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How to Host Your First Thanksgiving (in the Middle of a Pandemic)


Congratulations! Not only have you become a proud, first-time homeowner, you’ve volunteered to host your very first Thanksgiving for family and friends. That’s exciting — and probably a little bit intimidating, too. As if it wasn’t hard enough to host under normal circumstances, putting on a Thanksgiving dinner in the middle of a pandemic might seem like an incredible challenge.

But don’t worry, you got this. Take a deep breath and spend a few minutes reading our handy, helpful tips, because even though Thanksgiving is right around the corner, there’s plenty of time to pull it all together. We, as a country, have had 399 years of Thanksgivings — and fortunately for you, four centuries’ worth of experience makes for a pretty foolproof guide.

Covid-19-Era Tips

This year, more than ever before, safety has to be your #1 priority. First things first: Know your risks, and work to minimize them. It has never been a better time to shop early, when grocery stores will likely be less crowded as they will be in the weeks surrounding Thanksgiving. Prize items like turkeys might be in shorter supply this year, so plan ahead, and bag your bird as early as possible.

Over the years, we’ve grown accustomed to traveling, often far distances, to see friends and relatives for Thanksgiving; however, the increased travel risk means this might not be possible. If travel is a no-go, think of ways to spruce up a virtual Thanksgiving. Embrace the PJs, and try some easy-to-play online party games (we can enthusiastically recommend Quiplash).

If you still plan to host a somewhat more “normal” Thanksgiving in your home, take a few extra safety precautions. The old standbys — wearing masks and social distancing, and washing and sanitizing your hands — remain excellent, CDC-recommended tips. But also, consider setting up tables such that people are only near other people in their bubbles. Create a COVID-19 symptom checklist for guests, so they can identify possible conflicts in advance. If you live in a warm enough climate, maybe try an outdoor celebration, so that you can safely celebrate with people from outside your household.

Doctors also recommend putting one or two portable air filter units (specifically ones that use HEPA filters, UV light or ionizers) in the gathering space, and opening windows to encourage natural airflow. Fresh air reduces the concentration of germs in a space. Designate someone to be the “server” in advance — it may be disappointing to forgo the traditional, family-style Thanksgiving serving, but having a single, healthy server will make everyone safer. Perhaps use disposable plates and silverware.

COVID-19 has required us all to get much more creative about staying safe and sane. By Thanksgiving, we’ll have been practicing for eight(!) months. At this point, you’re a pro. You’ve got this.

“Do a potluck! Don’t try to do it all yourself,” suggests Giada De Laurentis, chef, cookbook author and host of “Giada at Home”

Don’t bite off more than you can chew

If you ask any professional chef what he or she has learned about cooking Thanksgiving dinner over the years, they pretty much agree on one thing: Keep it simple. Surprisingly, COVID-19 might give you the perfect chance to do this. You can make mistakes this year, and your family will love you, no matter what. Or, you could turn it into a big family day — give all of your pod members a food preparation job, let them collaborate, and give them that sense of satisfaction when they bite into all that savory food. In the future, you’ll all be prepared to helm bigger celebrations.

If you’re able to safely host a bigger gathering at your home, consider going the potluck route. As renowned Food Network chef Giada De Laurentis says, “I always tell people, ‘If it’s your first Thanksgiving, host a potluck.’” Potlucks are awesome, fairly stress-free, and believe it or not, guests love contributing.

Since you graciously volunteered to host dinner, you should take charge of making the turkey, stuffing, potatoes and gravy, and delegate the rest. In fact, make specific assignments so that you don’t end up with four bags of dinner rolls or three kale salads. Ask someone to bring the pies from your favorite bakery. Reach out and ask another guest to make Brussels sprouts or fresh cranberry sauce (feel free to provide the recipe to guests, too). If you’d like a sparkling holiday cocktail, that’s an easy and fun assignment for someone who doesn’t necessarily know how to cook.

“Don’t be too ambitious. Cook what you know first, and only make a few things.” says Chef and Sandwich King Jeff Mauro.

Don’t experiment. Especially with that Green Bean Casserole.

There are some things you just don’t mess with. Since Thanksgiving comes only once a year, everyone wants what’s tried and true. This is not a time to experiment with a hip new twist on mashed potatoes (looking at you, fried mash potato balls), or to let a friend bring a chocolate pumpkin spice peanut butter pie instead of the classic all-American pumpkin pie. And that green bean casserole with the unhealthy, deep-fried, crunchy onions on top? Don’t even think about slimming it down with regular milk or deconstructing it to make it “modern.” It’s one day of the year, so embrace the recipes, the calories, and the dishes everyone loves.

An important side note here: If any of your guests are gluten- or dairy-intolerant, vegan, or have food allergies, you should be aware of it ahead of time and plan on accommodating them. Any kids coming? If so, you’ll need to have a kid-friendly option or two. Speaking of kids, how are you going to keep them entertained? You may want to have some movies, games or coloring books on hand to keep them occupied. It is a long day, after all.

Make a shopping list and then make a pilgrimage to the market.

The more time you give yourself to plan, the less stressed you’ll be. First things first: Order your turkey, ham, or whatever your main meat focus is, today. (If you’re getting a frozen turkey, there’s less urgency. Although, like we said, they may be more scarce, and even a little smaller this year. And now that you’ve got your recipes figured out, create a shopping list and pick everything up in the next few days. Perishable items like fresh herbs, onions, celery, potatoes, bread or cornbread for stuffing will be fine if kept in a cool place. Don’t forget to make a checklist that includes all the non-perishable items you’ll need, like dried spices, heavy cream, butter, coffee, tea, soda, flour, sugar. Create your bar list, too. In the COVID-19 era, shopping early is especially prudent, as it will help you avoid crowded supermarkets.

Create a prep list. And a timeline.

After your shopping is complete, preparation is next. Figure out what you can do ahead of time. Depending on what you’re cooking, you’ll discover you can do quite a lot in advance—roast some nuts, make cornbread for stuffing, chop vegetables, make turkey stock. Once you’ve completed your prep work, label your containers and put them in the refrigerator, pantry, or your garage so you’re ready to go on Thursday.

Next, make a timeline. On Thanksgiving Day, the importance of a timeline can’t be overstated. For instance, turkey in at 11 a.m. Stuffing in at 3:30. Make potatoes at 4:00. Set appetizers out at 4:45 p.m. A written timeline may seem a little silly, but it’s critical in making sure you stay organized and serve dinner on time. You don’t want guests to show up expecting to eat at 5:30 and then not have dinner on the table until 7:30.

Assign work stations.

From roasting, to pastry, to sauces, to sauté, professional kitchens have stations for everything so they run like well-oiled machines. While you probably don’t have the luxury of that much space, you can set up an area specifically for dessert and coffee, an area for salad or side dish assembly, or a station for carving so that helpers can work without getting in each other’s way.

Don’t forget to establish an area for the bar, so guests can help themselves. If you don’t have ample room in the kitchen, how about a side table in the living room or den with appetizers, glasses, ice, mixers, chilled wine, and spirits? Since most guests love to mingle around the bar anyway, they’ll be out of the kitchen. While we’re on the subject of alcohol, keep a watchful eye on anyone who might be a tad tipsy. It’s easy for guests to get there on an empty stomach, so just make sure you’ve got plenty of sparkling or still water available for them to sip on in between drinks. Have some mocktails ready, too, for kids and others who don’t drink alcohol.

Set your table ahead. Way ahead.

This is one of the best stress-relieving tips around because you can set your table(s) a few days — or, for our more punctual readers, a week — ahead. Take inventory and make sure you have enough plates, napkins, glasses and silverware for appetizers, dinner and dessert. If you don’t, borrow some from a friend or mix and match what you have — eclectic is really popular right now. Fresh flowers are nice on a table, but if you’re on a budget as lots of first-time homeowners are, dollar stores always have inexpensive centerpieces and votive candles. They also carry disposable plates, silverware, napkins and glasses if you want to go that route. It’s also a good time to set out serving bowls and utensils and label which bowl is for what dish. Will you need place cards or are you going to let your guests freestyle it? You’ll want to consider that when you set the table, too.

While you’re at it, stock your powder room with holiday-themed paper guest towels, votives, hand soap, extra tissues and anything else you can think of. You may also consider stocking up on things like hand sanitizer and masks, if you end up hosting people from outside your household.

A Thanksgiving dinner without music?

No way! Thanksgiving is the official kick-off to the holiday season and everyone’s feeling festive, so put a playlist together with a mix of classic and current music. And, let’s face it, who doesn’t have a holiday album out these days? From Hip Hop and R&B artists, to country, to crooners such as Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald, to all-time favorites like “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and soundtracks from movies that aren’t too cringe-worthy, like “Love, Actually,” you can easily create a playlist everyone will love.

Why not use the pandemic as a source for a little levity? Countless songs have already been written about pandemic life, and many not written with COVID-19 in mind — Britney Spears’s “Toxic” comes to mind — might be good for a chuckle or two.

Oprah Winfrey says, “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more.”

Your first Thanksgiving. But certainly not your last.

One thing to keep in mind: things may go wrong. The rolls may get burnt. Someone may drip gravy on your tablecloth. Or break a wine glass. While this holiday is definitely about the food, it’s about so much more. It’s giving thanks for family and friends, for health and happiness, and for what you have. It’s about being surrounded by loved ones and being loved. Now that you’re in your very own home, it’s also about creating your own magical and unique Thanksgiving tradition and then building on it for years to come.

COVID-19 may make Thanksgiving a challenge, but it will also show us how much we have to be thankful for. Worst case scenario, use this year as a trial run for future years, when you can be with loved ones, face-to-face, and impress them with all your new-found culinary knowledge.

Some final food for thought

Let’s not forget Thanksgiving is also about the leftovers, like having that slice of leftover pumpkin pie and a hot cup of coffee for breakfast the next morning. Or enjoying a hot turkey sandwich with leftover mashed potatoes and gravy for lunch. Yes — let’s not forget to give thanks for our hearty leftovers.

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November 6, 2020