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thanksgiving table

Ramona King

A casual Thanksgiving table


An elegant—and easy—Thanksgiving table is within reach for any host

This year's Thanksgiving will be a big one for me, the first big, family-filled turkey day I've ever hosted. Yes, I have contributed to and helped orchestrate many a friendsgiving, and I've cooked a turkey and pie for various other family-led feasts for the last several years. But this is my debut as a full-on Thanksgiving host and I'm doing my best to make it memorable (in a good way).

In my mind, one of the things that sets apart my friendsgivings of college and mid-twenties is the table. Most of those delicious, but decidedly less-formal meals were always served buffet-style, and we'd eat out of paper or plastic plates balanced on our laps on couches and armchairs. Now that I have a house of my own that isn't shared with five other roommates, along with a growing collection of (sorta) matching dishes and a big-a** dining table, I'm ready to host a coursed-out meal at a fully set, festive table.

I'm still working on that meal schedule (stay tuned), but my tablescape plans are starting to become more fully formed. I'm planning to say goodbye to traditional dark linens and fussy centerpieces (Why spend all that time and money on an oversized decoration that will inevitably get moved to the sideboard once dinner starts and through which Mom can't see cousin Joey well enough to scold him for not getting his haircut?) and say hello to lighter colors and natural, low-profile table decor.

With these ideas in mind, here are some tips and ideas that I plan to incorporate into my feast this year:

Set your table early
This is the number one piece of advice I give to anyone in advance of a dinner party, no matter how large or small. Table settings will be just fine set out as far in advance as your house can handle. If you've got a separate formal dining area, set the table a few days in advance. You can add in fragile flowers closer to Thanksgiving, but there's no reason not to plot out your plates and platters ahead of time. If you use your dining table three times a day, seven days a week, you'll likely need to wait until the morning of, but try to do it first thing (or second thing, after you pop the turkey in the oven). You'll thank me later.

Relatedly, another planning trick I always follow is to go through all of my serving dishes well in advance of the event. I'll place sticky notes on each platter or bowl indicating their future filling, and I'll make sure to pull out all of my serving spoons and forks. Try setting all of them out on your table or sideboard to see if they all fit. By doing these things ahead of time, you'll quickly see if you'll need to borrow a few platters or if you'll need to switch your serving plan from family-style to buffet.

Craft paper is your friend
Look, even though this will likely be the most formal event I host this year, I'm not trying to channel a white tablecloth restaurant. Part of this fact is economics (I don't really want to spend the money on a hard-to-wash tablecloth I'll use maybe once a year) and part of it is practicality. Someone will spill red wine and I don't want anyone to worry about making a fuss to kinda clean it up during dinner.

Instead, I'm taking a cue from Martha Stewart. Yep. She, like other wise folks in the food media game, is suggesting creating a table runner from butcher or craft paper. Depending on the color of your table, you may opt for light brown or white paper (subtle contrast is good) but, either way, paper is a cheap and surprisingly chic way to build the base for your table decor. If you've got young kids and want to embrace an anything-goes aesthetic (why not?), pull out markers, crayons and colored pencils and have the kiddos add their own personal touch to the paper.

Source your centerpiece from the great outdoors
At its root, Thanksgiving is really just another fall harvest celebration, so, in addition to bringing those fall ingredients into your dishes, put them on display on your table. Head out for an afternoon stroll the day before the meal (trust me, you'll want the break from cooking) and gather up golden-hued fallen leaves, acorns, gumballs and wildflowers. If you can clip branches with those leaves intact, go for it. I particularly love bright red maple leaves and goldenrod ginkos, but here, anything goes.

From the store, you'll want to pick up more classical miniature gourds, whole nuts and small fruit, such as pears and apples. And if you can't gather enough wildflowers, head to the grocery store for affordable floral options. (Trader Joe's is a great option.) Look towards lighter yellows and reds, plus plenty of white. I love hydrangeas, sunflowers, mums and gerbera daisies, but when it comes to flower choice, simply pick what you like.

Keep the table's focus on the food and conversation
Resist the urge to build a towering cornucopia of all of your beautiful produce, leaves and flowers. (If you feel like you need to go big, a sideboard or entryway is a good place to do so.) Keep your table decorations low-slung to avoid overwhelming all of the gorgeous food you'll be serving. Plus, you want to make sure all of your guests can see one another.

I'm planning to arrange my decorations along my craft paper runner, with nothing higher than a small pumpkin. Start off by placing any larger items, such as gourds or short vases, evenly spaced along the table. Add in larger items like fallen branches and flowers, and then fill in any gaps with leaves, nuts and fruit. Add in short votive candles (Don't forget to place them in holders!) for light. No matter the dinner, I always end up futzing around with the centerpiece again once I've got all of the place settings and any serveware finalized, so don't worry if you feel like your table is looking a little empty at this point.

Mix-and-match plates are A-OK
If you don't have a large collection of matching China, never fear. Mix-and-match place settings are a popular entertaining choice these days, so bring on an eclectic array. Keep your color palette intact though; choose all cream-colored plates or alternate two different colors or patterns as you move around the table.

Place settings are also a great way to bring in a pop of color and shine if you've gone more neutral with your centerpiece. Add in blue gingham napkins, gold-patterned salad plates and/or bright metallic chargers. If you'd like to set assigned seats, bring your kids (or your nieces and nephews) in on the game and have them design the place cards.

Same goes for flatware and stemware
While you absolutely need to have a full set of flatware and at least one water and wine glass per guest, these things don't necessarily have to match. If you're mixing and matching, make sure to alternate styles to ensure balance on the table. I like to set out short water glasses, such as stemless wineglasses, and traditional stemware for wine. Don't forget a pitcher for that water; remember, hydration on Thanksgiving is key to enjoying your Black Friday.

When it comes to flatware, I've never had complete sets (like socks, forks tend to go missing), so I plan to embrace that "problem" by setting out a mixture of traditional and vintage forks, spoons and knives. Each guests will need one of each, of course, plus dessert spoons and/or forks if you've got 'em.

Make good use of sideboards
It's easy for a Thanksgiving table to get full in a flash. I've never been to a dinner where every platter and serving bowl managed to fit between all of the decorations and place settings. This year, I'm not even going to worry about it; all of my main dishes are going to live on a sideboard. We'll still be able to take turns passing, but once the turkey has made the rounds, it'll go back on the side where it belongs. I'll use a second sideboard (a.k.a. a side table pulled in from my living room) to display all of the pie and wine.

If you're going to employ my sideboard strategy, do plan to place a few key items on the dining table: gravy, cranberry sauce, butter (softened, of course), and salt and pepper. Plan to double- or triple-up on all of these so you can place them in easy-to-reach locations for all of your guests.

Finally, don't worry too much
It goes without saying that Thanksgiving planning can be fraught with worry, but there's really no good reason to fret too much. At the end of the day, Thanksgiving is just one dinner party among a year of other dinner parties, and your guests are much more likely to remember the time together as a family or friend group than they are your carefully planned tablescape. So, take a deep breath and set your Thanksgiving table however you'd like.

Photo (outdoor table): Maura Friedman
Photo (craft paper table): Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash
Photo (fall leaves): Cecile Vedemil/Unsplash
Photo (centerpiece with gourds): Sarah Pflug/Burst
Photo (plates): Ramona King
Photo (pouring wine): Ramona King
Photo (dessert sideboard): Maura Friedman

Author image

Kate Williams is the former editor-in-chief of Southern Kitchen. She was also the on-air personality on our podcast, Sunday Supper. She's worked in food since 2009, including a two-year stint at America’s Test Kitchen. Kate has been a personal chef, recipe developer, the food editor at a hyperlocal news site in Berkeley and a freelance writer for publications such as Serious Eats, Anova Culinary, The Cook’s Cook and Berkeleyside. Kate is also an avid rock climber and occasionally dabbles in long-distance running. She makes a mean peach pie and likes her bourbon neat.