How to Host Your First Thanksgiving Dinner and Have Fun, Too
The Stress of Hosting Your First Thanksgiving
Whether you're finally caving in to your mother-in-law's nagging - er, gentle hints - or you're a newlywed with stars in your eyes and dreams of using your fine china for the first time, there are some tips, suggestions and hints for making your first time hosting Thanksgiving dinner a little less stressful. Note that I don't promise you that these tips will remove all stress and make your hosting duties as comfortable and easy as slipping into your jammies and heading for the couch to watch It's a Wonderful Life for the billionth time. No. Anytime you extend invitations to family and friends and promise not only dinner, but Thanksgiving dinner, expect some stress in your life. Fortunately, the joys of spending time with your family and close friends should outweigh the angst of being a host.
Keep Thanksgiving Dinner Simple
The tendency for first-time Thanksgiving dinner hosts is to plan an elaborate, seven course meal complete with five pies, a giant turkey, and all the trimmings - and made from scratch, of course. Unless you're Martha Stewart, don't try it. Instead, keep dinner simple by:
- Baking a test turkey. I know this sounds strange, but if you're not used to baking a turkey, you need practice. Purchase a small one and make it for your family or friends a week or two in advance. It will also help you practice your basting skills, the secret to a juicy bird. (Hint: I just pour plain water over my bird every 45 minutes as it bakes. Juicy and crispy brown skin and no extra calories.)
- Choosing a limited number of side dishes. Know your limitations. Plan side dishes around what you can make easily or make in advance.
- Using store bought items to save time. It's not cheating. I promise. Frozen dinner rolls, prepared cranberry sauce and packaged gravy may sound like cheating, but on the other hand if you've never made yeast-based dinner rolls, cranberry sauce from scratch, or gravy from the pan drippings, do your guests a favor. Err on the side of caution. Buy and make prepared foods that complement your made from scratch turkey.
- Saying "yes" when guests ask if they can bring something. Say Yes. Repeat after me: "YES you can bring [fill in the blank.]." Make a list of what you will serve. Then when guests RSVP and ask if they can bring something, assign them something to bring. Wine, other non alcoholic beverages, or a pie are great items to assign out to guests. Most people hate showing up to dinner empty-handed and it takes some of the stress from you.
- Clean the house the day before. Another mistakes new Thanksgiving dinner hosts make is leaving all the prep work, including cleaning, to the big day itself. Clean your home on Wednesday. Examine your china, silver and tablecloths the weekend BEFORE Thanksgiving; that gives you plenty of time to purchase a new tablecloth if that gravy stain never came out from last Christmas. You'll also have time to buy or find extra plates for your guests, if you need to.
- Don't promise your family dinner like Mom, Grandma, or Aunt Martha Stewart used to make. It's tempting to want to recreate the warm holiday traditions and delicious dishes you remember from childhood. But you're not your mom, your grandma, or your auntie. You're YOU and you probably don't have as many years of experience cooking as they do. If you do make a family recipe, let it be a pleasant surprise for your guests. Otherwise, march to the beat of your own drummer.
What NOT to Do When Hosting Your First Thanksgiving
Hopefully you've gleaned a few simple tips from my list of what TO do. Now, based on my personal experience (and disasters!), here's what NOT to do when hosting your first Thanksgiving.
- Don't forget to defrost the turkey! One year I was so busy with my corporate job that I completely forgot to take the 20 lb turkey out of the chest freezer in the basement. Man, that freezer kept that bird frozen like a rock....I mean it was like trying to defrost granite. You wouldn't believe what we had to do to defrost that thing and it was still halfway cooked inside. Please read and follow the directions on your bird to make sure it is defrosted. You'll thank me later.
- Don't listen to your mother in law, your aunt, or your sister. In other words, ignore all the nitpicking and "kindly meant" criticism. If you've got a Marie Barone in your family (think Everybody Loves Raymond) get earplugs, because honestly, she's going to pick on how you're cooking the turkey, whether you put the knives and forks in the proper place at the table, and whether or not you should serve salad with the meal or before. It's up to you. Really. Unless you're helping Kate Middleton with her first dinner party and the Queen is coming, do what you think is best and thank your critics gently....while getting out the earplugs if necessary.
- Don't try to be superman or superwoman. Another mistake I made early on as a party host; trying to be superwoman. I wanted the perfect, clean home that was warm and inviting and smelled like apple cider. I wanted a table with sparkling crystal and white linens and candles glowing softly. I wanted a brown basted turkey and dinner like my mom used to make. Instead, I found myself hosting my first Thanksgiving at my in-laws after my mom in law got sick. My husband and I worked together to pull together Thanksgiving dinner. We had a white tablecloth and the best china out, but we also used disposable roasting pans and left out the candles because we had curious toddlers and babies at the table who kept reaching out for the glowing flames. You've got to adapt and let go of things that don't work with your lifestyle.
The Secret to Hosting the Perfect Thanksgiving Dinner
The secret to hosting the perfect Thanksgiving dinner isn't the turkey, the trimmings, or the table setting. It's in relaxing enough to enjoy the people you are with, and give thanks for the bounty of food you have on the table. It really doesn't matter if that food came from a supermarket can or package or was made from scratch. Give thanks, give up what doesn't work for your lifestyle and let your mental image of the holiday match reality. Live in the moment and put the comfort and enjoyment of your guests first. Then you will truly have a Thanksgiving dinner you can be thankful for.