A Thanksgiving Survival Guide

It’s kind of like the Super Bowl of holiday hosting—lots of hype (plus some drama and trash talk) before the big game. This year, the order of the day for Thanksgiving is to chill. Everything you need is right here: recipes you can easily adapt for picky preferences, guidance on how to deal with difficult guests and sullen teens, and words of wisdom on the fine art of not micromanaging. #gratitude

cheers to thanksgiving dinner

Photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images

You have so much to be thankful for, including—at least according to the online Encyclopedia of Gratitude— National Parks, George and Ira Gersh-win, central heating, shooting stars, the love of a grandparent, farmers’ markets, volunteers, freshly fallen snow, old friends and Lucille Ball. And don’t forget family! Oh yes, your picky, opinionated, allergic, wine-soaked, turkey-stuffed and beloved family. You wouldn’t trade them if you could—and anyways, you can’t. Sure, hosting this particular holiday meal may or may not make your short list of everything you’re most grateful for, but you’re hosting anyway, so make the best of it. Because the truth is hosting offers nearly limitless opportunities for gratitude: We’re together; there’s food on the table; we’re safe for now.

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But it’s not always easy, the being thankful and feeling thankful, when you’re up to your elbows in the turkey and your in-laws are fretting aloud about the pumpkin pie and why it looks like that. Don’t you crimp the crust with a fork? You don’t! But you could! You will. Next year. For now, you’re just doing your best. 

thanksgiving table

Photo by Johnny Miller

Photo by Johnny Miller

Real-Mom Holiday Strategies

“We have a gratitude basket: Before dinner, people write down what they’re thankful for and drop it in. Then, during dessert, we pass around the basket and everybody takes a slip of paper. We take turns reading aloud and guessing who wrote them—some are funny and others are heartfelt. It’s my favorite part of the holiday table, aside from the stuffing.” —Rachel M, Springfield, OH

“To alleviate some of her baking burden, my friend Julia started asking all her Thanksgiving guests to bring a pie—it could be homemade or store-bought. Lo and behold, it became an annual pie competition. All the guests taste each pie and give it a score plus a funny/sarcastic/sweet review. We even posted last year’s comments on Twitter @Pie_Critique.” —Melih L., Palo Alto, CA

“Do everyone a favor and shut your pets away upstairs; allow any besotted animal lovers to go visit with them freely. Because nobody wants fur-covered chinos, a nose print on the crotch of their skirt or a paw swiping suddenly into their mashed potatoes.” —Sara S., Cincinnati, OH

Dealing with Special DIets

Dairy-Free
Allergies and lactose intolerance (the inability to process sugar in dairy) are the top medical reasons people pass on cheese, milk, butter, chocolate (sadly) and tons of processed foods. 

Diabetes
Sugar and carbs are practically the pillars of Thanksgiving dinner, which means people with diabetes have to be extra careful. This chronic illness affects how your body processes glucose.

Gluten-Free
Bread, pasta and beer can be gut-wrenching if someone at your table has celiac disease or gluten intolerance, both conditions in which the body can’t tolerate gluten, a protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. 

Nut-Free
Nuts are some of the most potent allergenic foods out there. In addition to the real deal, pay attention to oils, candies, sauces and other less obvious foods that could contain them.

Vegan
Vegans won’t consume any animal product. This includes not only the obvious turkey but also dairy, eggs, fish and even honey. 

Picky Eater
Maybe there’s a teen (or even an adult) at your table who refuses to eat anything other than plain rice and chicken, or one who just can’t stand foods touching. Picky eaters afflict almost every Thanksgiving dinner and, unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to accommodate them. 

Vino Veritas

Whether you’re a host or a guest, you need a crowd-pleasing wine. For white, try Kenwood Sauvignon Blanc ($13) or Cakebread Cellars 2016 Chardonnay ($37.50). For red, opt for Napa Cellars Zinfandel ($25) or Bonterra Pinot Noir ($18).

The Art of Not Micromanaging

Maybe your son’s college girlfriend is really just an introvert who wants to be left alone. Maybe some people are going to be on their phones even though you really wish they wouldn’t. Maybe your niece and your dad are actually enjoying their argument about health care and your great-aunt kept her shoes on in your shoeless house because she has plantar fasciitis. Breathe.

Setting the Table

What’s the “proper” way to set the table?
If the queen herself is not joining you for green-bean casserole, just remember: The fork goes to the left of the plate and the folded napkin to the left of the fork. The knife and spoon go to the right of the plate, and the glass
goes above the knife and spoon. Any additional silverware goes in the order guests will use it, from the outside in.

How should the table look?
Consider the vibe you’re going for, and set your table to match. 

Feeling fancy? Iron your vintage embroidered linens and dust off the cut-glass goblets. If there’s anything special you’ve been saving, this is what you’ve been saving it for.

For a casual mood, cover the table with plain paper (buy a roll of white at Michael’s or a roll of brown at Home Depot) and put out little buckets of markers and crayons for portraits, tic-tac-toe-ing and spontaneous haiku. This is especially great for busying the kind of people who might otherwise roam into idle teen-baiting or tiresome political debate. 

Do make place cards so you can arrange the seating and so you can give the kids something to do in the afternoon—or even all afternoon, if you request that the place cards be really elaborate. 

And definitely light candles, lots of them, because they’re festive and everyone looks great in candlelight. Just be sure to deal with the candles the day before. If you leave this as a last-minute to-do item, you will be shocked and horrified by how long it takes to dispose of the old wax, clean off the grime and stabilize the tapers. So say it with me: Deal with the candles the day before. (Tip: For tricky votives, freeze them first. The old wax pops right out without you even breaking off a knife tip digging around.)

If You Can't Keep Your Teen Off Their Phone

Ask them to interview the oldest relative who’s with you that day, using the free StoryCorps app (Android and iOS). Uploaded interviews become part of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and can be shared with family and friends. For more info, go to storycorps.org. 

3 Tips for Getting Your House Presentable

Make the beds, since you never know who’ll suddenly be putting a baby down for a nap or resting for a minute. 

Pretend you’re a stranger and do a walk-through with a critical eye and a dust cloth, wiping up any filthy baseboards that catch your attention.

Lean hard on fancy touches: Flowers in the bathroom, sparkling wineglasses and flickering candles will go a long way toward distracting your guests from your actually not-so-clean home.

Two Incredibly Important Before-and-After Tips for Frazzle-Free Hosting

Make an excessively exhaustive to-do list of every single thing that needs to happen—from putting the turkey in the oven at noon to lighting the candles at 4:00—so you won’t forget anything once you’ve got a kitchen full of people and a brain full of pinot noir. You might still wake up the next morning and find a charred potholder, a salad spinner full of forgotten parsley or a mug full of melted butter in the microwave*, but there will be far fewer missed cues.

Long after the hosting is done, you will arrive at the moment of the leftover leftovers: the shaggy turkey bones nobody is actually making stock out of, the fermenting cranberry relish, the creamed pearl onions that weren’t so great to begin with. Go ahead and throw them away. 

*Actual things I have found the morning after.

Dealing with Difficult Guests

Encourage the playing of touch football—outside—before dinner. This will get out everybody’s ya-yas, so they’ll be too tuckered-out and endorphin-mellowed to be a pain in the neck. 

Ask for help. Maybe your difficult uncle can sharpen your knives for you and your ornery brother-in-law can carve the turkey. People like to feel useful, and it directs all that free-floating weirdness. 

Seat your guests in disaster-prevention clusters. That might mean putting hearing-impaired folks next to loud talkers or surrounding a political fight-picker with children as buffers.

Question About Inviting Others

A friend is hinting that she has nowhere to spend Thanksgiving, but you already have a big crowd coming. What to do? 

Include her. I’ve hosted every year for the past 25, and I have regretted being inclusive exactly zero times. It’s the right thing to do, and those “fringe” folks—a friend of a friend, your kid’s college roommate, someone new from work—are the perfect buffers, keeping drunk or cranky relatives on their best behavior.

Question About Traditions

Your new in-laws have a side-dish tradition of sloppy-Joe sliders. But you’re hosting and you don’t actually want sliders.

Let them bring the sliders. Holiday traditions are sacred, as anyone who has ever tried to replace Granny’s cornbread stuffing with “this pretentious oyster-chorizo baguette-crumb monstrosity” knows.

Question About Salad

Do you have to make a green salad, even though no one actually wants it and some years you find it in the fridge the next day because you forgot to add it to the groaning board? 

No. You don’t have to make a green salad. #gratitudeabounding

Question About Leftovers

People want to take the leftovers home. They’ve even brought their own containers! What do I do?

In my family, leftovers are more divisive than politics. But my hosting rule for them is absolute graciousness: Someone wants that half-eaten turkey leg or apple custard tart for their breakfast? I wrap it up and hand it over.