Start planning ASAP.
Will dinner be casual or formal? Will plates be china, plastic or paper? Will you set a table or will people be eating and mingling? These are all details you want to work out on the sooner side, according to Andre Wells, a professional party planner who’s the founder of D.C.-based Events by Andre Wells. “The fewer things you have to do as the date gets closer, the more successful your event will be,” he says.
Anna Marie Lowery, events planner for the Consumer Federation of America and an experienced host herself who lives in the District, suggests giving yourself a week to prepare.
So if you haven’t started planning yet, get on it. As in, right now.
Make lists. A lot of them.
The most successful entertainers are the ones who stay organized, Wells says. If you’re going solo with hosting duties, he advises making two lists: “What the dinner is, so you don’t forget stuff. And then the items that you need to prepare.”
If you’re having a Friendsgiving, or a dinner where you delegate some cooking duties to your guests, Wells says to make a list of everything you want at the dinner first, then start assigning tasks. The key here is to be methodical about it. “If I have my good friend Amy — who I know is always late — bring a protein like the turkey, I want to make sure I tell her an appropriate time,” Wells says.
Ditch the decor — for the most part, anyway.
“Keep it inexpensive, using what you have,” Lowery says. “Mismatching glassware and dishes is fine. Food and cocktails will spice up the table.” You don’t have to go crazy with decor since the Thanksgiving essentials are organically decorative. The turkey, as Lowery points out, is usually the table’s centerpiece, anyway. Handmade place cards are a nice personal touch if you have time.
For a quick bit of elegance, Lowery suggests slicing some cucumbers or lemons in a jug of water for guests. Putting on a playlist with some funk music — Lowery is a fan of the Alabama Shakes — is also an easy way to generate a feel-good vibe.
“You want to make it seem like it’s seamless for you as the host to entertain,” Wells adds. That means don’t stress over inconsequential details.
Give yourself plenty of cooking time.
“You don’t want to invite people over at 2 p.m. and dinner won’t be ready for another 2½ hours,” Wells says. Don’t be that host who keeps hungry people waiting. If you told people arrival is at 3:00 and dinner is at 4:00, make sure you stick to it.
Get your home in shape.
Per Wells, put down post-its where each dish will be placed on the table. That way, if you’re solo hosting, you don’t overwhelm yourself with clattering dishes and moving hot plates. And if you’re waiting for friends to bring food, they know just where to put them when they get there.
He also advises to have the oven warmed up and ready for when guests arrive with their hot food, and if you’re going buffet-style, to have the plates out and stacked and the napkins rolled. “You want to make it easy for your guests,” he says. And anything else you can do the day before (like cleaning the bathroom), do it early.
Keep the food simple.
Stick to Wells’ list of essentials: a protein (turkey or alternatives such as a chicken, ham or roast), starch (cornbread, mashed potatoes, etc.), vegetables (green beans, asparagus, collard greens, etc.) and dessert (literally anything sweet). “If you have those things, you’re all set,” he says. “The rest are just things to add.”
And finally, try to supervise heavy dinner talk.
The current state of politics is an inevitable conversation at the dinner table, and even if views are similar, it’s bound to be an impassioned one. “I feel like if you’re the host and the conversation is getting too heavy and personalities are getting too much, it is your job to reel it in and change direction,” Wells says. He suggests keeping ice breakers or board games handy.
“Avoid politics and religion as much as possible,” Lowery says. “There are more positive things to talk about than that.” And if things are getting really rowdy, Lowery adds, “Change the subject and serve dessert.”