So It's Your First Time

11/09/2011 09:06 am ET | Updated Jan 09, 2012

So it's here: your first time hosting Thanksgiving. It can feel like both a great honor and a crushing responsibility to take over from Aunt Hazel who has been hosting since the Eisenhower administration, or even more so from your own mother.

The best approach is first to remind yourself what Thanksgiving actually is: nothing more (or less) than a party where you serve a lot of hearty food to people you care about and who presumably care about you. Children are welcome at Thanksgiving. Centenarians totter in from the retirement home for Thanksgiving. It's a warm, inclusive and forgiving feast -- and if it's not? If your parents bicker and your best friend passes out from too many pumpkin pie martinis and your sister makes mean cracks about the lumpy gravy? That is outside of your control. They are the actors; you just set the stage (and if it gets really bad, start capturing the performances on video). And remember, every host and hostess, however self-assured they may now appear, had a first Thanksgiving. Your mother. Aunt Hazel. Martha Stewart. Relax.

That's the first rule of a successful Thanksgiving. Here's the second: make this Thanksgiving your own. You set the tone. What kind of party do you want to throw? It can be as casual or as formal as you choose. You can produce a tightly orchestrated dinner with champagne, oysters bingo, deep-fried heritage turkeys, and flaming pudding for dessert (perhaps not recommended for your first time, but in the realm of possibility). Or, you can opt for a potluck with iced tea, a prebasted Butterball, and cranberry jelly straight out of the can. If your mother always served green bean casserole and made everyone play charades, you are free to scrap this tradition. Alternatively, you are free to keep it exactly the same. You should probably have a turkey, probably some stuffing, and dessert is generally expected. But after that, you have flexibility. Enjoy it.

This being your first Thanksgiving, you should accept help. People will often ask if they can bring something. Let them -- but give them direction. If you have your heart set on baking the ginger apple torte you bookmarked on Food52, when your brother-in-law offers to bring his famous pumpkin Jell-O chiffon pudding, say, "That is so nice of you, but I have dessert under control. What I could really use is help on the sides." You're the one who is going to be washing dishes at midnight, and you're the boss. A benevolent boss, but still the boss.

As soon as you've settled on your menu (here's a good one for your first go) and know what everyone is bringing, we come to the cardinal rule of an excellent, stress-free Thanksgiving, whether it's your first, second, or fiftieth. Do everything you possibly can in advance. Everything.

To start with, you should have your grocery list finalized by the weekend before so you can hit the supermarket on Sunday, Monday at the very latest. By Wednesday, the local Safeway will resemble a soccer stadium just before a stampede. (Common turkey buying questions are answered right here.) Do your shopping early and on Wednesday, while procrastinators are waiting in Soviet lines, you are listening to music, drinking tea, and baking that ginger apple torte. You are washing and trimming vegetables, cutting up bread cubes for stuffing, calmly looking for your roasting pan. You are also setting the table. By setting the table in advance, you will realize you don't have enough forks and can borrow some from your sister. Figure out what you're going to wear. Iron it.

Try to get all of that done before Thanksgiving Day. You won't, but if you even just get some of it done, you will have a deeper understanding of thankfulness on November 24.

And here's what happens on Thanksgiving: You figure out the timing to roast your turkey, count backwards and put it in the oven at the appointed hour. (Turkeys should be roasted to 165 degrees. Write this on a Post-It and stick it to the door of a cabinet. Right now. Don't have an instant read thermometer? Put that on your shopping list. Right now.) Drop the potatoes in a pan of water, which you can bring to a boil forty-five minutes before dinner. Lay out your appetizers. And then, fifteen minutes before the party, you have to be prepared to let things go. The Paula Deen sweet potato biscuits? If they're not ready to pop in the oven, they're not going to happen. Your guests don't want to find you frantically peeling sweet potatoes when they walk in the door. Sweet potato biscuits: next year.

No, rather than trying to squeeze in one more cooking feat in those last fifteen minutes before curtain call, empty the dishwasher. You really want an empty dishwasher at the start of a party that will use just about every plate, ladle and gravy boat in your cupboard. Is it empty now? Okay. Take off your apron, mix yourself a cranberry cosmopolitan, and answer the door. This is going to be fun.

Jennifer Reese is the author of "Make The Bread, Buy The Butter," in which she details recipes for Thanksgiving and more. Available in stores now.