8 Tips for a Successful Big Thanksgiving Family Celebration

Updated September 20, 2021
Happy extended family on Thanksgiving meal at dining table

Hosting Thanksgiving dinner is the Super Bowl of entertaining. If you're at the helm of orchestrating this beloved annual holiday feast, there are so many factors to take into consideration. To ensure that your big family Thanksgiving dinner goes off without a hitch, plan accordingly and set yourself up for a successful and epic holiday celebration.

Avoid Running Out of Food

Nothing could be a bigger disaster than running out of food before your entire family has had their fill, but it can be difficult to judge how much you really need.

In their Thanksgiving Dinner Portion Planner, Food Network recommends using a one and a half pounds-per-guest ratio to figure out how much you need when you're buying a turkey. For example, if you were planning on 16 guests, you'd need a 24-pound turkey, which should yield about eight ounces of cooked turkey per person once the bird has been carved. You might also consider purchasing and cooking extra drumsticks and wings to help meet your per-guest needs. If you know that everyone will want to bring some bird home with them for leftover meals in the days following your celebration, add a few more pounds onto your turkey purchase.

Stuffing, sweet potatoes and smoked turkey on wooden table

As for the rest of the dinner, plan on the following amounts of these Thanksgiving staples as the minimum per guest:

  • 3/4 to 1 cup of dressing
  • 3/4 to 1 cup of mashed potatoes
  • About 1/2 cup of gravy
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup of vegetables
  • 1/2 cup cranberry sauce
  • 1 to 2 rolls
  • About 2 slices of pie
  • 1 to 2 glasses of wine per adult during dinner
  • 3 to 4 cups of beverages other than wine throughout the day

Of course, Thanksgiving is traditionally a day of excess, so you may want to increase these amounts if your family likes to have seconds.

Cook Some Dishes the Day Before

Break up the joyous burden of cooking a large Thanksgiving feast by preparing some side dishes and desserts the day before. You will cut the stress in half and double the time you have to visit with friends and family by doing some crucial meal prep ahead of time.

  • Bake your pies and cakes the day before and put them in plastic carriers to keep them fresh.
  • Cranberry sauce can be made the day before and chilled in the refrigerator until serving time.
  • Candied sweet potatoes can be cooked ahead of time and then fully reheated before you create that delicious marshmallow topping.
  • If you add sausage to your stuffing or bacon to the brussels sprouts, sizzle those meats up the day before the big holiday and then add them into dishes on Thanksgiving day when they are called for.

Don't be afraid to call in the cavalry when it comes to side dishes. Ask guests to help you out and bring the desserts, the rolls, or a couple of side dishes. People are generally thrilled to be asked to contribute something to the meal.

Three generations women cooking for Thanksgiving

Consider Renting Tables and Chairs

Big gatherings often result in tight seating space. A holiday like Thanksgiving requires everyone to have a chair and a seat at a table, so be sure to have enough space for everyone to dine. If you don't think you'll have enough seating for all the people on your list, check out your local party rental store and rent some tables and chairs. This will help you avoid seating guests at a hodge-podge of card tables and folding chairs, which will help everyone feel equally appreciated.

Ideally, you'll want the rentals to arrive the day before Thanksgiving so you can set them up and do any rearranging necessary to make everything perfect. This also gives the rental company time to make corrections if they don't bring exactly what you ordered. If all the tables and chairs won't fit into your dining space, set up a second dining room somewhere else in your home that is equally festive as the original.

Family at dinner table for the Thanksgiving day

Set Up a Buffet Table

A Thanksgiving dinner table can be a sight to behold when it's laden with a scrumptious turkey and plenty of side dishes, but it can be overcrowded when you figure in place settings and a nice centerpiece. Setting up a separate buffet table allows guests to serve themselves easily instead of passing around one dish after another as their food gets cold.

When setting up a buffet area, be sure to:

  • Get out all the dishes and platters you plan to use ahead of time. Place a label on each one that says which food it will hold. Practice arranging the dishes on the buffet until you feel you have the perfect setup. Make a note of your layout so you can set up the buffet easily on the big day.
  • Turkey is the main attraction, so either make it the first item your family will add to their plates before side dishes, or make it the center of attention and place the side dishes around it for a beautiful display.
  • Ideally, it's best to have room all around your buffet table so guests can work their way down either side. This helps the lines move more quickly.
  • Consider having a separate small dessert table and a drink station if you have room for them. All of your buffet table needs can be figured into your table rentals if you're going that route.
  • Have power strips on hand to plug in crock pots and electric gravy boats so warm dishes remain warm throughout first helpings, second helpings, and thirds!
Thanksgiving Buffet Table

Tackling After Dinner Cleanup

After cooking a big Thanksgiving dinner, the last thing you want to do is spend an hour or two washing dishes. Fortunately, there's more than one way to lighten the burden and spend more time enjoying your family's company.

  • Consider having a "dishwashing party." Set up the kitchen sink for dishwashing and have everybody wash their place settings. Older children can be drafted into helping younger children wash their dishes, and you could take care of drying dishes, so they don't pile up. This also allows you to visit with each member of your family when it's their turn, which should make the task more pleasant.
  • You might consider hiring outside help to handle the cleanup. This is as simple as calling a local temporary employment agency or catering service and hiring someone to wash dishes and take out the trash.
  • Clean up in shifts. You don't have to hit the kitchen the second you finish your meal. Start the clean-up by washing dinner plates and silverware. Then cover the food at your buffet table and leave it there while you take a breather. After the dessert course is served, hit those dishes up next.
  • Have a "make and take" with leftovers. Provide Tupperware for your guests to pile extra potatoes, turkey and stuffing in. Once everyone has their to-go food sealed and ready to roll, there will be little left to do over at the buffet table.
  • Some things can wait. Leave the washing of table cloths and linen napkins until tomorrow. Crusty crock pots? Let them soak overnight while you take a load off.

Think Ahead About Amenities

Having numerous guests can present some unique issues. Put out extra tissue boxes around the house and stock the bathroom with:

  • A fresh bottle of hand soap
  • Extra hand towels
  • Extra rolls of toilet paper
  • Air freshener

If guests are staying in your home, be sure to have coffee and breakfast foods for the morning after Thanksgiving, and plenty of fresh towels, soap and shampoo in your bathrooms.

Provide Ample Entertainment

The trick to keeping everyone entertained is to provide various activities suitable for different ages and set them up in various areas around the house, so no one feels crowded.

  • Having at least one working television in the home is essential so guests can watch parades early on and then football later in the day. Two televisions are even better if someone wants to watch holiday movies instead of football, or you can designate one television to adults and the other to the kids. Make sure the TVs are in separate rooms, so no one fights over volumes.
  • Set out multiple decks of playing cards. Make sure each deck has a different pattern on the back so you can separate the decks easily if they are combined. Everyone loves card games like Go Fish, Rummy, and Uno.
  • Provide board games that are suitable for a variety of ages. Cootie and checkers are old favorites that kids and adults can play together. Yahtzee is a fun game that's good for multiple players of various ages. Just keep in mind that having too many players in one game leaves a lot of time for boredom to build up between turns, so you might need more than one set.
  • Share family photo albums. Adults will enjoy the trip down memory lane, and children will get a kick out of seeing the adults when they were younger. You could even arrange old photos on a poster board and let everyone guess who's who. Ask family members to bring photos marked with names on the back, so no one is left out.
  • Have coloring books or some Thanksgiving coloring pages along with crayons on hand for the younger kids. You can also keep young hands busy by setting up a card table to use as a craft station to make napkin rings that can be used at the table or taken home as a keepsake from the day.
  • Make sure there's a football available in case anyone wants to go outside and play touch football if the weather permits.
  • Don't forget to designate one bedroom or a den space as a quiet room where a guest can lie down for a while as needed.
Family Playing Board Game

Accommodations for Out-of-Town Family

If you have family coming to dinner who live too far away to drive home the same day, they're going to need a place to stay. There are a few ways to handle this situation, but make plans as far ahead as possible to avoid last-minute issues.

  • If you have enough room, you can offer to have them spend the night in your home. This could involve using a guest room, adding cots or air mattresses to the kids' rooms so younger family members can bunk together, or putting a sleeper sofa to use.
  • Having out-of-town family stay with you gives you more opportunity to spend quality time with them after everyone else goes home. You could warm up leftovers later on if anyone is hungry again, or you could even order pizza for a break from Thanksgiving foods.
  • Check with other nearby relatives to see if they have room for extra family to stay overnight.
  • If family is coming with fur babies, be sure to accommodate furry guests.
  • Some family members might prefer to spend the night at a hotel. You could provide them with addresses and phone numbers of nice hotels and resorts nearby. While you don't need to cover the cost of their stay, you could offer to pay for a room or two if finances are an issue for them and it wouldn't present a financial burden for you.

Always Worth the Effort

Although it takes a lot of time and effort to create a fabulous Thanksgiving spread for a large family, it's certainly time well spent. The memories you create will last a lifetime, so take advantage of these tips and spend more time enjoying your family this year.

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8 Tips for a Successful Big Thanksgiving Family Celebration