How to host a holiday you can actually enjoy.

I have hosted my family's Thanksgiving dinner for the last four years. I don't claim to be Martha Stewart. I don't make themed place card holders or pilgrim hats for the youngest attendees (my kid is the only young child in the family, and he's not likely wearing any paper hats by choice), I have had people tell me they enjoyed themselves and the food served and felt "relaxed" in our home, which is exactly what I was going for.

A very sweet reader asked if I would post a few pointers on holiday hosting, and I'm happy to do so. Please, again, keep in mind -- I don't claim to be Martha or a professional party planner, but this is what's worked for me.

7 Steps to Hosting a Relaxed and Pleasant Holiday 

1. Make sure you have seating, table space, silverware, cups/glasses and plates for everyone attending. One year, I ran out of forks, and a few adults ended up using plastic toddler forks. It worked, but it wasn't ideal. My mom was kind enough to pick up some inexpensive extra sets of forks for us, and they've come in handy on many occasions. You don't have to own folding tables, but be sure to plan to borrow some or rent them. This time of year, they are frequently on sale at Target, WalMart and Costco.

2. Decide what dishes you'd like to prepare, then ask others to fill in the rest. Most families enjoy a good potluck meal, and most guests are happy to show off a favorite dish. If you want to cook the entire meal yourself, go for it! However, in our family, it's always worked well to have the host make the main dish and a few sides and maybe a dessert and request favorite recipes from others. Everyone likes to know that you enjoy eating something they make -- ask them to bring your favorite from their repertoire. My mother-in-law makes a delicious salad with crisp apples in it, my mom makes the best candied yams. My sister makes the greatest gingersnaps and my aunts always know how to make a good cranberry sauce. Everyone loves these dishes, so when I'm hosting, I just request them (with plenty of polite, advance notice). By requesting specific dishes, you'll know which meal pieces are still needed too.

Another thing to consider: How many dishes will require simultaneous baking/cooking? If you've got four stove burners and one oven, you may want to dole out a number of the baked dishes (and request your guests bring them serve-ready if possible) to avoid an oven traffic jam. Or, consider buying a stacking oven rack*, such as this one: Oven rack ($24.99) *Please note, while a tiered oven rack will increase your oven's capacity, it may slow cooking time some, due to the number of dishes baking -- prepare to add a few additional minutes to all baking times.

3. Make a list of all dishes for the meal, then create a shopping list of the items you need for your contributions. Shop a few days in advance of the holiday, not the day before. Everything will still be fresh but you bypass the crowds and picked over aisles. Here's a helpful chart, by Good Housekeeping that provides information on quantity needs based on the number of people you're serving: Servings chart

When everyone cooks and contributes variety, our taste buds are the winners!

4. Prep everything you can the night before the holiday. Chop vegetables, prep casseroles to the final step before baking, cover, and keep in the fridge. Make cookie doughs, prepare pies to the point just before baking -- do anything you can do, the day before. This is absolutely key to enjoying a relaxing holiday. Be sure to read the defrosting directions on the turkey if you're roasting one that's been frozen. Some will take days or almost a week in the refrigerator -- you need to prepare for this -- you can't just nuke it! ;-)

Last Thanksgiving's Bacon Wrapped Turkey

5. Use recipes you know are winners. If you're making anything for the first time, be sure you read the recipe all the way through to account for any unexpected issues (do you need hours to allow dough to rise? overnight refrigeration? a rare ingredient or kitchen tool?) and if you're using a recipe from the internet, read the comments and reviews first to be sure you're working with a winner and not a dud. No one wants to serve failed food to guests. A few classics that I personally love (and that have wowed guests):

Bacon Wrapped Turkey
This is the recipe I used last year:
(was from Humble Gourmand, has since been taken down)
  1. Remove bags of "stuff" from inside bird. Rinse the turkey and pat dry.
  2. Place 1 apple (quartered), 1 onion (quarted) 2-3 stalks of celery and 1 cinnamon stick in 2 cups of water and heat in the microwave for 4 minutes (or until boiling)
  3. Add the entire mixture to the turkey cavity along with a few sprigs of rosemary and sage
  4. Season the turkey with salt and pepper (kosher salt is preferred)
  5. Drizzle with olive oil and rub to coat.
  6. Cover the entire turkey with bacon. (I weaved the bacon into a big rectangle on a cookie sheet, then plopped it on top of the turkey and used toothpicks to secure. I then used additional strips to wrap the legs and wings.
  7. In a very preheated oven, cook the turkey at 500 degrees for 20-30 minutes, or until the bacon starts to crisp, then, without opening the door, reduce the oven temperature to 325 for the remaining cooking time.
  8. No need to baste, the bacon grease will take care of it for you!

6. Plan ahead for space in the fridge, on counters and for desserts. For me, clutter = chaos and stress. Having a bunch of pies shoved in my prep space makes me twitch a little bit. It's not that I don't appreciate the pies, because I really, truly do! But, I really don't want to risk dripping turkey juices on one, ya know? If you plan ahead places you'd like people to place desserts, emptied serving dishes, and other items, as well as space in your fridge for storing leftovers after the meal, everything will simply go smoother.

7. Adjust your post meal space to be conducive to the rest of the evening's activities. Eating typically requires more space and more room on tables than post-meal relaxing. Once everyone's done eating, assess the continued need for all folding tables and such, and eliminate anything blocking the flow of rooms and post-meal couch lounging or Wii playing. (Or whatever it is your family enjoys post-giant feast.) Leave a stack of board games and cards out, set up a dessert buffet, and use thermal carafes to keep coffee warm so you can leave the kitchen and spend time with your guests.


  1. I was JUST thinking about your bacon turkey last week! TRUTH! I really want to try that this year.

  2. THANK YOU!!! I think prepping what I can before hand will be a huge lifesaver!! And I'm also curious about the bacon wrapped it difficult?

  3. I'm glad this is helpful! :-)

    Honestly, the turkey isn't bad at all! I just found the actual recipe I used from last year, I'm going to edit the post to add it. If you weave the bacon on a cookie sheet, then plop it over the turkey and toothpick it in place, it looks really pretty, but isn't really hard to do ;-)

  4. I would never have thought of using a cookie sheet first...I really think I want to try this!


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