Sometimes our holidays take on a life of their own. Thanksgiving is no exception. We spend so much time and effort creating one super-sized meal that often we can’t possibly eat. For a holiday that’s supposed to be about gratitude and thankfulness, it tends to turn into excess and overindulgence. If you’re all about the once-a-year-turkey-feasting-until-you-sleep, that’s awesome. Go all out. But, if the idea of a full-blown Thanksgiving production stresses you out this year, please know that it doesn’t have to be that way! You can simplify Thanksgiving dinner without losing the important parts of the holiday!
You can have a beautiful Thanksgiving holiday without all the stress and excess. It might mean changing some of the ways your family approaches the holiday. It definitely means changing the way you think about it. We build our holidays on a foundation of expectations: our own expectations, family expectations, and sometimes those of friends, church family, and neighbors as well. Some of those expectations stem from our childhood, our family history, and our habits.
Consider this though: you’re the one responsible for your own holiday. You create the rules, the activities, and the experience of your own celebrations. You may have inherited expectations, but you can choose whether or not to meet or change them. You’re the one in charge of your life. You can choose to do things differently if it will serve the needs of you and your family better. If you need it, I give you permission. You don’t have to do things the way everyone else does them, the way you’ve always done them, or the way our culture wants you to do them.
How would you and your family love to spend Thanksgiving if you started with a clean slate? What if you could start from scratch and design your own day? What would you do? What would you eat? Where would you gather? What would your day be like? What would fill your celebration with gratitude, thankfulness, and joy?
Maybe you can’t start with a clean slate. Maybe you want things the way they’ve always been, but you’d love for the whole thing to be a bit easier. Or, maybe you just need a few tips to help streamline the process. Here are thirteen ways to simplify Thanksgiving dinner.
1. Make simple, tried and true recipes.
I love to try new recipes for guests, but if you want to decrease your stress level, skip both the fancy and the new. Remember that the focus of the day is gratitude, not grandeur. It’s not about how you can wow your friends and family with complicated culinary exploits. It’s about how you can serve them with love. Keep it simple and foolproof. There’s nothing wrong with that!
2. Stick to the essentials.
We typically have eight family members at Thanksgiving dinner and we realized several years ago that we were making way too much food for our small gathering. We didn’t need to make all the dishes that were humanly possible. When we cut the menu back to the essentials, we uncomplicated our day in a way that allowed us to spend more time together and enjoy the meal more. You may have a much larger gathering than our typical meal, but if you find that you have way too much food, it’s perfectly fine to not prepare the cranberry salad that only one family member enjoys. Sorry, Aunt Louise, maybe next year!
3. Don’t make duplicates.
If you’re having pie for dessert, make pumpkin pie. Don’t make pumpkin, pecan, apple, chess, and chocolate icebox pies. If you need multiple pies to feed your crowd, that’s fine, make multiples of the same type of pie to make the preparation simpler and less stressful. You’ll reduce mistakes, save time, and eliminate family arguments if there’s only one choice. You really don’t need four vegetables or six kinds of potatoes either. Can’t commit to just one? I totally understand. Then provide two options, but no more.
4. Don’t make it all yourself.
There are several ways to share the load for cooking the meal. Celebrate as a potluck, assign side dishes to each guest and provide the main dish and the drinks yourself. If someone can’t bring food, have them bring drinks, napkins, or other non-food items you need. If you don’t want to do a potluck, understand that you don’t need to make everything from scratch. Buy frozen rolls, let a caterer, local restaurant, or grocery provide parts of the meal that you don’t love to make. My grandfather was all about the dressing. It was his thing. When he passed, no one in the family wanted to pick up his tradition and we’ve found it so much easier to make the boxed stuffing. Sacrilege? Maybe. But, we can give our attention to things we prefer and it makes our day easier. If you can ease up on the expectations for one or more menu items, you can lighten the stress level considerably.
5. Recruit kitchen help.
Don’t be the only one working in the kitchen. It’s often easier in the short term to do it all yourself, but there’s a lot of value in recruiting help. Working together in the kitchen can be an important bonding time. If you recruit kids to help, they’ll learn what it takes to prepare a large meal so they can help in the future and they’ll learn to appreciate the effort as well.
If you have help cleaning as the cooking is happening, you’ll have a far less overwhelming mess when the meal is over. If the focus of the day’s effort becomes togetherness, cooking time can be a joy rather than a stressful production. Does this mean some added chaos and less control? Maybe. But, the important part of a holiday, the part people will remember, is the time together. Not that the meal was perfectly presented and magically appeared from the kitchen.
6. Scrap tradition if it doesn’t serve you.
I’m not against tradition, I love it actually. But, if it doesn’t serve you and your family any longer, or it doesn’t work for you this year, it’s ok! It’s not the end of the world. Eliminating some or all traditions may open you up to a new way of celebrating that you and your family may fall in love with.
You could cook a totally different meal. Do you not enjoy turkey, but make a mean lasagna? Maybe you need a non-traditional menu. What would the holiday be like if you took a short trip? What about meeting family for breakfast instead of dinner? What about instead of a meal, you spent the afternoon together hiking and ended with a family bonfire? When you consider a non-traditional holiday, you open up endless possibilities.
7. Get help from a restaurant.
There are plenty of restaurants serving traditional holiday meals if you really want the turkey and trimmings but just can’t prepare it. Meet family members at your favorite spot and enjoy the time together without any preparation or clean up! Be sure to make reservations ahead of time!
8. Hire cleaning help.
Sometimes it’s not the cooking that’s the most stressful part of entertaining. Sometimes it’s the cleaning! Having someone come in and help clean up a day or two before an event can significantly reduce the prep time and the stress before your company arrives. The last time I entertained a large group, I had someone else handle the cleaning and I’m telling you, it was a game-changer!
9. Invite a few for dinner and a larger group for dessert.
Who says you have to feed the whole world dinner? You don’t! Change up the guest list and the schedule by keeping dinner a small, intimate affair and inviting extended family and friends over for dessert. Let the focus be on visiting and togetherness, rather than the meal.
10. Prepare in advance.
There are several ways you can prepare in advance and spread the work over multiple days. Create your menu in early November and stock up on all the non-perishables long before the big day. Not only will this save you time, but it will allow you to skip the frustration of a crazy busy grocery and no stock left of the one ingredient you can’t do without. You may still have to make a visit for perishables at the last minute, but anything you can purchase in advance will save time and frustration. Another option is to have Instacart deliver your groceries or take advantage of your local store’s pickup service. Even if you don’t regularly use a service like that, it may be worth it for this event.
Shopping isn’t the only thing you can do in advance. Do as much prep work as possible for the food. Look for every chance you can to chop, mix, or cook a day or two early so you only need to do a few final steps on Thanksgiving day.
11. Simplify the table.
Unless decorating is your favorite part of any holiday, stop looking at all the lovely table settings on Pinterest and skip that whole thing. If you can’t bring yourself to ignore it completely, decorate in the simplest way possible. A few candles (avoid tall tapers and scented candles) and mini pumpkins and gourds can look beautiful and take less than 10 minutes to arrange. Remember, the point is to really see your family and friends, not be looking at (or through) the decor.
The table can also be set early—don’t leave it until the last minute when you’re tired and everyone’s about to arrive. Setting the table the night before can eliminate any surprises (like finding a crack in your favorite serving piece), let you enjoy the process, and have one less task on the big day.
12. Take care of yourself.
Take care of yourself throughout the day. Get plenty of sleep. Drink lots of water. Take short breaks that will give you peace (spend a few moments on the deck, meditate, or take a short walk). Eat right. Make a breakfast casserole the night before and bake it in the morning. It will set the tone for a special day and make sure you start the day well-fueled. Taking care of yourself in small ways throughout the day will mean that when your guests arrive, you’ll be in far better shape to be a welcoming hostess.
13. Make a detailed schedule.
Lots of us make lists. Some of us live and die by them. Even if you’re not a list-maker, having a schedule for Thanksgiving day can reduce stress significantly. It will allow you to spend less time thinking when you’re juggling lots of details. It will reduce errors and miscalculations if you’re prepping the list in advance when there’s no pressure. And it will allow you to delegate if you get stuck in traffic after deciding to run out at the last minute for a bouquet of flowers for the table.
Make this schedule as detailed as possible, even to the point where it seems silly. Start with the end—when you’re serving dessert—and work backward. What time do you need to put on coffee for it to be ready when you want to serve pie? Work all the prep and cooking time backward from when you need the food on the table. Allow yourself 30 minutes before guests arrive to relax.
If all you have to do is follow the schedule on the day of the meal, you’ll be far less stressed and less likely to forget something. Since our Thanksgiving meals are often fairly similar, save the schedule for future years and you should be able to tweak it without starting from scratch.
Can’t do everything on this list? You don’t have to! Take one or two ideas and incorporate them into your holiday. Bookmark this page or save it on Pinterest and next year choose a few more to add to your arsenal. If your family can’t take a big step right away, like ditching tradition completely, ask yourself what steps you can take toward that goal this year. Reducing your stress even a few notches will make your holiday more relaxing and something to be grateful for.
Thanksgiving begins our holiday season and if you need to simplify Thanksgiving, it’s likely the whole holiday season could use more calm and less chaos. I can help you create a holiday that honors Christ and serves your family without leaving you exhausted and overwhelmed. Check out the free mini-course 5 Steps to a Stress-Free Christmas. If you follow the step-by-step process, you can experience the holiday season you’ve always wanted!
Wishing you a warm and wonderful Thanksgiving!d