people sitting around a table enjoying thanksgiving dinner

Many of us grow up eating Thanksgiving dinner at our parents’ house or a relative’s. Our roles are often limited to clean-up or setting the table. It isn’t until we’ve moved into our own homes or started our own families that we’re faced with the task of actually hosting Thanksgiving dinner and planning out a Thanksgiving menu.

If you’ve never hosted Thanksgiving dinner before, you might be feeling overwhelmed. After all, there’s so much prep and entertaining needs to think about when planning a Thanksgiving menu for your guests.

We’re here to hopefully ease some of your worries and break Thanksgiving dinner down into manageable steps that’ll keep you organized and calm throughout the process.

Plan the guest list

Before you’ve even thought about what to cook or prepare for Thanksgiving dinner, you need to think about who you’re going to invite. Will invitations be limited to close family only, or will you be inviting a few friends too?

Create an invitation (it doesn’t have to be fancy, online e-vites are perfectly fine!) and make sure to ask guests to not only RSVP but to include any dietary restrictions they may have. If you have a guest that’s following a vegan diet or gluten-free diet, you’ll want to know so you have some friendly options for them at the dinner table too.

We recommend sending out your invitations no later than two weeks prior to Thanksgiving. This gives guests enough time to plan their holiday and organize their schedules.

Plan the menu

Now it’s time to think about what you actually want to serve your guests for Thanksgiving dinner. You may want to go the traditional route or offer a modern take on your dinner with unique and creative dishes. You’ll also want to take a look at your guests’ responses on the invitations and see if they have included any dietary restrictions to help you plan your menu.

If you have any new recipes you want to try out, we suggest doing a practice run with those recipes before the big day. There’s nothing worse than messing up a recipe that’s supposed to feed a crowd when you’re entertaining, especially on a holiday!

Some of the most classic Thanksgiving menu items include:

  • Turkey and gravy
  • Stuffing
  • Sweet potatoes/yams
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Veggies like glazed carrots, green beans, or creamed corn
  • Cranberry sauce
  • Dinner rolls
  • Salad
  • Dessert pies such as apple, pumpkin, or pecan
  • Apple cider, wine, or other beverages

Assign a dish, dessert, or beverage to each guest

There’s nothing wrong with asking your guests to help out with Thanksgiving dinner. While the host is typically in charge of the turkey and gravy, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask your guests to bring one of the side dishes, desserts, or drinks.

We recommend assigning an item to each guest rather than simply requesting them to bring something since your guests might end up bringing the same items, leaving you with a double of certain foods and none of the others.

Create a shopping list

Once you know who’s bringing what and which foods you’ll be responsible for, it’s time to make a shopping list. Gather your favorite Thanksgiving recipes and look through each recipe’s ingredient list, marking down all the items you need to create each recipe.

When you’re reading through the recipes, pay attention to the instructions as well so that you ensure you have all the necessary tools and equipment to carry out the recipes as well. Some common kitchen tools you’ll often find yourself needing for Thanksgiving dinner are:

  • Roasting pan
  • Baster
  • Thermometer
  • Serving platter and utensils
  • Carving knife
  • Handheld mixer

One pro tip we recommend is to buy a little bit more of each ingredient than what the recipe dictates. Accidents happen, things spill, or sometimes you just need to re-do a recipe step or adjust the recipe to your own preference. Having a little bit of that extra heavy cream for your corn or flour for your dinner rolls can really come in handy.

Make dishes ahead of time

Not all dishes for your Thanksgiving menu can be made ahead of time. For instance, turkey can’t be roasted until the day of. What you can do, however, is prep certain side dishes and parts of a recipe before the big day.

For instance, pie crust can easily be made ahead of time and molded to your pie pan days before Thanksgiving. Simply set the prepared crust in the freezer, then prepare your pie recipe as instructed the evening before Thanksgiving. Many pie recipes can be kept at room temperature or in the fridge until you’re ready to serve them.

Other foods can be prepared in advance as well and stored in the fridge until you’re ready to briefly reheat them on the day of. Don’t leave everything to be prepared until the last minute as you’re likely to feel exhausted and overwhelmed.

Prep the kitchen

A host’s worst nightmare is to find her oven not working properly on Thanksgiving day. Avoid disastrous scenarios like this by properly prepping your kitchen a week before Thanksgiving. Test out your oven and stove and make sure everything’s working well.

Later in the week, when it’s closer to the big day, pull out your slow cookers, deep fryers, and coolers (for beverages) and make sure they’re clean and ready-to-go.

Prep the house

When you’re having company over, it’s best to make your home look tidy and neat. Vacuum the floors, wipe down counters and dust any surfaces in the home to keep it looking clean and fresh.

Stock up on some seasonal fall decor and candles to place around the house and make your home feel festive and inviting for your guests.

If your dining table isn’t big enough to fit all your guests, try to think of other places in your home that you can set up for eating, such as an outdoor table, seats at the kitchen counter, or a small dining nook.

Set the table

About one to two days before Thanksgiving, plan out the decor and table settings for dinner. This is the time to use your wedding china and nice silverware. It’s best to forego plastic dinnerware and utensils to keep things looking elegant and formal for the holiday dinner.

If you have linen napkins, pull those out and set them up with all the utensils your guests may need, including forks, knives, spoons, and dessert utensils. Place a couple of glasses for each guest, one for water and another for wine or cider.

Buy flowers from your local market and create a main centerpiece for the table or mini bouquets. If you have candle holders, purchase candlesticks to place in them and set those up on the table, otherwise, buy votive candles from the store and use those.

Enjoy the holiday

It’s easy for the host to end up feeling exhausted in the kitchen on Thanksgiving day. While everyone else is in the dining room feasting on all the good eats, the host is often left scrambling in the kitchen making sure everything is being prepared on time.

But if you follow the suggestions and ideas shared here, you should be able to relax on the holiday and enjoy your time with your guests. You deserve to have a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner just like everybody else. With some strategic planning and thoughtful organization, you may just want to end up hosting Thanksgiving dinner the next year as well!