The Massive Yet Well-Hosted Thanksgiving Dinner

Our ace of entertaining offers tips for planning and serving a large, multi-generational holiday dinner.

Merrily selects some eucalyptus branches at The Little Flower Shop. Photo by Corie English

Forever and ever, my husband, Jim, and I spent Thanksgivings with his sister and her husband at their home on Capitol Hill in the District of Columbia. My sister-in-law was a skilled cook who gave sumptuous parties, the consummate Washington hostess. Her Thanksgiving dinners were intimate, candlelit, formal (not to be confused with stiff) affairs, with a glittering array of crystal, china, and silver lined up at each place setting

Quite different from these occasions were Christmas dinners spent with my big, boisterous, Irish Catholic family in St. Louis. Dinners were prepared and presided over by my mom, also a great cook and hostess, and attended by varying configurations of my four brothers and two sisters and their families and sundry other relatives. There was much singing and revelry, both at the grownups’ and the kids’ tables.

A lot of what I know about entertaining I’ve learned from these two hostesses with such contrasting styles. I’ve especially learned there is no one right way to host a holiday dinner. But there are things you can do that make it easier on you, so you yourself can enjoy the day. Here are my top tips for hosting big holiday feasts, like Thanksgiving.

First, the Pep Talk
Do you know how awesome you are for opening your home to people? Just having your house in readiness to accommodate a large group is a feat. Some people go their entire lives without summoning the confidence to host a big do. They know who they are, and they deeply appreciate people like you. Remember that and go easy on yourself.

Start Organizing Now
Make room in your fridge and pantry to be super-organized as the day approaches. Clean out your fridge the day before the next trash day, so you can dump out expired and dodgy-looking items. Take inventory of the stuff you’ll use in abundance, including chicken stock, flour, sugar, and butter, and replenish what you need. Stock up on wine and Champagne if your family is fond of it. It’s so not fun to make a liquor or grocery run on Thanksgiving Day, or even the night before.

Get an Accurate Head Count
Start gently nagging family members and friends to let you know if they’re a yes. There’s a big difference between feeding, say, eight and feeding 14. The larger group is totally doable if you have time to formulate and execute a seating plan.

As early as possible, get a meal plan in writing—or in your phone, whatever works—even if you don’t know exactly who is bringing what, or even who is coming.

It’s Okay If Things Don’t Match
You’ll probably need to round up dining chairs from other areas of your house, and perhaps employ a folding table or two to create extra seating for the meal. Consider cozying up patio chairs with cashmere throws and little throw pillows. You can go online and buy, in virtually any color, cloth covers that make folding chairs look elegant. Or not. I am always moved by the humble sight of a dining space that’s been cobbled together—lovingly but not necessarily seamlessly, using card tables and the odd piano bench or ottoman—to create seating that includes everyone.

The same goes for linens and tableware. It’s charming to mix things up! Do avoid using paper or plastic, darling, if at all possible.

Place Cards! Yes, Yes, Yes!
If you want to host a truly fun-for-your-guests gathering, place cards are more important than any elaborate table decor you might be planning. People really appreciate knowing where to sit, the assurance that there is a place, just for them, at the table. They don’t want to have to bother you to ask where they should sit. The cards don’t have to be fancy, or even “cards.” Here’s an idea: find some pretty leaves outside, write your guests’ name on them using a Sharpie, and tuck each leaf into a napkin ring.

Mind the Lighting
Overhead lighting is never your friend when seeking to create ambience for a dinner party. I always advise hosts to put their overhead lights on a dimmer or turn them off altogether. Put 15-watt bulbs in your lamps and behold how much better your house looks, even during daylight. Bring lamps in from your bedroom to provide great-looking lighting on your buffet or in other areas that need illumination.

Candlelight is your very dear friend. Scatter your table with a million votive candles (unscented!) for a gorgeous effect. Votives are fine by themselves, but for extra oomph, drop them into glammy-looking votive holders. Terrasi Living on the Plaza and Trapp and Company in Midtown always have a nice assortment.

Speaking of Table Décor
Here’s a simple trick. Buy several packages of eucalyptus leaves at your favorite florist—they’re cheap!—and run them all the way down the center of your table(s). Plunk down votives here and there in-between the vines. Instant tablescape.

Set Up Self-Serve Drinks Stations
Arrange your bar area so guests can make their own drinks. If you have kids coming, consider creating a loaded apple-cider bar. Google it. It’s a thing and kids love them. Maybe some grownups, too.

Have Stuff for Guests to Do Besides Watch Football
If people are arriving hours before dinner, it’s thoughtful to provide some sort of amusement for those not glued to the football games. It could be as simple as putting out a deck of cards, a board game, or a partially started jigsaw puzzle. Take advantage of everyone being in one place; assign to one or two guests the task of arranging a family photo.

Do Your Kitchen Math
This is the part I hate, but it’s essential to your own enjoyment of the day. A day ahead, create a written timetable for serving dinner. Start with what time you want to serve, and work backwards. When should the bird go in the oven, if you want dinner to be at 5:30? (Probably about 1 p.m., if it’s average-sized and stuffed. has a handy chart.) I always switch off any music or TV to do my timetable because it requires focus.

On the big day, put sticky notes on each cooking appliance with its respective schedule. For example, for the oven: “Stuffing 3:00 – 5:00, Green beans, 4:00 – 5:00, Rolls 4:40 – 5:00.” You’ll want to figure out what serving dishes to use and tag them with sticky notes, too. This will make it easy for people to help you.

Remember to Put the “Thanks” in Thanksgiving
It’s so easy, in all the commotion, to overlook this part. Have a plan—even if it’s only in your head—for how you will, once you’ve sat down to dinner, observe that it’s Thanksgiving. It can be serious, it can be funny or lighthearted, it just can’t be an afterthought.

And Finally, I Have Recipes!
I haven’t referenced any specific recipes, but I have ’em for Thanksgiving, including my friend Amante Domingo’s instructions for making turkey brine and gravy, and my own tried-and-true recipes for make-ahead gravy, classic Thanksgiving dressing, cream-braised cabbage, roasted Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, KC creamed spinach casserole, and stuffed mushrooms. Email me. Please know I will never share your email address with anyone else.

What Will Be Your Serving Strategy?

Pick one and go with it!
Decide whether you’re going to serve the meal buffet, family style, or restaurant style.

Buffet service is the tried-and-true approach for large groups because it makes it easy to organize and serve large quantities of food. Plan in advance where you’re going to set up the buffet, and declutter before guests arrive.

Family-style service works well for smaller groups. Choose platters small and light enough to be passed comfortably. It’s helpful to have a sideboard or extra serving table nearby for setting platters when they are not being passed.

Restaurant-style service, in which dishes are individually plated in the kitchen or served by the host from the head of the table, is a good solution for an intimate group, especially when you have very young or very elderly people at the table.

Whatever you decide, remember you’ll probably want to send people home with leftovers. Have containers on hand.

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