some very real practicality behind the use of place cards. When you assign seats, you can be sure everyone is placed in a location that will accommodate their needs. If, for instance,  your niece needs a high chair, you can assign her parents a spot near the end of the table and leave room for the high chair. If your dad and Uncle Bob can’t get through the meal without arguing politics, you can seat them at opposite ends of the table. In short, using assigned seating helps you make your guests comfortable.

cocktail hour appetizers on trays

Include a Thanksgiving dinner cocktail hour

This isn’t just for drinkers and it’s not just to try and tony up the event. But it’s definitely a great way to improve your Thanksgiving dinner party. Here’s why-

First, it’s nice to have a buffer before the meal, time to sip and snack and relax together. Second, it gives the host and/or chef a last minute window to pull together dishes or fix disasters.

It helps keep guests entertained and out of the kitchen during the final rush to get the food in place.

When you know the rest of the party has some light appetizers to tide them over, the pressure to have dinner on the table on the stroke of the hour is reduced.

Third, a cocktail hour gives stragglers a chance to show up close to on time. Hopefully even late-arriving guests will still be early for the actual meal if you give them a buffer. (If you have a really persistently late guest, tell them it’s a ‘cocktail 90 minutes’).

What to serve for cocktail hour

The time of day you plan to serve dinner should dictate what you offer during cocktail hour.  For dinners earlier in the day, consider wine, beer and non-alcoholic cider or punch and light appetizers. If your dinner is closer to the evening, then you could offer spirits and mixed drinks, as well as a heavier course of appetizers.

There’s no wrong way to do cocktail hour, except maybe to serve strong drinks and no snacks. You know your dinner guests best, so choose drinks and appetizers that will suit your group.

Here’s a sample cocktail hour menu that offers a range of beverages without getting carried away:


Beer and wine

Sparkling water and non-alcoholic apple cider

Bitters, sweet vermouth, dry vermouth, vodka and whiskey.

They can be added to the cider or sparkling water or used to make a wide range of mixed drinks.


A cheese tray with three types of cheese and one type of cured meat, plus assorted dried or fresh fruits, pickles, and olives.

Warm cheese puffs (I recommend Julia Child’s recipe, which can be made in advance and warmed)

Celery and carrots with herbed hummus

Salted cashews

If you have guests who want to bring something but aren’t into cooking, contributions to cocktail hour is a great way to involve them, by the way.

On the subject of cocktails, here’s the Essential Tools for Making Cocktails at Home and Cocktail Glasses You Need

You can use some, all or none of these ideas to upgrade your Thanksgiving day. The most important thing that your Thanksgiving celebration is right for for you and your family. No matter how you celebrate, I hope you have a day filled with joy and peace.

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