The Ultimate Guide to Hosting This Thanksgiving

My husband and I are hosting his family for Thanksgiving this year, and we can’t wait. As a newly married couple, we got into the habit of inviting others, from friends to family to church members to co-workers, into our home for a meal, which we continued even as we added children to our home.

But lest you think we’re super hosts who can whip up restaurant-quality cooking meals in a Martha Stewart-worthy setting, let me assure you—we’re not.

We’ve had our share of great dinner parties and disasters—and everything in between. We’ve left out key ingredients in dishes, forgotten to purchase beverages, and burned the main meat course beyond recognition while our kids have asked embarrassing questions or blurted out inappropriate comments.

Hosting Thanksgiving can bring more angst because of family traditions and expectations. Before we get into concrete tips on how to make the day more fun and less stressful, let’s talk about six ways to reduce anxiety about hosting.

  1. Journal or jot down what stresses you out the most about hosting Thanksgiving. Don’t overthink this or worry about the answers—just get all of your anxieties out there.
  2. Consider each item in the bright light of day. In other words, think about how realistic your fears are and how likely they are to actually happen.
  3. Decide which worries you can change the outcome for and which you can’t. Then, change what you can and let the rest go. For example, if you’re worried about burning the turkey, you can put in safeguards to avoid having that happen, including buying an already-cooked bird.
  4. Share your concerns with your spouse. Let your partner shoulder your burden and help you work through your fears.
  5. Work with your family to mitigate your anxiety. Perhaps you farm out more of the dishes, only doing the main course. Or you can buy a ready-made, heat-and-serve meal. You could schedule a house cleaning or hire a babysitter to watch the kids while you prep in the kitchen.
  6. Remember, while Thanksgiving Day can seem like a big deal, it’s just another day and opportunity to gather with family and friends. Removing some of the angst or expectations attached to it can also lower your stress.

Now on to what we’ve learned from hosting Thanksgiving for both my family and my in-laws over the years—and how we plan to make the day more fun than stressful.

Have an Overall Plan

Ever notice how your anxiety level rises when you don’t know what you’re going to do but lowers when you have a plan? The same goes for hosting. If this is your first time hosting anyone other than those who reside with you, keep it super simple. This is not the time to pull out all the stops. Instead, concentrated on two things—the food and the seating. If people have a place to eat and food to consume, you’ll be the hostess with the mostess.

Happy family hosting holiday gathering thanksgiving or christmas grandparents and kid

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/jacoblund

Things to Include in Your Plan:

The menu. 

Think about the menu in terms of a main course, sides, drinks, and dessert. If your guests traditionally bring something for the meal, assign the easy stuff to them, such as cold salads, drinks, rolls, and pies. This frees you up to concentrate on the hot foods—and relieves some of the pressure, too. I recommend finalizing the menu at least two weeks before Thanksgiving to give yourself time to make substitutions if you can’t find certain ingredients. A note about food allergies: please ask if you haven’t hosted someone before and do your best to accommodate allergies, such as not serving any nuts if a guest has a peanut allergy. Most of the time, we can easily make substitutions or eliminate food allergens without too much fuss.

The table. 

This is something your kids can handle with the proper instruction. A few days before Thanksgiving, show them what dishes to use and how to set the table. Also, check the linens you’ll be using to ensure you have enough cloth napkins, for example, for the expected guests. Give the children a list of names of those coming and have them make place cards for the meal to avoid a mad scramble for seats.

The cleaning. 

If you want to use the company as an excuse to deep clean your house, go for it, but feel free to simply spot clean. Unless you know for certain your guests will be roving your entire home, only clean the areas they are going to be in, like the kitchen, gathering room, and bathroom. Shut the doors to any rooms not cleaned, and you’ll be home-free.

The pets. 

Whether you have dogs, cats, or other animals, it’s best to plan where they’ll be during the meal. We have three cats and will lock them in a room during the meal to avoid a repeat of the time a cat helped himself to turkey.

The timeline. 

When cooking for a crowd, it’s important to spread out the tasks over several days if possible. For example, when I’m hosting, I prep as much as possible the day before Thanksgiving, such as chopping vegetables and peeling potatoes. If the dish can sit overnight in the fridge before cooking, I’ll do that too. Include when the table should be set and when the guests will arrive. Leave enough time in your master schedule for you to get ready as well!

Think about the Extras

Thanksgiving table with food

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/AlexRaths

Once you have a general plan in place, you can decide whether to include some finishing touches to make the day even more special. Remember—these are completely optional! Do not feel you have to include these ideas if you’re already overwhelmed with the list above. Instead, add these if you feel comfortable.

  • Have a theme. You can have all your decorations around a color, such as all white or gold and burgundy. Or around an idea, such as harvest with gourds or cornucopias as centerpieces and autumn colors for plates, napkins, and tablecloths, or count your blessings with thankfulness quotes and notecards for guests to write down what they’re grateful for.
  • Add conversation starters. If you’re concerned about the tone of the gathering, consider adding Mason jars as centerpieces with conversation starters on slips of paper. Then you can take turns having guests draw out a slip and read, then answer the questions, such as:

-What did you want to be when you grew up?

-Have you ever wanted to change your first name?

-If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?

-What kind of animal would you be?

If you’ll have children present, make sure to have questions any age could answer.

Provide entertainment for the kids. 

To avoid the kids running around like crazy, have a plan for entertaining the younger set. Ideas include Pilgrim-themed coloring pages or books with crayons and colored pencils, sticker books, and games. You could also provide simple crafts to make, like Thanksgiving turkeys with handprints. If your family has older teens or college-age kids, hire one or two to watch the younger kids to give the parents a break and to keep your house intact.

Spend time together. 

One of my favorite Thanksgiving traditions from my family is that after the dishes are done, but before the pie is served, we gather around the table to play games. Perhaps your family enjoys watching football together or playing soccer outside after the meal. Whatever the activity, it’s about spending time with one another, so include that option in your day, too.

I hope this article has sparked some ideas on how to host Thanksgiving while also relieving some of the anxiety surrounding the holiday. But before I go plan my own Thanksgiving menu, I’ll leave you with these thoughts.

First, write down why you’re hosting. It could be to give your mother, mother-in-law, or other relative a break from hosting. Perhaps it’s to implement a needed change for your immediate family. Maybe it’s to provide a safe place for the family to gather. Or you might just like to host. Whatever the reason, keeping that foremost in your mind will guide your decisions about how the day will unfold. Second, you don’t “have” to do anything. You might think there’s an unwritten rule about serving Aunt Milly’s gelatin salad that no one eats, but you could certainly write your own rules about the day. For example, one Thanksgiving, one or more of our kids had been sick, and so our plans had to be altered. That year, we dined not on turkey but on takeout Chinese food. The kids still talk about that Thanksgiving as one of their best, despite the lack of pie.

Above all, remember that when we open our homes and our tables, we have an opportunity to extend fellowship and friendship to our families and others. Isn’t that the essence of what Thanksgiving is all about?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/mixetto

sarah hamaker author bio picSarah Hamaker is a national speaker and award-winning author who loves writing romantic suspense books “where the hero and heroine fall in love while running for their lives.” She’s also a wife, mother of four teenagers, a therapeutic foster mom, a UMFS Foster Parent Ambassador, and podcaster (The Romantic Side of Suspense podcast). She coaches writers, speakers, and parents with an encouraging and commonsense approach. Visit her online at


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