They say marriage is all about compromise, and perhaps there’s no more obvious time for that than Thanksgiving. What you make, whom you invite, where you gather: If there’s a family difference, it’s just waiting to come out on one of the biggest holidays of the year. In my case, the main thing I had to adapt to once I started celebrating Thanksgiving with my husband’s family was when we actually sat down to eat.
Every family — nay, every person — probably has some opinion on the best time to dig into the feast. In my family, Thanksgiving dinner was served as dinner, on the slightly early side, somewhere between 5 and 6 p.m. My husband’s family prefers an early- to midafternoon meal.
My parents raised me well, meaning especially at first, I took a polite and respectful “your house, your rules” approach while I integrated into my in-laws’ traditions. As time marched on, so too did the hour of our meal, if only because the sheer amount of cooking we took on made it harder to get everything on the table by 1 or 2 p.m.
When does your family eat Thanksgiving dinner? Share in the comments below!
What is the best time to eat? My informal polling in conversations and on social media have yielded a range of opinions, from noon to 9 p.m. The prime reasons fell largely into two camps: Giving the cook(s) enough time to prepare the meal and deciding whether, when and what you want to eat later. Here are some issues to consider when picking various meal times:
Noon: The early birds want to ensure they not only have room for dessert but also a full second meal, presumably from leftovers. Skipping the turkey and doing lots of advance prep can help turn this into a reality. Even so, just the mention of a 12 p.m. start time sends shivers down my spine. So does considering the logistics of a second round — packing up the initial meal, taking the leftovers back out, reheating them, more dishes to do. And if you don’t intend to have a second meal, then what? Do you risk prematurely breaking up the party by having people leave to find food elsewhere, or start awkwardly returning to the kitchen to pick at whatever’s left? If you have mastered the midday meal, I salute you! (And am genuinely curious about how you gracefully accomplish it!)
2 to 4 p.m.: In my (very unscientific) poll, this was by far the most popular time period. It’s late enough to not really be called lunch, but too early to be considered dinner, at least according to my personal definitions. I could relate to many of the explanations here. The cooks have plenty of time to prep. You can have a good breakfast to carry you through the day without worrying about spoiling your appetite — ideally supplemented with snacks as needed. You get to eat and take a walk before the sun goes down, which is increasingly early this time of year in the northern areas of the country. Plus, there’s plenty of time to socialize before and after the big meal, with a generous window later for dessert or another round, if that’s your thing. And if you’re the kind of family that watches football on Thanksgiving, a 4 p.m. meal means you can watch the first game, eat and be done not too long after the kickoff for the second game. Or if you prefer a nap? Eat your afternoon meal, take a snooze and come back revived for more family time.
5 to 6 p.m.: This early dinner time frame is what I grew up with. Naturally, this gives the cooks plenty of time to be in the kitchen and even — gasp! — socialize a bit. In my mind, this takes off even more psychological pressure because it feels more like just another dinner than a middle-of-the-day event. At this point, you can have your meal, save a little room for dessert later and not even worry about another full meal.
7 to 9 p.m.: For some of the night owls, this is an inevitable result of preparing massive amounts of food. For others, it’s driven by tradition or culture. Expats in Europe may keep in step with later dinner hours there, and several people responding to my queries said this was common in Mexican or other Latino households (one person said it helped the festivities go to 4 or 5 in the morning!).
But what about from a nutritional standpoint? There are some compelling physiological and behavioral reasons to put thought into when you eat, says Michele Smallidge, a registered dietitian and director of the exercise science program at the University of New Haven. Ideally, you want to wait at least two to three hours after eating before getting into bed, Smallidge says, as lying down isn’t great for digestion. And the later you eat, the less likely you are to be up and moving around following the meal, which is important for helping burn off some of the calories you just took in. Moreover, if you’ve not eaten much during the day to be ready for Thanksgiving, a late meal can contribute to overeating, as your body seeks to correct dipping blood sugar. A better approach is to more evenly spread your eating throughout the day, including breakfast, a light lunch and then a not-too-late dinner that still allows for activity after. Smallidge’s family gathers in late morning aiming for a 2 or 3 p.m. meal, which usually ends up more like 4 p.m.
As to how the meal affects your diet, “I look at it through a behavioral lens,” Smallidge says. “It’s an eating holiday.” Be mindful of what you put on your plate. Especially if you generally have good eating habits, you can cut yourself some slack on Thanksgiving. The holiday is just the beginning of a food-oriented time of year, so setting the tone at the start is a wise move, Smallidge says.
That means that how you eat is probably more important than when you eat. The best time for Thanksgiving dinner may very well be whenever it — and you — are ready.