How to Host a Stress-free Thanksgiving Dinner | Overstuffed Overstuffed

Monday, November 10, 2014

How to Host a Stress-free Thanksgiving Dinner

Don't let entertaining on Thanksgiving stress you out! Nine tips to help you host a stress-free Thanksgiving Dinner.

Did I really just say that? Stress-free?

Believe it or not, I think it's possible, and I've actually even done it many times!

I love Thanksgiving, and my favorite part about it is throwing the party. I love making a beautiful table and baking pies. The Maestro loves cooking gourmet meals. What could be more perfect than hosting Thanksgiving?

While it is definitely possible for Thanksgiving to be stress-free, it does take a few weeks of planning, so we'd best start now! (Is Thanksgiving really in only two weeks and two days?)

If you're hosting Thanksgiving dinner, hopefully you've already invited guests by now, so we'll skip that step (even though I admit that things got away from me this year and I did the inviting really late myself!). But solidifying the guest list is only the first step--here are 9 more steps to ensuring that your Thanksgiving Dinner goes without a hitch and that the day itself is enjoyable and not stressful!

1. Make a menu and shopping list

About two weeks before Thanksgiving Day you should start working on your menu. Luckily, Thanksgiving is usually a fairly traditional meal and everyone expects certain things to be on the menu! Turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, pumpkin pie...those are no-brainers!

However, we always like to add something new to the rotation each year. Maybe an entirely new side dish, or just a different type of pumpkin pie. Thanksgiving is a great time to try new dishes while still keeping the tried and true traditional ones in the rotation.

Once you have your menu down, make a detailed grocery list. Do not try to make your list from memory--have the menu and all of the recipes in front of you while you make your list! I know from personal experience that if you try to do it off the top of your head you WILL forget something, no matter how well you know the recipes!

As far as the turkey goes, make sure to calculate how much turkey you will need. A good rule of thumb is 1.5 pounds per person, but if you want lots of leftovers, you may want to double that!

2. Plan your tablescape

You know who is coming to dinner, so the first order of business is to know exactly where everyone will sit. Generally, not all of our guests fit at our dining room table, though we have been known to squeeze ten people in when a couple of them were fairly small children. Since it comfortably seats eight people, I try to stick to that and come up with something else for the remainder. It's usually just a card table set up in the corner, and that does the trick (see first photo for example).

If you don't have enough table room, it's perfectly acceptable to go the route of having everyone dish up and eat in the living room. Maybe just the children can eat at a table. It's totally up to you.

Hosting a stress-free Thanksgiving. Tip #2: Plan your table settings beforehand. #overstuffedlife
Our Thanksgiving Table 2011. For more photos click here: Thanksgiving 2011

I love doing the table so much, that I just make sure we don't invite over our table capacity!

Come up with a color scheme, a centerpiece idea, place card ideas, and table settings for your tablescape. I try to use mostly what I have, but I also allow myself to purchase a few new things for the table every year.  The plan always changes once I get to actually setting the table, but having a rough idea of it in my mind always helps the process to go faster.

3. Purchase groceries and other supplies early

I like to spread my Thanksgiving grocery purchases out over two weeks so I don't completely kill my grocery budget. Buy canned foods and other non-perishables the first week and round it out with the perishables the second week.

The turkey can be purchased on either trip, just make sure you have enough time to thaw it before Thanksgiving Day! You don't want to be stuck with a frozen turkey the day before Thanksgiving, believe me! We prefer to thaw our turkey in the fridge, and we usually allow about a day per 4 pounds of bird for thawing.

How to host a stress-free Thanksgiving. Tip #3: Purchase your groceries and other supplies early. #overstuffedlife
If you're making your place cards, make sure you've purchased all of the supplies ahead of time!
To see how I made these place cards, click here: Thanksgiving 2013 Owl Place Cards

Other supplies you may need for Thanksgiving dinner: napkins, napkin rings, centerpieces, dishes, glassware, silverware, silver cleaner, candles, candle holder, craft supplies, tablecloths, place mats, etc.

Okay, so maybe many of those items aren't actually needs—but I always like to have something new for the tablescape each year! The good news is that many of these things can be purchased at the Dollar Store or cheaply at thrift stores. I bought last year's dishes at Dollar Tree and also found some beautiful chargers there for Christmas dinner.

4. Delegate

It depends on what kind of host you want to be, but don't be afraid to ask your guests to bring something. All of the guests I have had for Thanksgiving want to contribute to the meal. And in order for Thanksgiving to be stress-free, you really should let them!

I always ask them to bring the one or two dishes that are important in their family tradition. For instance, I absolutely cannot have Thanksgiving diner (or Easter dinner or Christmas dinner) without serving my grandmother's Jell-o salad. And now my children feel the same way, even though The Maestro is not a big fan of the recipe. Traditions are important to people, so make sure they have their favorite food traditions by inviting them to bring them.

And then delegate a little bit more. Delegate the things that you hate to make or feel you don't have time to make. If you really feel strongly about not making your guests work too hard on dinner prep, you can also have them bring the easy stuff. Canned cranberry sauce, whipped cream, a veggie tray, etc.

5. Prepare food ahead of time

Whatever you can prepare before Thanksgiving day, do it. The day itself should be given over to the essentials: turkey, dressing, potatoes, etc. Unless you have some sort of industrial kitchen and a resident sous chef, you are not going to be a very happy camper on Thanksgiving day unless you do a lot of food prep ahead of time.

How to host a stress-free Thanksgiving dinner. Tip #5: Prepare food ahead of time whenever possible. #overstuffedlife
I make all my pies the night before. For the recipe to our favorite pie, click here: Luscious Pear Pie.

You can make and freeze the dough for your rolls. Pies should always be baked the night before. You can peel and chop vegetables and then freeze them until the big day.

The point is, carefully look at your menu and decide what can reasonably be prepared ahead of time. You might be surprised just how much you can get done as much as a couple days before.

6. Set the table the night before

I feel it is an absolute must to have the table set and ready to go the night before. It can take me a couple hours to get it done, so I generally work on the table a little at a time throughout Wednesday while also working on food prep and pies.

Host a stress-free Thanksgiving dinner. Tip #6: Set the table the night before. #overstuffedlife
Our 2013 Thanksgiving table. To see it, click here: Thanksgiving 2013

I polish and wash all of the silver first. Since I only use it for special occasions, the silver is always in need of a good polishing. The girls love to help me with that job, too. Next, I iron tablecloths and napkins and make sure everything (linens and dishes) is clean. And then I get the table set up!

I fiddle with it quite a bit to get it just to my liking, but it's also my favorite part of Thanksgiving. If it isn't that important to you, just get it set and be done with it. It's super nice not to have to do it on Thanksgiving Day.

7. Have something for the kids to do

Now that my kids are getting a bit older, they are much more helpful on Thanksgiving Day. But when they were younger they definitely needed some sort of distraction so that they weren't hindering the kitchen work for mom and dad. Generally, I have them work on a thankful tree during the day.

Host a stress-free Thanksgiving Dinner. Tip #7: Always have an activity for the kids! #overstuffedlife
Thankful tree 2010

I usually make a big pile of tags for our thankful tree ahead of time, and have the girls go to town writing what they are thankful for. Even though we often work on the tree throughout November, they can always have fun adding to it on Thanksgiving Day. And if your guests have children, they absolutely should be invited to help out. I always find it's fun to get the gratitude perspective of children that are not my own.

Host a stress-free Thanksgiving Dinner. Tip #7: Always have an activity for the kids! #overstuffedlife
Thankful Tree 2011

If a thankful tree isn't enough, or isn't something you want to do, there are a million and one Thanksgiving crafts for kids out there. A quick check of Pinterest will find you at least a thousand. You can have them make paper plate turkeys, pilgrim hats and bonnets, Native American headdresses, gratitude journals, and any number of other fun activities.

Host a stress-free Thanksgiving Dinner. Tip #7: Always have an activity for the kids! #overstuffedlife
Thankful Tree 2013. Want to print out these leaves to use on your own gratitude tree? Click here: Printable Thankful Tree

8. Get dressed early!

Don't wait to get ready. Sure, get a few things done in the kitchen and do some clean-up before you shower, but don't wait until the last second. Schedule in time early in the day to get yourself gussied up, and then put on your apron and finish the work. You really don't want your guests arriving ten minutes early to find you are only just emerging from the shower, so don't push your luck.

Same goes for the kids! Get them ready fairly early, and insist on a dress code you are comfortable with. I have a child that will show up to dinner in her pjs if I'd let her.

One little, two little, three little...
Thanksgiving 2010

I feel that it's good manners to look nice, so our dress code is dressy casual on Thanksgiving Day. But if you're totally cool with jeans and t-shirts (or jammies!), then that's awesome.

9. Be thankful

Don't get so caught up in all of the preparations that you forget why you're doing it. Thanksgiving Day is a time to be with family and friends and to show our gratitude for the multitude of blessings we have.

In order for Thanksgiving to be truly stress-free, you have to be grateful. Even if you burn your casserole or the gluten-free rolls don't turn out. Once dinner is on the table, sit back and really enjoy your company and the food and the atmosphere.

I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving Day this year! I'm off to start planning my menu!

What are your best tips for a stress-free Thanksgiving holiday?

Are you worried about hosting Thanksgiving Dinner? Here are nine tips to help you organize ahead of time so Thanksgiving Day is completely stress-free!
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  1. cariwritesforyouTue Nov 11, 10:13:00 AM

    Great tips, Lara! Your table is beautiful!

  2. Thank you for all the wonderful tips Lara. I love ideas that help keep this day free of stress and extra work so we can enjoy this wonderful time of year with our families. Happy Thanksgiving. Cathy

  3. I agree! Being thankful is the reason we even do the whole Thanksgiving thing. I think we sometimes forget that part.

  4. Fairytales & FitnessTue Nov 11, 11:14:00 AM

    I've never hosted Thanksgiving so I often forget how stressful it can be on someone. Wow, you really go all out with your tablescapes and kid projects! I'd love to be a guest at your house! Good job!

  5. Stress free is always a good thing!

  6. Kimberly ElliottTue Nov 11, 11:22:00 AM

    What a GREAT post! Entertaining doesn't have to be stressful and miserable. It's supposed to be a time to enjoy the holiday, your family, friends, and the time together. Thanks for sharing such great tips and tricks. Its such a great post that I've shared this on Pinterest, facebook, and Stumble upon.

  7. Planning and early food prep are key. Kudos on the plan for kids. Keeping them busy is a great way to increase your own productivity and it makes it easier for adults to relax knowing kids are happy and occupied. Great post!

  8. Great tips! I am BIG on preparing and planning ahead for holidays, it makes it so much easier to actually enjoy the season and the day!

  9. I like #9 the most. :) I always get so caught up in all the prep that I rarely stop to appreciate the day and the people.

  10. So many great tips. All of my family lives far away, so when we have had Thanksgiving at home it is has just been our immediate family. Some day though, I will have a house full. :)

  11. I am in the same boat, but I love having people over for Thanksgiving anyway. We are usually able to find some friends who do not have family around and are not traveling for the holiday. It might be because we are so remote, LOL!

  12. Amen. It's a lesson that has taken me a while to learn. I do tend to get stressed over the little things. :)

  13. Amen! A lesson learned the hard way for me!

  14. I forgot to mention we always have Charlie Brown's Thanksgiving on before dinner for the kids, too!

  15. Thanks, Kimberly! I love entertaining, but I have learned some of these lessons the hard way, that's for sure.

  16. Truer words were never typed!

  17. I love to do it, it's my favorite part. Luckily my husband loves to do all the cooking, because that's NOT my favorite part.

  18. Thank you. It's my favorite part of Thanksgiving...even more than the pie, which is a close second. Is that weird?

  19. Happy Thanksgiving to you, too, Cathy!

  20. For any holiday the real reasons for celebration are easy to lose in all the fanfare. It's good to remind ourselves often!

  21. Gurl... I found you through Pinterest a few days ago and BURNED through an alarming amount of your archives in (ahem) a few days... rest assured, you get moar done than I can ever dream of - lol. Deep breaths. We all do the best we can. ;p

  22. Great post! My husband and I are the same way - he likes cooking the food, and I like planning the decor and desserts! :D

  23. It's great to be such a team, isn't it?

  24. Oh wow! Thanks for making my day! But, you haven't seen the ginormous pile of laundry I'm currently ignoring...