Hosting Thanksgiving Dinner for the First Time Ever? Here’s Your Fool-Proof Game Plan

Photo: Stocksy/Cara Dolan
With Thanksgiving celebrations being smaller this year and fewer people traveling to see loved ones, many people are finding themselves in a situation where they're hosting the holiday meal for the very first time. Even if you're only feeding your smaller household crew, putting together a holiday meal for the first time can be pretty stressful.

Okay, first, take a deep breath. Second, keep reading because if you feel completely overwhelmed, this guide for how to host Thanksgiving has everything that you need to know. (Including a worst-case scenario plan.) Institute of Culinary Education chef Adrienne Cheatham—who has worked as an executive chef at Le Bernardin and Red Rooster Harlem—gives tips on how to figure out what to serve and some cooking tips to keep in mind. Plus, Andrea Balitewicz, who has worked at the Butterball Turkey Talk Line for the past five years, answers the most common Thanksgiving conundrums.

Experts In This Article

Even when little else feels like it's going to plan, your Thanksgiving still has the potential to be spectacular. Your complete game plan is right here laid out for you. You've got this!

Step 1: Plan your menu

Whenever you're hosting a dinner party, the very first step is menu planning. This isn't any old dinner party either—this is Thanksgiving we're talking about where every dish is steeped in tradition and memories. This is why Cheatham recommends starting with a pre-menu planning poll, asking each person who is attending what their favorite dish is and also if they have any dietary restrictions.

The poll can also help narrow down what you can skip cooking. If nobody mentioned mashed potatoes or if only one person listed creamed onions, skip it! If you're hosting people outside of your family, it would also be considerate to be mindful of how your guests' cultures may be different from your own; the Thanksgiving foods that are meaningful to them may be completely different from the ones you grew up having. If they love a dish you don't know how to make, ask them if they would mind making and bringing it—chances are that they would love to. "People often want to share a dish they like with others," Cheatham says.

Cheatham says you do also want to be mindful of what dietary restrictions someone has. "It's so easy to make traditional dishes with substitute ingredients, like vegan butter or alternative milk," she says. "Often, people who don't have a dietary preference or sensitivity won't even realize you subbed an ingredient out anyway, so you might as well do it."

Once you have your rough list, it's time to find some recipes. Here are some great options from our own archives:

1. Vegan Thanksgiving recipes—from apps to dessertsGot plant-based eaters in your household? Check out these vegan options, including for sides like green bean casserole and stuffed acorn squash, turkey stand-ins, and, of course, pumpkin pie.

2. Vegan gravy recipes. Here are seven takes on gravy that only take a few minutes to make.

3. 20 Thanksgiving salad recipesSalad is the Thanksgiving food no one thinks they want, but will ultimately be grateful for. All the ones on this list are creative and festive.

4. Cauliflower side dishesThe cruciferous veg really is a chameleon.  Here are eight different ways to work it into your holiday meal.

5. Instant Pot Thanksgiving recipesLast year, two Well+Good editors made an entire Thanksgiving dinner using just an Instant Pot and an air fryer. Here's how they did it.

6. Air fryer side dishes. What can't the air fryer do? This kitchen gadget is ideal for whipping up your favorite side dishes, especially if you're hosting a smaller gathering.

7. Thanksgiving pie recipesPumpkin, pecan...the recipes are all here. Plus, check out the video below for a gluten-free twist on a fall favorite, sweet potato pie.

Step 2: Buy your ingredients

Once you have your recipes, it's time to buy—and the earlier, the better. “Last year, we saw sales for many Thanksgiving-related food items and ingredients spike after the week of November 11, so we’d recommend purchasing any shelf-stable ingredients you might need, like canned cranberry sauce, canned pumpkin, stuffing mix, and crispy fried onions, with plenty of time to spare before Thanksgiving,” Laurentia Romaniuk, a trend expert at grocery delivery service Instacart, previously told Well+Good. Nab your non-perishable goods—dried herbs and spices, flour, canned goods, and even heartier root vegetables that last longer—in advance (like, today), and save the fresh ingredients for the week of Thanksgiving.

If you're buying a turkey, Balitewicz recommends buying a bird that's 1/2 to 2 pounds per person. (If you're a big leftovers person, factor that in too.) And as far as deciding between frozen or fresh, she says that's more of a personal choice; either works just fine. "It depends on how much room is in your refrigerator," she says. "Just remember that a frozen turkey needs to thaw in the fridge for 24 hours for every 5 pounds. So if you have a big turkey, that can take several days," she says. This is another one where it's smart to buy in advance—especially if you're opting for frozen—to ensure you get what you need in time.

Okay, menu planning and shopping done? Now you're ready to get cooking.

Step 3: Cooking the turkey... and everything else

The Thanksgiving food that trips people up the most tends to be (no surprise) the turkey. Balitewicz says one common mistake people make is not giving themselves enough time to defrost and cook it. "When to start cooking your turkey depends on how big it is and the cooking method you choose," she says. Depending on the size, cooking the turkey takes between 2 1/2 to 6 hours. And, remember, that's after it's thawed.

"The number one question we get at the talk line is about thawing," Balitewicz says. If you're short on time, she says you can give your turkey an ice bath, refreshing the water every 30 minutes. "For every 30 minutes it's in the water, it will thaw one pound, so it can go pretty quick," she says. If you cook the turkey without it being fully thawed first, she says it won't be as moist and juicy as you want it to be.

"The other key to making sure your turkey doesn't taste dry is to not overcook it," she says. "We suggest a nice even temperature of 325°F and you also don't want to be opening the oven door a lot because that heat should stay trapped inside."

Cheatham also suggests cooking the stuffing and the turkey separately. "People tend to overcook the turkey because they're waiting for the stuffing to finish being cooked," she says. "It's better to cook the stuffing separately and then incorporate the turkey juice into it when they're both done cooking."

As for other dishes on your menu, don't pressure yourself to cook everything on the day of Thanksgiving. "I recommend making whatever you can in advance, that way all you have to do the day of the meal is heat everything up," Cheatham says. "Mac-and-cheese, green bean casserole, can all be made in advance." So if you have time Tuesday or Wednesday, you can get a jump-start on making some of those sides (and pies too, TBH). One food she doesn't recommend making in advance is mashed potatoes. That's one side, she says, that's best served straight off of the stovetop.

Step 4: How to salvage any food mishaps

Even with a gameplan, there are times when something just doesn't go right. Maybe you completely forgot to thaw the turkey, for example. Just in case something like this happens, Cheatham has a few dishes she recommends turning to, that can be made super quickly.

If the turkey failed, she recommends searing a steak. "Practically everyone [who eats meat] loves a seared steak," she says, adding that it's something that can be done in about eight minutes. "Just get a cast iron skillet piping hot, throw some oil and garlic in there, sear one side for three to four minutes, and then do the same on the other. You're done in 10 minutes and Thanksgiving is saved." Sure, it isn't "traditional," but she says if there's any year to buck tradition, it's this one. "Get one as a backup and if you don't end up needing it, you can eat the steak yourself when you're sick of Thanksgiving leftovers," she says.

Cheatham says she turns sweet potato wedges as an easy dinner-saver. "Just cut up the sweet potato into wedges, spice it up with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roast them in the oven until they start turning brown in places," she says. "When they're done cooking, add a little honey or maple syrup on them. It's seasonal and a really easy win."

Hosting Thanksgiving can be intimidating—even if it's just for a few people—but the biggest tip to keep in mind is to plan ahead. And don't be shy about asking for help if and when you need it. More often than not, your guests want to be part of prepping the meal. After all, if we've learned anything in the last year, it's that we're in this together—a reminder that just might come in handy right when it's time to start washing the dishes.

Swap Thanksgiving cooking war stories in Well+Good's Cook With Us Facebook group.

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