How is it that American’s most popular holiday is also its most stressful? Take it from me--Thanksgiving is not as much about good cooking as it is about good execution and planning. Sure, you want to nail that famous stuffing recipe. But if guests are eating two hours late or you don’t have enough plates, no one remembers how good your gratin was.

Growing up, my Dad would set the table two days before Thanksgiving, and my sister and I would give him no end of grief about it. Now as an event expert hosting Thanksgiving, I understand that knocking something off the list before the rush of the actual day is actually a great idea.

Here are a few of my hosting tips for a stress-free turkey day:

Create a Timeline to stay organized

There is nothing that makes Thanksgiving more manageable than a timeline. My mother growing up lived and died by her four day out checklist, neatly divided into Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday.

Because I work during the week, my schedule starts the Saturday before. I plan cleaning/organizing/shopping. I use Saturday to get an inventory going and do any long-lead ordering (ex I need to let my seafood guy know I want oysters or caviar for pick up on Tuesday or order soft peach Heirloom mums from the flower market). I also do any household level shopping for house guests after my inventory—maybe I need to refresh my silver polish or need extra hand towels for the guest room or need to grab some extra taper candles from the store for my table.

I like to get any of the deep cleaning of guest rooms done on the weekend. I clean bathrooms, rotate mattresses, vacuum curtains, wash duvets, wash robes, and restock toiletries.  I also polish silver, pull out vases and tableware to make sure nothing is broken or missing, launder/iron any linens. I clean out the fridge and freezer and get ready for my Sunday shop. I audit the spice cabinet to make sure nothing is expired, and I won’t need to run out last minute for cardamon. 

I grocery shop twice. Once Sunday for long lead things that can be frozen/prepped in advance and again on Tuesday for fresh produce. 

I use Monday as my long-lead cooking day, and Wednesday as my short-lead prep day. I like to set the table on Wednesday evening when I get home from work. It just makes me feel ready for the day ahead.  

Set up an easy Self-Serve Drink Station and Bar

Don’t fall into the habit of making complicated cocktails. You’re going to want to have time to enjoy your own holiday and having to man a full bar can be frustrating. Let guests and family help themselves with an easy, pre-set up drink station. I love a batched punch or boozy pitcher of negronis that I can make ahead of time. An oversized vintage punch bowl full of favorite orange wines, chilled reds and easy drinking whites that guests can serve themselves take a ton of pressure off you.  

Embrace the Pot Luck

Who said this was a solo event? I like to think of Thanksgiving as a team sport. Embrace potluck style and share the cooking load. Encourage guests to bring sides, desserts, a hearty loaf of bread, and wine. It saves you from making the entire list, they take their dishes home with them at the end of the night, and who knows? You might discover a new family favorite.

Forget the Kid’s table and embrace the Kids Corner!

Carve out a little space for games, activities, and general wild rumpus. While you know I love a beautifully styled table, surrender to the pent-up energy of the long weekend. I like to make sure there’s tons of to do before those inevitable choruses of “we’re bored” begin. Throw down some easy canvases on the floor, whip out the old board games, get some fun twinkle lights, build a fort—just place it far enough away from the dining table that the happy hollers won’t drown out the conversation.

Don't sleep on the Leftover Station

I’m famously anti-leftovers, but this is the only meal for which I make an exception. I make enough for everyone to take some of their favorites home. We have a little leftover packing station set up in the kitchen, and send everyone home with a huge pain de campagne for thanksgiving sandwiches. They’ll be grateful the next day, and you’ll have less to clean up and store.



November 10, 2023 — Brenna Gilbert