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A beginner's guide to hosting a delicious (and harmonious) Thanksgiving celebration this year

We have officially entered into the time of year that is all about food, family and ... a lot of potential stress. For the next three months we're facing some massive celebrations that traditionally bring together friends and family to reflect on the year, be thankful for what already is and dream of what is to come. 

If this is your first time being in charge of Thanksgiving festivities, it's completely normal to feel a tad bit overwhelmed. Thanksgiving is one of the most beloved holidays after all, tied to time-honored traditions and beloved family recipes. It can be a lot to live up to. But, as the saying goes, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Organization will be key here as you prepare to make your own traditions with those you love. Read on for our tips and tricks that we've learned over the years.

Your first decision: Will this be a potluck or will you be a lone ranger?
The first thing you need to consider as you piece together your Thanksgiving celebration is whether you're going to have a potluck dinner or if you'll be cooking the majority of the dinner on your own. Depending on what option you chose, the preparation will be very, very different. 

Potluck
If you're asking guests to bring the bulk of the dishes, your biggest obstacle will be coordination. Consider sending out a spreadsheet that lists out everything that you need to pull off a memorable dinner and ask your guests to pick their assignments. Get really specific. Who's bringing napkins? Drinks? Turkey? Cranberry sauce? Getting all of these things assigned to other people helps you to focus on what you're actually responsible for. 

Make sure you continue to check in with people participating in your potluck fairly regularly in order to make sure everyone is still willing to either cook or bring what they signed up for. Communication is absolutely key.

One word of caution: Make sure that anyone who is responsible for a main or otherwise important dish (turkey, ham, mashed potatoes) arrives at your home well ahead of dinner. The last thing you want is for dinner to get held up because the person bringing your turkey is running late. 

Lone Ranger
You are a brave one. Hosting Thanksgiving all on your own is no easy task and requires lists, ingredient prep, patience and lots of wine. Unless you're cooking in a professional kitchen, odds are that you're going to need to start cooking days ahead of Thanksgiving in order to make sure your dinner is on schedule. There simply isn't enough oven space or stove top burners to cook everything at once. (Don't mean to scare you! You can do it!)

Since you'll need to be extremely organized in order to pull off this dinner, consider making a in-depth list of the dishes on your menu, organized by cooking time. Make note of the dishes that can be made ahead of time and the dishes you'll need to make day-of.

Another helpful tip? Make a day-of schedule. Count backwards from serving time and allot a little extra time for each dish than you think is necessary. For example, if your dinner is scheduled for 5 p.m. your day-of schedule might start out like this:

10:00 a.m. Place turkey in the oven
10:30 a.m Start boiling smoked ham hocks for collard greens
10:45 a.m. Peel potatoes for mashed potatoes
11:00 a.m. Make stuffing
11:30 a.m. Make glaze for ham
... and it continues until serving time.

Using a simple schedule will help keep you on task and help alleviate any feelings of being overwhelmed.
Take some of the pressure off
If guest arrive and dinner still isn't totally ready, do not freak out. This is where light bites or hors d'oeuvres come in handy. It can be tempting, but try not to go crazy with options. The point here is to make sure guests aren't ravenous but also to ensure that they save some room for dinner. Consider serving:

The perfect cheese board 
Crab deviled eggs

Another way to help alleviate some of the pressure? Consider serving batched cocktails. (And make sure you have a few sips before your guests arrive.) These can not only often be made ahead of time, but they also don't skimp on the flavor (or the booze). They're an absolute no-brainer.

16 boozy big batch cocktails that will get you through the holidays

In addition to leaving with full bellies, you certainly want your guests to feel welcomed, comfortable and cozy — no matter if you're serving a potluck or a multi-course meal. You can achieve this by creating a simple but elegant tablescape. If you have leftover whole pumpkins or gourds from Halloween, you can re-purpose them here. It's also important to make sure everyone has a place to sit that is roomy enough for them to chow down. Consider making name cards and placing them in front of plates so guests know where to sit. 

Many music services, such as Spotify, also allow for you to select a playlist that would be appropriate for the day and your guests. It can't be overstated how important a fantastic playlist can be to setting just the right vibe in your home. Choose one of the many already made (they get better every year) or take the time to make your own.

Before guests arrive might be a good opportunity to mention some off-limit topics that you don't want discussed around the dinner table. Be tactful but firm in letting guests know that there are certain subjects you'd rather avoid in order to ensure a uneventful (in the best way) holiday dinner. 

Giving thanks
Thanksgiving is the one of the only holidays that isn't tied to gift-giving or spending a ton of money. It really is a time to slow down and appreciate everything you have. Allow an opportunity for your guests to give thanks for this year and your fantastic hospitality. Before diving into dinner, consider going around the room and having everyone name one thing they're thankful for. It sets a nice tone and really helps everyone remember what it is they're all gathered to celebrate. 

Need some culinary inspiration?
Here are some foolproof recipes to help you successfully pull off your first Thanksgiving:

Thanksgiving turkey, two ways
Anne Byrn's Favorite Turkey Dressing
Bacon Cornbread Dressing
Buttery Mashed Potatoes
Truffle Mashed Potatoes
Fire-Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Pecans
Sweet and Spicy Collard Greens
Green Beans with Almond Brown Butter
Triple Cheese Macaroni
5 truly classic Southern gravies
3 delicious side dish recipes
Cranberry Sauce
Sweet Potato Pie

And don't forget to check out Southern Kitchen's virtual Thanksgiving headquarters, which you can find right here.


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Ryan Hughley is an associate editor at Southern Kitchen. Though originally from Los Angeles, she has lived in Atlanta since early 2017 and cannot imagine calling any other city home (except maybe New Orleans). Before joining Southern Kitchen's staff, Ryan worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on public policy issues. When she's not at work, she enjoys hunting down the best Mexican food in the city and drinking whiskey, obviously. 

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