As a newlywed (or To-Be-Wed), there are few things as exciting and potentially stressful as hosting your first Thanksgiving. On the one hand, there is the excitement of feeling like real "adults" and having a holiday on your own terms; there is something empowering about playing host to your families instead of being the guests. On the other hand there is the pressure to perform: cooking and entertaining on a mass scale for your parents, families, friends, and possibly IN-LAWS.
For some, it brings out their inner Martha Stewart and they simply blow everyone away with their amazing home-making abilities. These same people probably also have impeccable apartments that have been featured on Apartment Therapy, know what to do with a whole truffle, own pets but never have any pet-hair on them and look good even on rainy days.
For the rest of us who found the idea of hosting Thanksgiving exciting but are now freaking out about the actual execution, I offer up these 10 Do's and Don'ts for surviving your first Thanksgiving together.
1. DO Manage Your Guest list. Before you offer up "hosting" this or any other holiday, be sure you know what that means. If your in-laws are a close knit family and never spend a Thanksgiving apart, remember that you won't likely be able to invite your Mother- and Father-in-law without inviting all your sisters- and brothers-in-law. One of our clients volunteered to cook Thanksgiving dinner and ended up with a guest list of 34 people. Run through the list before you start extending invitations.
2. DON'T be afraid of using this as way to avoid family drama and splitting holidays. If you or your spouse or BOTH OF YOU are the children of divorce, or have families that live near and far, your first Thanksgiving together is in many ways the "Get Out of Jail Free" card of family holidays. Rather than travel or deal with trying to split yourself between sets of parents, you simply pick up the phone and say "Since it's our First Thanksgiving Together as a married couple, it's important to us to stay in our home as a couple. We would love it if you could come HERE, but understand if you can't!" Plus you have a full year of that if you didn't use it this holiday: Substitute Thanksgiving with Christmas, Rosh Hashanah, Easter.... Etc.
3. DO assign seating. If your father-in-law is fundraising for Herman Cain and your sister spent the fall Occupying Wall Street, assigned seating is your friend. You can be quite cute about it and say over and over again "We thought it would be a good way for us to mingle!", no one will think it's weird.
4. DO distract people with pretty things. This is NOT a time to just slop food on a folding table. Put some time into making your table look pretty. It can be as simple as a tablecloth from Target and a centerpiece of pine cones and fruits, but SET YOUR TABLE. This isn't just to be superficial, it's an effort in distracting people! If your cooking stinks and your table was really pretty, people will always talk about the table. If guests don't know what to say they can always say "Wow, what a lovely table! Did you do this yourself?" If you don't have any ideas for tables, read this awesome story from David Monn in The Times, or Google a little lady named "Martha Stewart" + Thanksgiving Centerpieces.
5. DON'T procrastinate. This is a big job. If you don't realize that, you are underestimating the amount of work the two of you need to do. Planning is your friend. If you've done nothing and are reading this now, go onto Epicurious or Cook's Illustrated and search for the recipe of every dish you want to make. I like these sites in particular because they have a "grocery list" feature that turns each recipe into a shopping list which makes it nice and easy.
6. DON'T turn this into a Top Chef episode. Try your very best to not "deconstruct" anything, reinterpret anything or re-invent anything. Just do a good job cooking the classics and you will be able to do the unthinkable: please everyone.
7. DO call your Momma, and your Momma-in-law for a recipe. Every family has "classic family dishes" for Thanksgiving (or any holiday). Don't be afraid to ask for help and information on how to make the favorite dish of each of your families. YES there is the pressure that it won't be as good as Mom's, but there is also the love that comes with knowing that you tried. Back when I was married, there was nothing that made my MIL happier than when I would try her Mac and Cheese recipe: she loved that I tried to please her son and loved to see that I would fall JUST a little short of her version. I couldn't be upset with that!
8. DO prepare a signature drink for everyone to try when they first arrive. My Aunt Linda and Uncle Frank are the masters of the hosted holiday and always started it off with snacks and booze. I learned from that. There is a reason why weddings have a cocktail hour: they help to lubricate the mood. Serve something interesting and tasty like a Gin Fizz and it may get people talking.
9. DO consider dinner party games! Honestly, when I dread mixing friend groups or family members it's usually because my brain is making up horrifying imaginary conversations that these people are having. Structuring the time around the table with some dinner party games is a fabulously Victorian way around this anxiety. Not sure what to do? This site was helpful for me.
10. DO ask for help, especially if you are mixing groups. People generally are more relaxed when they feel that they helped with the meal in some way. Especially if they don't know the other guests all that well. So perhaps you have people bring dessert or you say YES to help with clearing the table. Remember, it's Thanksgiving, not a night in a restaurant: Your guests are grateful for your hospitality, but not expecting Michelin star service.
Wishing you happy hosting, a Happy Thanksgiving and a warm and loving holiday!
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