Thanksgiving: It’s all about the food. Piping-hot casseroles, vibrant salads, decadent pies and cakes, and one jaw-dropping holiday turkey are the centerpieces of most traditional Thanksgiving celebrations. But no matter what you're dishing up to celebrate all that your grateful for, the way you showcase and serve your feast are details (almost) as important as the recipes. While most of your time and attention in the coming week will likely be focused on shopping for and cooking the big feast on November 24th, try to carve out a little time and attention for those pro-touches and thoughtful details that distinguish a successful holiday dinner from a stressful holiday dinner.
Before you find yourself feeling completely overwhelmed and up to your elbows in gravy, marinate on how you might address these simple, yet arguably crucial, holiday party-planning details. Nail 'em--and you’re sure to pull off a Thanksgiving celebration that’s tasteful, memorable, and won’t break the bank.
Here are our top Thanksgiving hosting tips and pointers:
1. Think through your spacing.
You should probably plan for 2-3 tables to be a part of your turkey day: the dining table/s, the buffet table, and/or the dessert table.
Photo: Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images
In advance of the big day, think through the number of guests attending and the space you have to work with. Is you're dining room already set up to accommodate, will you need to do a little reorganization to pull another table into the room, or are you going to set up a kid's table or serving station in the kitchen? It's helpful to go ahead and construct a plan to address these questions at least a few days before Thanksgiving. Coming from a fairly massive family, I’ve never experienced a Thanksgiving dinner where the food actually fit on the main dinner table, so having a separate table for the food has always been a given. That said, regardless of space, I’m all about making this occasion feel especially-special--which, to me, means leaving space for a few festive table settings and elbow room instead of cluttering every square inch with casserole dishes.
If you’re serving an exceptionally large crowd this Thanksgiving, set up card tables and chairs in various rooms throughout the house. Everyone doesn’t have to be seated together at one long table—in fact, if it works better for flow and gives your guests room to breathe, they’ll likely be grateful for the separation.
2. Bring out the good stuff.
Photo: Keith Beaty / Getty Images
There are times for plastic utensils and dollar store tablecloths; Thanksgiving is not one of those times. For my fam, Thanksgiving is probably the most "well-dressed" meal we eat together all year. It's one of the few occasions we eat on the fine China, use fancy napkins, and lay out sparkly-white tablecloths. And while you shouldn’t take any of this as pressure—your family will be grateful to simply be together—just know that if you’re afraid of overdoing it, it’s not really possible.
3. Play up the heights.
When it comes to setting up a Thanksgiving buffet line, adding some height variations makes for a super elegant presentation, creates dimension that’s pleasing to the eye, and saves space so you make the best use of the space you have to work with. Before any formal event in our home, my mom (who's a pro at this sort of thing) gathers stacks of books, shoeboxes, wooden crates, and any other items she can find around the house. She spaces the items in various-heights and alternating patters along the buffet line on top of the white linen tablecloth, and then drapes colored cloths and linens to cover the stacks. She’ll either place platters of food on top or use the stacks to display flowers, candles, and other décor items.
4. Don’t be afraid to have fun.
While Thanksgiving is a time when it’s appropriate to break out your nicest dishes, it can be a little stressful for the average home cook who doesn’t have extensive sets of coordinating platters and serving-ware. But don't start getting frustrated before you take inventory of what you have to work with. Big dinners like Thanksgiving can be a great opportunity to get creative with your table. Cast-iron skillets, pretty patterned linens, and ceramic or wooden serving dishes, bowls, and platters in alternating styles and colors create a fun, retro-chic look that doesn’t feel too stuffy, but is still company-worthy.
5. Keep décor beyond the necessary table settings simple and clean.
When it comes to Thanksgiving tablescaping, a few tasteful table decorations are the best way to elevate your display from average to absolutely elegant, but don’t go too crazy with it.
Photo: Keith Beaty / Getty Images
Now you may be the kind of person who just has the eye for these kinds of things and can take a few pieces of burlap, strands of raffia, and magnolia branches from your backyard and work some kind of fairy godmother magic to artfully design a gorgeous, fall-themed table in minutes. If that’s you, I applaud you. The rest of us, myself included, need some guidance, and that’s where I would advise you to keep it simple. When you already have a table fully loaded-up with plates and silverware, more is less, so keep it clean with an elegant runner along the length of the table, a few festive bouquets, and several candles, if desired.
6. Set up the buffet line for seamless flow.
In this month’s issue of Cooking Light, our sister brand recommended a few genius tips for managing the flow of the buffet line:
- Place plates on one side of the buffet to signal where the line begins.
- Meats should be up first so your guests don’t overfill their plates with sides (unless they just want to, of course). After meat, arrange the sides.
- Sauces should be placed at the end of the line, rather than with their associated dish, so they don’t cause congestion with the flow of traffic.
- Place napkins and flatware last so guests don’t have too much to balance as they go through the line.