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How can I Prepare to Host Thanksgiving?

By O. Wallace
Updated May 17, 2024
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Planning to host Thanksgiving dinner for the first time is a rite of passage that many young American and Canadian families will likely experience. With careful planning, nearly anyone with decent cooking skills can pull off a delicious feast. Many experts say that the traditional Thanksgiving menu has evolved over the years since the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation, Massachusetts in 1621. Fortunately, in the United States, Thanksgiving takes place over a four day weekend, and in Canada, a three day weekend, which is plenty of time to recover from the efforts of planning and preparing an extensive Thanksgiving meal.

The guest list for a Thanksgiving dinner can include immediate family, extended family, or for those far from family, close friends or co-workers. Most importantly, the guest list should be made up of people one is thankful to have in one's life. The host should be sure to have adequate seating, table wear and place settings for the guests. Once the host has determined the guest list, he or she can proceed with planning the menu.

Homemaking expert Martha Stewart recommends choosing the menu for Thanksgiving in early November. For Canadians, late September may be early enough, as Thanksgiving takes place the second Monday of October. This may be good advice, as those waiting until the last minute may be overwhelmed by the hundreds of recipes and countless ways to prepare a turkey.

For the novice, preparation is key. A menu should be devised according to personal taste, cooking experience level, budget, and facilities. Take into account what is available as far as kitchen size, appliances, and so on. If only a microwave and toaster oven are available, or if one lives in a high-rise apartment, a deep-fried turkey is out of the question. For the most part, a traditional meal is difficult to produce with only one oven, as the turkey usually dominates that area, which makes planning ahead even more important.

Regional food preferences will affect a Thanksgiving menu, but it’s always fun to experiment with new recipes. The point of Thanksgiving is to serve what pleases the host and his or her guests. A traditional menu includes turkey, but ham or a roast is also acceptable. For a first timer, there are many resources to help one prepare a turkey, including the National Turkey Federation’s website, which has tips on everything from purchasing to preparing a turkey, and the Butterball hotline, which staffs experienced cooks to answer questions.

Roasted, stuffed turkey is, of course, the most traditional method of preparation, but turkeys can be barbecued, grilled, or deep fried as well. There are recipes for beer can turkey, Asian deep-fried turkey, and Cajun deep-fried turkey. Fresh turkey should be ordered ahead of time, while one can pick up frozen turkeys several days before Thanksgiving. Be sure to allow enough time to defrost. Many chefs swear by the superior taste and juiciness of an organic or free-range turkey, although these tend to be more expensive.

Side dishes can be just as important as the main course. Usually, a potato or sweet potato dish is included, as well as a stuffing, or dressing as some call it. The stuffing can be cooked inside or out of the turkey, but be sure to follow directions to avoid potential food poisoning issues.

Green beans, mixed greens, and autumn vegetable mixes are all common Thanksgiving fare. One of the traditional standbys of Thanksgiving is cranberry sauce. Variations on the simple cranberry sauce include chunky apple cranberry sauce, cranberry orange sauce, and cranberry pear chutney. Some families forgo the formalities and prefer to plop the gelatinous sauce straight from the can onto a plate.

Dessert also depends on personal taste, as well as on the skill of the preparer. Of course, prepared pies are always available from the local supermarket or bakery, and if presented well, no one will be the wiser – just don’t tell Martha. Apple, pumpkin, and pecan pies are all perennial favorites. Bread in the form of biscuits or rolls is also important. Beverages can be alcoholic or non-alcoholic — just be sure to include a choice for the guests.

A few days before Thanksgiving, set the turkey out to thaw, if frozen. The general rule of thumb is to allow 24 hours for every five pounds (about 2½ kg) in the refrigerator. Make sure that there is adequate time to do all of the shopping, so that it doesn’t end up being a last minute dash. On the day of the feast, it’s smart to devise an informal cooking schedule to help you stay on track. To eat dinner by 5:00 p.m., a 20-pound (9 kg) turkey should be stuffed and in the oven by 11:30 a.m.

Be sure to provide appetizers to keep hungry guests at bay, and make sure that there is entertainment, such as television or games. Once the meal is over, enlist help with the cleaning. Store the leftovers carefully, since Pumpkin Pie can make a lovely breakfast pastry, and part of the joy of Thanksgiving is indulging in leftovers!

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Discussion Comments
By doppler — On Nov 21, 2010

@anon5162 - Hosting Thanksgiving can quickly become very overwhelming. You most definitely shouldn't try to make everything yourself. The other comments here are great in that you could put in a little Thanksgiving trivia game if you weren't quite finished with lunch or dinner yet and had some bored or anxious guests. It's also a great idea to do appetizers. The best kind of Thanksgiving to host is one that's potluck style. It brings in a great meld of different foods. Our family does an "around the world" themed Thanksgiving every year with each family picking a different country to make something from. It's great!

By Kamchatka — On Nov 21, 2010

@plaid - Yes, I think the more interesting aspect of the holiday is keeping people entertained. While your family and friends might have a lot to catch up on with each other, eventually the conversations will run dry and you will need SOME form of entertainment. Keep your Thanksgiving celebration fresh with fun games and interesting facts, that's a great idea!

By plaid — On Nov 21, 2010

@abiane - A lot of people are realizing the potential of the holiday - retail wise, that is. I think it is great to have sales to bump up the economy, but yes it is disheartening to find that stores are putting people to work on a Holiday like this one now. Eventually Christmas Day will be out of the question as well.

On a more interesting note we hosted Thanksgiving at our home last year and pulled up some interesting Thanksgiving Day facts on another article from wiseGEEK to make a fun game out of. It is not all about food, you know.

By abiane — On Nov 21, 2010

@anon5162 - I agree with you and think that Thanksgiving is really a Holiday that we should reflect on things and be thankful for what we have. After all, that's part of the name of Thanksgiving, isn't it?

Lots of people are seeming to forget that the Thanksgiving holiday is about being grateful and NOT about sales. Personally, I think it's a little ridiculous and things are getting out of hand with all of this "open on Thanksgiving" mess retailers have put out there this year.

By anon5162 — On Nov 15, 2007

Thanks so much for the helpful notes! Gets us in the spirit as well!

Tradition in family circles for food choices is part of the fun, too...mixing past, present and future in the menu.

But most of all, remembering that it is the spirit of Thanksgiving and its message that is most important, whether you cook for a week, eat out or just hug over it all!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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