Thanksgiving is my absolute favorite holiday. There are no gifts to buy, no cards to mail out—it’s all about being with family and, of course, eating! When my son was born right before the holiday in 2020, it gave the day even more meaning. And the following year on his first birthday, my husband and I hosted our very first Thanksgiving dinner.
Although I had hosted other holidays, this was a big one. It’s all about the food and there is a lot of it to serve. That first year, everything went well except the turkey. It took forever to cook and I worried we wouldn’t eat until 10pm. I eventually got it all together and the holiday was a success—but that first time was stressful. With November upon us, I started to think about those who are gearing up to host their very first Thanksgiving. So I asked both professional cooks and real life foodies to share their best tips on planning your first Thanksgiving dinner menu.
1) Plan Your Menu Early
The turkey is a given, but there’s plenty to think about when it comes to side dishes and dessert options. Use DinnerTool’s free meal planner and printable grocery list to help you in meal planning. Once you decide what you want to make, you them need to figure out your guest list to make sure you have enough food, says Jamie Yahne, owner of Glitzee Glee, an online holiday dinnerware store.
2) Do a Test Run
“Never cook a recipe that you haven’t prepared before on the actual holiday,” says Yahne. “Avoid disaster by preparing food you are comfortable cooking and you already know tastes good.” If you want to try out something new, be sure to do a trial run a couple of weeks before. This way, if it doesn’t work out—or if the recipe needs to be tweaked at all—no one knows but you.
3) Prep Early
“Cut all of your vegetables a couple of days in advance,” says Chef Stephanie Driggs, St. Regis Monarch Beach. “Chop all of the carrots, onions, and celery for your stuffing and store in small containers in the fridge until right before you make it. Peel and chop your potatoes the day before and then store in a container of water or they will oxidize. Drain the day of and cook in fresh water until tender.” She says you can also make pie dough a week in advance. “Roll it out and put in pie dishes. Wrap the whole dish in plastic wrap and store in the freezer until you are ready to make pies. Pull out to defrost, fill and bake,” says Driggs.
4) Take Wednesday Off
If you can, take the day before the holiday off so that you can clean the house, wash down the plates and glasses, polish the silver and set the table. “On this day I also pick up any last minute items I need from the market,” says Gay Pinder, a former producer at HGTV. Get the turkey in on time. Read the directions that come with your turkey carefully, as it will tell you precisely what temperature to set the oven and how long the bird needs to cook so you can have dinner on time. “I have it in the oven by 9:30am/10:00am for a 3:30 or 4pm dinner,” says Pinder.
5) Skip the Basting
“It will take longer to cook if you keep opening your oven,” says Driggs. “Instead, make sure there is plenty of seasoning and butter on it before you put it in and it will be delicious.”
6) Ask for Help
Instead of preparing all of the sides and desserts on your own, have friends and family bring their own signature dishes, says Pinder. “This is a tradition in my family and it relieves a lot of stress on the host. My mom brings homemade bread, my sisters bring corn pudding and another vegetable, and other relatives bring dishes. It’s kind of a high-end pot luck.”
7) Watch the Oven
You’re going to have so many different items coming in and out of the oven it’s likely to be on most of the day, which can impact the temperature. According to Food Network Chef Claire Robison, “always keeps a second oven thermometer hanging from the oven rack to know the accurate temperature inside the oven so you can adjust accordingly.”
Was hosting your very first Thanksgiving dinner stressful? How did you manage?