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Simplify Thanksgiving

Tips to fill the holiday with less stress and more joy

By Taylor Shillam

How thankful would you be for a less stressful holiday hosting experience?

As much joy as the holiday season brings, for those who take on the role of host (especially at the highly coveted Thanksgiving dinner), it’s not uncommon for major preparation-related stress to distract from what the holiday is truly about.

This year, it’s time to change the game—take steps to simplify the process so you can focus on loved ones and gratitude. Consider implementing these stress-reducing preparation tips to add saved sanity to the list of what you’re thankful for this year.

Plan your menu early. It sounds simple enough, until the week of Thanksgiving arrives and you’re rushing to the grocery store alongside everyone else scrambling to gather essentials at the last minute. Aim to plan your menu and grocery list the first week of November. Separate your grocery list into perishables and non-perishables, so you can prepare to stock up on a few items right away, such as canned items and seasonings. You’ll breathe easier watching your grocery list shrink as the holiday comes closer.

Ask for dietary restrictions ahead of time. While it’s impossible to please every guest at a holiday function, guests with dietary restrictions and allergies will be more at ease knowing the occasion is guaranteed to offer something for them. Get guests’ dietary details well ahead of time so you can make the necessary tweaks and accommodations, or at least communicate about what a guest can contribute as a diet-friendly dessert or side dish. Include this step in your menu planning and early shopping trips, so you can make a note to look for any diet-friendly ingredients or substitutions you need.

Avoid overdoing new recipes. While you’re planning your menu for the big day, avoid the tempting notion that newer, trendier, fancier dishes are needed for a successful holiday. As intriguing as it can be to try all your newest Pinterest recipes at once, consider how overwhelming it could get when prep time comes and most of your menu is unfamiliar territory. Keep some classic, simpler dishes on the menu and allow yourself a bit of creativity with one or two new recipes. It also wouldn’t hurt to plan a test run of those new recipes a week or two before the big day to work out any kinks and ensure they’re worth a place at your holiday table.

Take advantage of store-bought swaps. There are certainly instances when it makes sense to allow someone else to do your prep work for you, especially when it comes to appetizers and finger foods. Take advantage of time-saving grocery store options like chopped veggies, ready-made platters, dips and charcuterie boards. Save time in appetizer prep so you can focus your attention on bigger items; the less you have on your plate when the actual holiday comes around, the better you’ll feel and the more time you’ll have to spend with guests.

Keep your decor simple and hands-free. Skip the centerpieces that need constant attention and instead opt for displays you can set up early and promptly leave alone. Instead of floral arrangements, opt for festive and functional, like mini pumpkins, candles, dry greenery and succulents.

Be strategic about table settings. Get intentional about where you place your guests—is there enough room for everyone to move about the table to make their way back to the kitchen, exit or bathroom? Do the seat assignments place guests in a way that will allow the best flow of conversation and social dynamics throughout the day? Take a few moments as you set your table to refine this experience-making piece of the process. When dinner time comes, the comfort and flow of conversation will continue to ease stress levels.

Delegate. Use the helpers available to you, whether it’s children staying at home or the guests who arrive early, to take a few small tasks from your plate. Simple tasks like finishing touches on place settings, filling drinks, hanging coats and assembling appetizers can save you major mental energy when it gets down to crunch time. The same can be done with post-meal duties; don’t feel bad about taking guests up on their offers to help with cleanup.

Preserve refrigerator real estate. Refrigerator space is sacred on this holiday, so make sure you aren’t letting an inch go to waste. Fill a cooler with ice packs and use it to hold your everyday refrigerator shelf-fillers: dressings, sauces, lemon juice, pickles and so on; having those smaller items out of the way for at least a day or two will ensure efficient use of storage space.

Get creative with the tools and ingredients you have on hand. Your slow cooker can keep potato dishes warm and moist. Thermoses can be used to warm gravy and sauces. Common kitchen ingredients you already have, like dried herbs and chicken broth, can be used to revive dishes that need flavor and moisture in a pinch (including a dry bird)!

Be ready for leftovers. Leftovers are an essential component of Turkey Day, so gather ample to-go containers to simplify the process of dishing them up for guests. Guests will leave happy, and you’ll be left with more refrigerator space, for a win on both sides.

This year, focus on what you love about hosting Thanksgiving: the classic recipes you cherish and the experience of gathering loved ones around your table to share in gratitude. Let in the joy and let go of unneeded stress with these few simple shortcuts—a bit of extra planning and preparation can go a long way in keeping you thankful for a chance to enjoy more of the holiday.

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