13 Tips to a More Organized, Less Stressful Thanksgiving

A small dinner party takes planning. BUT the biggest eating, cooking, and entertaining holiday of the year- WHOA- it’s a monster. I’ve got 13 tips to a more organized, less stressful Thanksgiving holiday, so you get to enjoy the day ALMOST as much as your guests!! ?

AUTHOR’S NOTE to all the GRACIOUS GUESTS out there: I’ve written this with the host in mind. HOWEVER, my hope is that you’ll find this an enjoyable read, and uncover ways to help your host make this the best Thanksgiving yet! ?

1. Decide on your menu early.

Assuming that you’ve already got your guest list and have set a start time, this is the next most important step. The menu will dictate ALL OTHER STEPS in the planning process so it’s an important one to nail down. Write it down and stick to it.

Notepad with hand and pen making a list

2. Ask guests to bring specific dishes.

Don’t leave this up to chance. You’ve planned your menu and have a vision for the evening, now let others help out.

In addition to dishes you request, be accommodating and understanding of your guests’ traditions and react accordingly. Many people have dishes that without them, it just won’t feel like Thanksgiving. If someone HAS to bring green jello with marshmallows, don’t put up a stink. Yes, they might be the only one to eat it- but so what? They’ll take it home and happily feast on the leftovers.

3. Besides the turkey, your other absolute responsibility is hors d’oeuvres.

No doubt you will make several other dishes as well, and it seems like an easy one to assign, but hors d’oeuvres should not be farmed out to guests. Here’s why…

Appetizers should be set out and ready when your guests begin arriving, and SINCE you cannot rely on anyone showing up on time, app duty falls to you. Just imagine, you and your punctual guests, waiting around, merrily imbibing without any sustenance. Recipe for disaster!?

And while we are on the topic of apps, they should be light and easy. Don’t spend too much time on intricate or fussy apps, and especially nothing that will fill everyone up before the main event. Cut vegetables, cheese and crackers, dips, olives and pickles are great options.

Pumpkin on beach under pier

4. Speaking of imbibing, have a drink plan.

This includes water readily available, other non-alcoholic beverages, wine, and anything else you may choose to include.

Most likely guests will bring a bottle of something to share, but as host you should have enough to cover everyone just in case.

Set up a beverage station or area separate from food staging if you have the space. Don’t forget to set out drinking vessels as well. The bar can be set up a day or a few days ahead (minus anything needing to be chilled).

Cocktail on table with wine glasses

5. Set out your serving platters.

Remember how I said your menu will affect all other aspects of planning? Since you know exactly what will be served, you can choose the appropriate servingware and utensils, label them and set them out. No rummaging around at the last minute trying to find the right platter!

6. Set your table and table decorations at least a day ahead.

If you are assigning seats, put out name tags. If you are having a kids table, consider including a small craft or holiday-themed coloring pages.


You’ve got your guest list, have done your research, and know how long the turkey will take (a quick web search tells you how many pounds per person, often accounting for leftovers, and suggests cooking time per pound). Cooking time is never precise though as it depends on several factors, such as your oven being calibrated correctly, the temperature the bird is when it goes in (did it sit out on the counter for a while before hitting the oven?), and if it is stuffed, trussed, or spatchcocked. Even if you have in your head a firm 5pm sit-down time, know that you need to be flexible on this.

Be sure to allow for a half hour of resting time when it comes out as well. If you carve the bird straight out of the oven, it’ll be a mess- the juices will run all over your platter and the meat will be dry.

(P.S. I have respect for the traditionalist out there, though using the pan drippings to make gravy when the turkey comes out of the oven is the last thing I want to be stressing about right as we are ready to sit down.  I love a make-ahead gravy that can be warmed on the stove before serving).

Cranberry Pie on table

8. More on timing.

What can you get done ahead of time? Are there dishes that can be prepared a day ahead? A few days ahead? Popped in the freezer? Don’t try to cook everything in one day. Make sure you’ve chosen dishes that can be made in stages.

9. Make sure you’ve accounted for oven space.

That turkey will need a half hour to rest, as we’ve discussed, so you will at least have a free oven for 30 minutes before sitting down to dinner. But what else will need to be heated before serving? And for how long? Do any of your guests’ dishes require oven space? Do the math and plan ahead.

Cooked turkey in roasting pan straight out of oven

10. Do you have a slow-cooker?

It’s a great tool to use as a stand-in for a chafing dish or warming drawer. Do any of your friends have one? If you need extra help getting dishes to the right temp but are low on oven space, crock pots are a good option.

11. All desserts should be done ahead, either by you or your guests.

Know what plates you are going to serve on, and make sure you will have enough forks or spoons. If you don’t have enough, ask someone to bring a set. Guests always want to know how they can help – accept their offers!

Pastries on a thanksgiving table

12. Think it’s over?  Nope. Leftovers!

Have a leftover game plan. Having some take-and-toss containers so guests can grab leftovers on the way out is a great idea. I’ve even seen cute Thanksgiving decorated foil and paper containers you can pick up in stores.

13. Finally and most importantly…

You are the host, but this holiday is all about family and friends gathering together, and it should be a GROUP effort. Ask for help, delegate responsibilities, and by all means let others do the the dishes. Even if they don’t do them the right way (I’m looking at you type-A’s), let it go and be appreciative that you have, ahem, one less thing on your plate.

Any other questions? Feel free to ask! I’ve got a ton of great tips and know-how. Leave a comment and I’ll get back to you ASAP!


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