Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday! I love the food, the family time, decorating and setting out my good serving dishes! Every year I look forward to it but it feels even more special this year after Covid 19 and quarantine disrupted so much. I started planning for Thanksgiving in July! Planning dinner for a crowd of 20 or more people isn’t for the faint hearted. It’s is an undertaking that requires a fair amount of preparation. I’ve found that there are three keys to successfully manage Thanksgiving for a large family – planning, preparation, and delegation. These X unique tips to host a stress free Thanksgiving for a crowd will help ensure your Thanksgiving is a success!!
I keep my Thanksgiving casual and easy going, a mix of fancy and fun! My immediate family, plus spouses and kids, is 27 people so I’ve had loads of practice preparing for a crowd and start weeks in advance, a little bit at a time. While there is plenty of information available online about making dinner, there is a lot more you should know in order to avoid chaos on the big day. This article focuses on these often overlooked details.
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Planning Thanksgiving for a large family
Planning is the foundation of a successful event. Plan the work – work the plan! Ideally, plan several weeks out to ensure the work is spread out and manageable. You can do it in a pinch even if you only have two days. Check out our last minute Thanksgiving planner for a quick turnaround.
“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
By planning ahead, you can reduce your stress level and allow time to adjust for unexpected bumps in the road.
Plan the seating
You don’t have to determine who sits where but you do need to figure out what kind of seating you need, where you will put it, and how it will be used. If you are assigning seats use decorative place cards such as these.
If you’re having a sit down dinner, the number of seats needed is pretty straightforward – one seat per person. Next, determine how people will be split across tables as it is likely you don’t have one table that can sit 20+ guests. I setup four tables for my family dinner, the dining room table, kitchen table, and two folding tables.
Ensure you have enough chairs for each table. If you like to entertain, and you have a large family, a portable party kit is a must have! Your party kit should have chairs, chafing dishes, extra serving dishes, plates, glassware, utensils and anything else you need for large events, but don’t use on a regular basis. Pass it around from one house to another as needed.
If you don’t have a party kit and need extras, ask your guests to bring chairs, plates, Tupperware, or serving dishes. Rent from your local party store or use disposables. I’m not a fan of single use products, but they are fine to use on occasion. These days they even look like great!!
Designate appropriate seating for family members who need accommodation such as extremely tall people who need leg room, overweight guests who need a sturdy chair, and parents with infants or toddlers to feed.
Consider the flow of your space
Did you ever notice when you go to an event that people tend to congregate together in one space? It makes it difficult for guests to move about and impossible to serve food.
You have to give people a reason to move into different areas of your home. Spread your appetizers out across multiple rooms. Put seating areas away from the kitchen. If you have more than one television, put the football game on in two or more locations.
If you’re doing a buffet, identify the path people take to get their food then return to their seats. Set it up well in advance to test it out. Don’t forget to add your serving utensils to the test. They take up more room than you may think.
Work out sleeping arrangements
Tell your family their sleeping arrangements before they arrive. This prevents you from being distracted if someone arrives during dinner preparation. Assign one or two of your family members – preferably from the teen or young adult set – to meet visitors who are staying and help them settle into their room. Give your helpers a list of who is staying where and note any special needs.
If your weather allows, consider setting up tents if you have overflow. This can make for a fun and memorable time for the right crowd!
Be sure there are things to do for everyone
Not everyone enjoys the same activities. You’ll surely have some people who want to watch football. Make space for that but also think about what else might be fun. Setup games inside and out in the yard. A finished basement or porch are ideal spots for board games. Horse shoes or corn hole are always a big hit outdoors!
Do you have fire pit? If you do, gather a good size pile of wood and assign someone to light it as it gets dark. Be sure all parents are informed so littles stay safe! Consider a smores bar or marshmallows for roasting. These are always crowd pleasers.
Don’t forget your older guests. They may tire easily and need a place to sit and put their feet up where it’s quiet. Set aside a room for this if possible. Stock it with a few family photo albums, magazines, and some holiday music. Similarly, young ones may require a nap or a place to chill out. A room away from the hubbub is ideal if you have the space.
Talk to your grown children to see if they have any special requests for the holiday. Adult children begin to form their own traditions which may change how you Enjoy your Holidays with your Adult Children.
Coats, hats, and mittens need a home
Many people coming into your house in late November will likely mean lots of coats, hats, mittens and even boots. Take a look at your available closet space to determine if you have enough room and hangers. If not, then identify a space for people’s winter gear. Layout a tarp or get some boot trays if wet feet are an issue.
Use a Thanksgiving timeline
This is key! There is so much preparation that can be done days or weeks in advance.
Plan your menu and review your recipes to identify which dishes can be prepared ahead of time. Many can be fully cooked just to be reheated on the big day. Some can be completed up to the actual cooking step while others may need more attention at the last minute.
For those that cannot be prepared ahead, figure out how much of the preparation of ingredients can be done prior to Thanksgiving day. Put all prepared ingredients for each recipe in a jumbo size Ziploc bag together so they’re ready to go in an instant.
Bags like these oversized Ziplocs can handle the ingredients for any dish in one bag. It makes is so simple when the time comes to put the dish together. You just pull out the bag and viola – you’re ready to go! They can also be used to store countless items in your home. I love these!!
Try out your table settings and decorations the weekend before the holiday or even earlier. Leave them setup if you can. It will save you all sorts of time when you’re in a crunch.
Keep it simple silly! This applies to everything when trying to host a stress free Thanksgiving for a crowd but especially to the food and beverages.
Review your menu, if any dish seems overly complicated, get rid of it!! Simplify your meal and minimize your hors d’oeuvres. You don’t want people filling up before dinner or to make extra work for yourself. Consider minimal prep hors d’oeuvres such as a charcutier tray, cheese board, fruit tray or other simple apps. This feta dip with toasted walnuts and garlic and this bacon scallion cheese wreath can be made ahead of time and are always a big hit!!
Serve beer and wine, maybe some prosecco with appetizers. Chill your whites and your bubbly in an iced bucket to keep them cool. Leave a bowl with wine charms or set out wine markers so people can personalize their glass. I love to leave beads and rounded wire rings so people can create their own personalized wine charms!
Put together a couple of coolers or a drink station for soda and water or use these beautiful personalized beverage tubs for a more finished look. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.
Be sure to have sufficient recycle bins if you’re using cans and bottles. I use these collapsible cardboard bins lined with over sized trash bags. I’ve reused them for countless parties. They hold up well and collapse flat so they’re easy to store.
Preparing for a stress free Thanksgiving for a crowd
Set the table
Set your tables up as early as you can. If you’re using multiple tables that can’t be done ahead of time, do a test run. Place your dishes, your serving plates and bowls, napkins, utensils, butter dishes, and anything else that you’ll need. If you have to break it down, do a drawing or snap a picture so others can help when the time comes. This will help you figure out where to place everything and to determine if you have enough butter dishes, water pitchers, bread baskets, etc. for your family.
When preparing Thanksgiving for a large family, you will use a lot of serving dishes! Identify the dishes you want to use then write the name of the item that will go into the serving dish and put the paper in the dish. This will save you so much time and trouble when you’re ready to serve because you won’t have to remember which dish is for which food.
Prepare your bathrooms
Bathrooms are often an afterthought in party planning but they are so important! If you make a few basic preparation steps, you can avoid uncomfortable moments for guests.
Take stock of your hand towels and create a pile of the ones you want to use. Check the bathrooms periodically and turn the towels so they’re not wet. When both sides are wet, toss one in the tub or hamper and pull out another clean towel.
Stock up on toilet paper in a visible area. Add a basket or a TP stand for the occasion so guests can easily see where to grab a new roll.
Be sure to have a plunger in every bathroom!! Most adults know how to use a plunger and will be glad to do so if they cause a backup. In most cases, this is a much better alternative than tracking you down to ask for one should the need arise!
Fill baskets with essentials and toiletries
You want to avoid anything that disrupts the flow of your holiday dinner or pulls you away from making gravy because someone needs a safety pin. These types of distractions are unnecessary and time consuming.
Put a basket of goodies in an easily accessible place. Fill it will basic toiletries and essentials such as safety pins, a sewing kit, tampons, maxi pads, alcohol wipes, band aids, Kleenex, hand sanitizer, toothpaste & floss, pens, pencils, pads of paper, paper bags, gum mints, and Qtips. You will save yourself and your guests from the stress and time needed to track down such items.
Don’t over serve the food
I never worry about cooking too much food. It can always be put in the fridge or freezer for another day. I do, however, worry about putting out too much food and having it spoil. This often happens when guests show up with unexpected food. It happens all the time!
Don’t be afraid to not serve the extra food. Clear some shelf space to be used for this purpose in the refrigerator and in a cabinet or on a counter. Be prepared with plastic containers so you can return any dishes right away.
Coffee and tea on demand are important for a stress free thanksgiving day!
I’m often surprised by when guests want coffee and tea. I think of these beverages as something one turns to long after dinner when they’re starting to fade from the tryptophan. Wrong!
People enjoy tea and coffee at anytime.
Setup your station so it’s ready to go. I like to use insulated paper cups and covers. Be sure to leave a few sharpies so guests can mark their cups.
Hang signs indoors and out with instructions & directions
This might seem like a silly idea but I find people appreciate it, especially those who not familiar with your home. It can also ease some of your worries and allow you to focus on other things. Some ideas for signs are:
- Locations of bathrooms
- Where to put your coats
- “Help yourself” hung above the basket of goodies
- “Press ON to help yourself to coffee/tea” above the coffee/tea station
- A list of activities you’ve setup around the house and outside
- A general timeline for the day / weekend
- Signs on doors and fences to ensure dogs/children/cats, etc. are not let out
- Locations of quiet spaces
- A list of delegated tasks
There are so many questions can be avoided by hanging a sign. Think about the questions that people ask you when visiting. If it’s asked more than once, it’s probably a good candidate to be put in writing.
Create a recipe book for each person
This is a wonderful family tradition. If you don’t do it, think about starting it this year. Print out your recipes and put into a book, or on recipe cards. If anyone else if preparing dishes, be sure to include those recipes. Package with some festive ribbons and a set to each attendee. It will make a wonderful keepsake for the day.
Delegate to ensure a stress free Thanksgiving!
Letting go of the reins a bit and sharing the load is not something that comes naturally to a lot of people. It certainly doesn’t come easily to me but I am learning! Surely, there are some tasks you can hand off that will save you work and allow you to focus on enjoying the day.
What’s best to delegate is up to you and your preferences. I prefer to share the tasks that allow me to focus on my two biggest priorities:
- Make sure dinner is delicious!
- Take to time to check on my family members and talk to everyone
Remember, your job as the hostess is to help your guests to have a wonderful day. That means you can’t be buried in the kitchen, cleaning, or running around doing a million different tasks. You want to find time in the day to give some personal attention to every one of your visitors. Delegation is the best way to make this happen.
Some things to delegate
- Assign people to help overnight guests get settled into their rooms
- Set the tables
- Break down the tables after dinner/dessert
- Put the desserts in the oven and onto the dessert tables
- Light the fire pit
- Cook Friday breakfast
- Monitor the wine & beer and add more as needed
- Monitor the coffee & tea station and refill pots as needed
- Wash the dishes
- Pack up leftovers into leftover tins
Consider your plan and identify things that can be handed off. Talk to people early in the day, or ahead of time if possible, so they know their assignments. People like to help!!! It makes them feel like a part of the event if they contribute to it’s success. Don’t deprive your loved ones of being a part of a successful day.
The most important things to do are to enjoy the day and be thankful. That is, after all, the whole point of my favorite holiday. Take Friday off so you can look forward to a long weekend, an extended holiday, with the ones you love.