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How to host your first thanksgiving without losing your mind. All of my secret tips…

Party Basics: Hosting Your First Thanksgiving

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friends share a thanksgiving dinner with full plates of food on white plates at a wooden table

Thanksgiving is the best holiday. Hosting your first thanksgiving? Better than best.

I love it so much. Thanksgiving is non-denominational, yet filled with tradition. A day dedicated to eating and being with family. It’s followed by a long weekend that also involves shopping. All my favorite things.

Extract the problematic backstory, and it’s damn near perfect.

The only thing that makes me happier than merely being able to celebrate the best holiday is to HOST Thanksgiving Dinner at my house. Not just because it’s because I’m a homebody, but also because it has all my favorite things about entertaining: leisurely dining, cozy atmosphere, delicious food, and being surrounded by people you love.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s also work – but not difficult if you know how to plan it out. It can be so rewarding, and so much fun. And I want this fantastic experience for you, too! It’s not as hard as you might be thinking.

I’m here to share my secrets.

I’ve been hosting Thanksgiving for a long time, for many different groups of people. I’m here to share my tips for doing it well and how to keep your sanity in the process.

So, I’m going to walk you through my fool-proof plan for hosting your first Thanksgiving, from my favorite easy recipes to basic decor, clear timetables, and what to look out for.

YOU CAN DO THIS!

three stalks of wheat laying on a rustic linen napkin next to a pie server with a black finish

Hosting your first thanksgiving: The Menu

Today, the second you decide that hosting your first Thanksgiving is what you want to do, and after you’ve invited your friends, neighbors, and family, decide on what you’re going to make.

I know, it can be intimidating to figure this out. First, you have to accept that there is no way in the universe that you will please everyone. I’m sure their mother’s grandma’s auntie’s Thanksgiving stuffing is incredible, but you are not them, nor are you going to attempt to make anything as well as they do. You will always fail.

However, you can still satisfy them. You just need to understand how to balance what you can accomplish with the regional traditions and general expectations of the holiday.

And I can help you with that.

an over photo of a pile of picturesque small pumpkins of all shapes and sizes

Thanksgiving Menu Picker

Below is my Thanksgiving Menu Picker. I’ve organized it by how things are made and recommended how much of each item would be expected. I’ve noted what things you should make and what you should buy. And all of these recipes are my tried and trues – so easy, always successful, liked by all.

The first page has the dishes you need to satisfy 99% of Thanksgiving expectations. These are classic flavors that will please everyone – basic, but in a good way:

chart showing must-have recipes for thanksgiving dinner, spatchcocked turkey or roast turkey breast, both dry brined with store bought gravy, oven recipes to pick two from, classic bread stuffing, mac and cheese, hone-roasted sweet potatoes, or corn pudding, recipes to pick 2 of to make on the stove, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, honey-glazed carrots, stewed collards, and 3 options for homemade cranberry sauce, basic, gingered and cranberry salad

MUST-HAVE RECIPE LINKS FOR HOSTING YOUR FIRST THANKSGIVING:

PROTEIN

PICK ONE, AND USE THE DRY BRINE WITH EITHER
SPATCHCOCKED TURKEY (for more than 4 guests)
ROAST TURKEY BREAST
(for 4 guest or less)
DRY BRINE METHOD
(used with both recipes)

OVEN

PICK TWO
CLASSIC BREAD STUFFING
MAC & CHEESE
HONEY-ROASTED SWEET POTATOES
CORN PUDDING

STOVETOP

PICK TWO
MASHED POTATOES
GREEN BEAN “CASSEROLE”
HONEY-GLAZED CARROTS
STEWED COLLARDS

SAUCE

PICK ONE
BASIC CRANBERRY SAUCE
GINGERED CRANBERRY SAUCE
CRANBERRY SALAD

Everything you know about turkey is a lie.

A glorious, huge, golden roast turkey taken to the table whole on a large platter is a myth. That perfect looking bird is only accomplished by deep-frying your turkey (TOTALLY NOT FOR AMATEURS, please don’t do this) or by literally painting it golden brown as they do for ads, magazines, and movies.

The best way to get beautiful golden brown all over (including the dark meat), safely cooked to the proper temp turkey on a platter for your guests is to either buy a turkey in pieces from your butcher or buy it whole and break it down yourself. Cutting up a raw turkey means you always buy a fresh bird – even if it costs more. Because thawing a turkey is a tricky business, and you’re going to want to be able to get it into the fridge with the dry brine a couple of days in advance of the big meal. Frozen puts all this at risk.

Be Brave!

Spatchcocking, my favorite roasting method, is when you cut the backbone of the bird out with a pair of kitchen shears, then literally crack the breast bone to flatten the bird. You then lay it on a rack set onto a cookie sheet covered in foil, so all the skin is facing up. (Roasting pans are suitable for cooking meat, but don’t cook skin AT ALL. For this, get you a pan that does both.) It sounds intimidating, I know – but follow the link for easy, step by step instructions. Or ask your butcher to do it for you – worth the charge!

Also, a spatchcocked turkey only takes like 1hr to roast depending on how big of a bird you get. No getting up at 4 am, no babysitting it, basting it, or fussing with it after it goes in the oven. It’s just a simple roast. It’s the perfect plan for hosting your first Thanksgiving. Really, it’s the best way I’ve ever done it – it just works. And it’s so delicious.

Dry Brining is weird but it really works.

Regardless of which Turkey recipe you pick, Dry Brine it before you roast. Dry Brining makes getting a juicy turkey fool-proof. Having made turkeys in 1000 different ways, I’ve found that dry brining is the easiest to manage while also producing the crispiest, crackliest skin and flavorful, juicy meat. People will say WOW when it comes out of the oven, AND when they take the first bite.

Set attainable goals for yourself.

Listen, buy the gravy. When you brine a turkey, the drippings will end up too salty to use for the sauce. And making gravy is also complicated. You can make stock and then hustle to make gravy at the last minute, praying it doesn’t lump up for your second year of Thanksgiving. This year, hosting your first Thanksgiving, just buy a good jar, and serve it in a beautiful bowl. Nobody will complain, I promise.

Carving the Bird is not performance art.

Cutting up a hot turkey at the table would make such an incredible mess that your guests would never recover. Slice the meat into single-serving pieces in the kitchen, and place it on two separate dinner plates – one for light meat, one for dark. Don’t cut the entire bird the first go around, and don’t overfill the plates. Whole pieces of turkey will stay hotter in the kitchen while you eat. Leave the Drumsticks whole for effect, and decorate the plates with whole stems of leafy herbs like rosemary or sage.

Sides might be more important than Turkey?

These side dishes are classics. All of these recipes can be made or prepped in advance, to make it easier the day of. I have separated them by recipes that are made entirely in advance and heated day-of in the over or recipes made solely on the stovetop. You could make a whole meal from just the sides. Mmmmm. And I’ll admit, cranberry sauce from a can is, in fact, not horrible! However, it’s shockingly easy to make it from scratch (in advance) and it looks and tastes impressive. Each of these recipes is of the chunky variety because it’s easier. If you want the jelly, stick with the can.


After you’ve decided on your basic menu, the next step is to decide how many add-ons you want. Seriously, I truly feel that none of the things on this page are have-to-haves. They are all nice to have, though:

grid image of add-on thanksgiving menu items organized by categories, bread appetizers to make, appetizers to buy, dessert and drinks

ADD-ON RECIPE LINKS FOR HOSTING YOUR FIRST THANKSGIVING:

APPETIZERS TO MAKE

PICK ONE
PIMIENTO CHEESE
ONION DIP
RANCH DRESSING

APPETIZERS TO BUY

PICK ONE
SHRIMP TRAY HOW-TO
CHARCUTERIE HOW-TO

ANTIPASTI / RELISH TRAY HOW-TO

PUMPKIN DESSERTS

PICK ONE
PIE
THIS IS MY FAVORITE BRAND OF PUMPKIN AND THE RECIPE FOR PIE ON THE CAN IS EVEN BETTER

BREAD

THIS IS MY FAVORITE DAY AFTER BREAKFAST

BARS
THESE ARE A MIX BETWEEN A CAKE AND AND PIE

Bread takes up space on the plate that could be holding delicious stuffing, but you do you…

I mean, sure, a little roll on the side with some cultured salted butter is excellent – but not necessary. And unless you are particularly talented in this arena, buy a good roll or muffin from the bakery or freezer section. Or have your guests bring them! Save your baking skills for dessert.

Appetizers keep people busy while you’re working in the kitchen.

I always do apps because I like people to come to hang out during the day, and you get peckish with all the good smells in your house. Appetizers for Thanksgiving can also help if you’re running a little behind getting the meal done. Like Ina says, “Store-Bought is Fine!”, so I always buy half the apps and make half. Dips are easy to make in advance. Seafood, meat, cheese, and antipasti/relish require nothing but being put on a plate. But these are not a necessity if you’re on a budget or there’s only a couple of you celebrating.

Desserts are wonderful, but also, this is a ton of food.

It seems blasphemous to say, but I don’t think desserts are a necessity for Thanksgiving. Only because you’ve been eating pretty much all day long, and dessert can seem impossible at the end of it. However, Pumpkin-anything is classic, and it’s the only time of year you can make it with abandon. Also, this pie is phenomenal.

Drinks, with or without alcohol.

Making Thanksgiving dinner for 10 of your closest can get expensive. Buying alcohol on top of the food can be too much. But, if you imbibe, with these rich dishes, I like to do Pinot Noir for wine and Hard Cider as the beer. It’s also another great item to ask someone to bring. Pick one or the other, not both unless you know people will specifically drink them.

The first question when guests arrive is, “What can I get you to drink,” and I’ll serve these from then right through till dessert. I also like to do a big liter-sized bottle of still and sparkling water for people to refill as they like during dinner. With dessert, because I’m old-fashioned, I like a cup of tea or coffee with sweets. I prep this early in the day, then simply add the water to the pot when we start clearing the table.

moody image of friends enjoying a glass of wine during a dinner gathering

Thanksgiving menus for where you live, or where you’re nostalgic for:

W E S T

APPETIZERS
HOMEMADE RANCH & VEGGIE TRAY
ANTIPASTI “RELISH” TRAY

MAIN
SPATCHCOCKED TURKEY WITH GRAVY

SIDES
CLASSIC BREAD STUFFING
MAC & CHEESE
MASHED POTATOES
GREEN BEAN “CASSEROLE”
BASIC CRANBERRY SAUCE

BREAD
SOURDOUGH ROLLS WITH GOOD BUTTER

DESSERT
PUMPKIN BARS

S O U T H

APPETIZERS
PIMIENTO CHEESE WITH RYE TOASTS
SHRIMP TRAY

MAIN
SPATCHCOCKED TURKEY WITH GRAVY

SIDES
HONEY-ROASTED SWEET POTATOES
MAC & CHEESE
HONEY-GLAZED CARROTS
STEWED COLLARDS
CRANBERRY SALAD

BREAD
CORN MUFFINS WITH GOOD BUTTER

DESSERT
PUMPKIN PIE

N O R T H E A S T

APPETIZERS
ONION DIP WITH KETTLE CHIPS
CHARCUTERIE TRAY

MAIN
SPATCHCOCKED TURKEY WITH GRAVY

SIDES
CLASSIC BREAD STUFFING
CORN PUDDING
MASHED POTATOES
GREEN BEAN “CASSEROLE”
GINGERED CRANBERRY SAUCE

BREAD
DINNER ROLLS WITH GOOD BUTTER

DESSERT
PUMPKIN BREAD


Hosting Your First Thanksgiving: Essential Kitchen Tools

If you cook on a fairly regular basis, you probably have all of these things already. But if you’re just getting started, here’s all the kitchen tools you’ll need for the recipes I’ve listed above:

composite image of basic thankgiving cooking and kitchen tools like an apron, plastic cutting boards, three sharp knives, a probe thermometer, glass bowls, wooden spoons, sheet pans with a rack, silicone tongs, a nonstick saucepan with lid, a nonstick skillet and an oval ceramic baker

PREPPING

This APRON makes me feel official, like, I don’t really get anything done until the apron is on. ALSO, I don’t want to have to concentrate on not ruining my clothes all day.

PLASTIC CUTTING BOARDS, not wood, so it can go in the dishwasher and is safe to cut the turkey on

SHARP KNIVES that are the right size make your life so much safer – worth the investment.

GLASS BOWL SET, because you want to be able to put these in the microwave, and over a pan of simmering water to keep your side dishes warm. Plus they’re nice enough to serve in if you need to.

COOKING

WOODEN UTENSILS feel special, and also won’t damage your nonstick.

SILICONE TONGS are a safe set of extra hands to hold that hot-ass turkey when you’re carving it at the end of the roast. And silicone won’t scratch your non-stick pan when you cook the green beans.

A SAUCEPAN WITH A LID can be used for all sorts of things. This is a great all-purpose size, with a lid that fits. If you can afford it, get two.

This NON-STICK SKILLET will save you so much time cleaning up.

ROASTING

Never ever ever ever trust the pop-up thermometer. EVER. This $10 THERMOMETER is a small price to pay to guarantee you’re not making anybody sick. That turkey is 165deg F, or don’t serve it.

One half-size SHEET PAN for the turkey, and one quarter-size for the rest of it. Neither should be non-stick because they’ll be covered in foil anyway.

Using a RACK is how you get a perfect roast turkey. Keep it raised off the sheet pan so it stays nice and crispy.

ROASTING DISHES that are big enough for a whole recipe, small enough to pass at the table. White to match everything ever.

EXTRAS

I’d also pick up some extra potholders and kitchen towels if you don’t already have 3 of each.

a rustic wooden table set with a burlap runner, pewter flatware, a grey scalloped edge plate and a white linen hemstitched napkin

Hosting your first thanksgiving: Setting the Table

To me, if you make great food, and your guests feel comfortable and taken care of, how the table looks is not important. However, Thanksgiving is a great excuse to upgrade your tableware with pieces that can be re-used every day. Or if you’re starting from scratch, these pieces provide a great foundation to build off of.

First up, tableware, which I’ve split into 3 categories: inexpensive and widely available, moderately expensive with great quality, and investment pieces made by craftspeople:

grid image of thanksgiving tableware basics like dinnerware, flatware, glassware and cloth napkins arranged by price point

$ – TARGET
DINNERWARE SET | FLATWARE SET | NAPKIN SET | ALL-PURPOSE GLASS

$$ – CRATE AND BARREL
DINNERWARE SET | FLATWARE SET | NAPKIN SET | ALL-PURPOSE GLASS

$$$ – MAKERS & CRAFTSPEOPLE
DINNERWARE SET + MUGS | FLATWARE SET | NAPKIN SET | ALL-PURPOSE GLASS

Thanksgiving Dinnerware Tips

I always buy things in sets. Even if I don’t use all the pieces to eat off of for that specific meal, the extra pieces can be great serving pieces.

Stemless glasses are great all-purpose glasses for water, wine, or beer, and look great on the table.

Also, get the fancy napkins, but skip the tablecloth. It’s a holiday, you can be a little swanky but you don’t have to go over the top.

grid image of thanksgiving table upgrades like serving bowls, appetizer boards appetizer plates and votive candles arranged by price point

$ – TARGET
SERVING BOWLS | APPETIZER BOARD | APPETIZER PLATES | VOTIVE CANDLES

$$ – CRATE AND BARREL
SERVING BOWLS | APPETIZER BOARD | APPETIZER PLATES | VOTIVE CANDLES

$$$ – MAKERS & CRAFTSPEOPLE
SERVING BOWLS | APPETIZER BOARD | APPETIZER PLATES | VOTIVE CANDLES

Thanksgiving Serveware Tips

These flat low bowls are my new favorite thing (and I own the ones from Target). They are great to eat pasta out of, or to just make your everyday meal look sorta fancy. I’d recommend at least 3 serving bowls for this meal.

The wood board feels autumnal and makes your meat and cheese or antipasti appetizers look profesh. If you’re doing the shrimp, though, stick to a glass bowl with ice.

These little appetizer plates have also come in super handy after the fact – great for a quick breakfast muffin or a dessert all year round.

Votives are the easiest way to add a bit of sparkle to your space when you’re entertaining. They’re small enough to not take up too much table space with this much food on your table. Place with abandon.

Hosting Your First Thanksgiving: Lists, Lists, Lists

You know what you want to make, and what you want to serve it on. You’ve confirmed how many people are coming.

You’re doing this.

Now, how do you get it done? Well, you make lists and check things off one by one. Or, just follow mine:

TODAY

Pick Your Menu
Round up your Cooking Essentials
Purchase your Table & Serving Pieces
Order a fresh turkey if your grocery store requires that

2 WEEKENDS OUT

Deep Clean Your House
Decide on a Playlist for the meal or the day
Write your grocery lists

SATURDAY BEFORE

Grocery Shopping (check out my grocery list template HERE)

SUNDAY BEFORE

Make the Cranberry Sauce
Make the Appetizer Dip
If you’re making Classic Bread Stuffing, cube up the bread to dry out
Set the table; I know this sounds crazy early, but you’re going to be cooking every night after work, it is less stressful to get it out or the way first – and don’t forget to leave room for and place the serving pieces for food!

MONDAY BEFORE

TURKEY TIME! Unwrap it, get rid of the bits, break it down, get it on the tray. Make the Dry Brine and rub it all over (including under the skin). Then get that turkey in the fridge, uncovered.

TUESDAY BEFORE

Prep both your oven sides all the way to the baking point, following the Make in Advance directions for each.
Prep both of your stovetop sides all the way to the cooking point (unless you’re making the Mashed Potatoes in which case you do those the morning of)

WEDNESDAY NIGHT

Order takeout for dinner
Pick up Ice, if needed
Straighten up your house & clean the Bathroom
Bake the Dessert
Set out butter to soften if you’re having rolls
Finish prepping any sides that didn’t get done on Tuesday

MORNING OF

Make your coffee or tea for breakfast, then reset the pot for dessert
If you’re having Mashed Potatoes, make them and put them into a glass bowl, cover with tin foil, then set them over a pot of water simmering on very low to keep warm all-day
Do a load of dishes, and empty the dishwasher
Set out the candles
Arrange the Appetizers and place them into the fridge to stay cold

AS GUESTS ARRIVE

Light the candles
Serve the appetizers
Get the Turkey in the oven, as the recipe says once everyone has arrived
Start to reheat the oven items per the recipes, but using the turkey temp
Take a quick break to hang with your guests (have a drink!)

ONCE YOUR GUESTS ARE SETTLED

Finish the Stovetop items per the recipes
Take the turkey out of the oven, let it rest – it will stay rocket hot for up to an hour
Finish all sides & Reheat the gravy
Add ice and water to the glasses on the table
Carve the turkey and place on platters
Place all the food on the table

ENJOY YOUR MEAL!!!!

When you’re full, let someone help you by packing up leftovers
Make the coffee or tea
Take your dessert to the table, and dish it up there

AFTER DESSERT

Let your guests help you clear the table, and start the first dishwasher load
When everyone is ready to leave, send them on their way with a box of leftovers.

Hosting your first thanksgiving: Bask in a Job Well Done

YOU DID IT!!!

The night of, and the day after, are your reward for the week of work. Your house is spotless, your fridge is full, and you’ve earned doing nothing but putting your feet up and doing as you like for the weekend.

The day after might be my favorite part of the whole deal. I eat pie for breakfast, watch football or movies all day, graze on leftovers, and get the vast majority of my holiday shopping done from the couch.

a book and a fresh pot of pour over coffee sitting on a rustic truck table next to an extremely comfy looking sofa with soft sunlight

I sincerely hope I’ve helped you with your plans for hosting Thanksgiving – and that you give it a try! It’s so rewarding, and I want that for you too.

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  1. Patricia says:

    Of all the turkeys I’ve cooked, none of them have been dry brined. I shall need to try this.

    • Mel Sikorski says:

      I was skeptical until I tried it. It really freaked me out to leave it unwrapped in the fridge for 2 days like that, but it was incredible when it was roasted!! And we’ve started doing all our roasted meat like that, now.

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How to Find & Work With Trades

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Detailed planner, seasoned shopper, & thoughtful creator of solutions for the overwhelming home projects in your busy life.

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