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How to host Thanksgiving for the first time: 5 tips for preparation

It's easy to go overboard when you're hosting Thanksgiving dinner. Use these expert tips to plan ahead — and save.
Image: Thanksgiving dinner
To keep costs down, stick to simple sides, like mashed potatoes and green beans, that please a crowd and stretch your dollar. / Shutterstock /

For the first time ever, I am hosting my family for Thanksgiving. And not only that, I am participating in a time-honored tradition of the newly engaged: bringing the families together. Yes, for the first time ever, my parents and brother will be meeting my fiance’s mother and sister over Thanksgiving dinner — in the tiny two-bedroom apartment where we live in New York City.

As thrilled as I am to be hosting (and therefore not to have to deal with one of the busiest travel days of the year), I’ll be honest: I’m a little stressed out. Not because I think our families won’t get along — they’re all great people, it should be swell! — but because I’ve never cooked a holiday meal, let alone one featuring a meeting of future in-laws. And as much as I know they will all love the meal regardless, I’m starting to feel immense pressure to make sure it goes perfectly. I’m doing everything I can to make sure my home looks the part, that we plan ahead for the food and that everything goes as smoothly as possible the day of the feast.

But, of course, I also don’t want to go overboard when it comes to Thanksgiving Day spending. We have seven total people to feed, and on top of food and drink costs, we’ve already found ourselves stopping at HomeGoods to check out the tablecloth and festive placemat situation. In order to plan ahead as much as possible, I decided to reach out to a few cooking and finance experts to get the best possible advice on budgeting for the holiday. Here’s what they had to say:

1. Think like a chef to plan how much meat you need

This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s something I could definitely miscalculate: planning the right amount of food for the people you’re hosting.

Rick Camac, the Institute of Culinary Education’s Dean of Restaurant & Hospitality Management, says to be sure to consider people, portions, and yield, especially when it comes to getting your turkey:

Yield means what useable product you get after the bird is cooked down and ready to serve.

[Assume you need] 8 ounces of protein per person. This is a lot, but who doesn’t overeat for Thanksgiving, and who doesn’t want leftovers? If you’re serving more than one protein (such as a ham and a turkey) obviously cut numbers in half, meaning 4 ounces of turkey and 4 ounces of ham...Assume a 50% yield on average. You’ll likely get a tad better, but this is a good estimate. So, for 10 people, being served 8 ounces each, you need 5 lbs. of yield. That would call for a 10-lb. turkey. Personally, I’d order 12 lbs. to be sure but, that’s me.

Buying too much turkey isn’t the end of the world, especially if you can use the leftovers to make something delicious (my favorite is turning it into a shepherd’s pie). But over-buying also means you have a bigger chance of letting your turkey go to waste — and losing money because of it. Use Camac’s yield rule to make sure you get the right amount.

2. Don’t supply every single side dish

Of course, as the host, you probably won’t be simply buying a turkey. But Cherie Lowe, a personal finance blogger at Queen of Free and author of the book Slaying the Debt Dragon, says the one of the keys to saving money on Thanksgiving is to avoid the “side dish trap.”

“Determining a Thanksgiving menu plan is so difficult because there is oh-so-much to choose from,” she says. “Even when you do determine the dishes you’ll be having, hitting the grocery store is still difficult because you remember how many other things you wish you were fixing. Tough Love: You shouldn’t be eating or buying all of those foods.”

But how do you go about deciding what to make? “If you are dining with extended family, have everyone bring a side,” Lowe says. “If you are just feeding your immediate family, focus in on one side dish each family member loves. Don’t bite off more than you can chew financially or physically.”

While you may feel pressure to please everyone — as I certainly do — try to let that feeling go as much as possible. Plus, taking care of sides potluck-style means everyone has a better chance of eating their favorite sides, and you get to save money on food costs.

Of course, if you’re like me and have family coming in from several states away, throwing a potluck Thanksgiving is easier said than done. But don’t try to bite off more than you can (literally) chew.

3. Plan ahead for Wednesday’s meals, too

Have you ever resorted to Chinese takeout the night before Thanksgiving? I certainly have — and now I know I’m definitely not alone.

“I once read that pizza deliveries are the highest on the night before Thanksgiving,” says Lowe. To avoid becoming a part of that expensive statistic, she suggests building Wednesday night’s dinner into your Thanksgiving meal plan. Even if you’ll be too busy prepping to cook anything for that night, you can still avoid an expensive delivery meal.

“Buy a deli pizza from the grocery store and throw it in the oven while you chop foods,” Lowe says. “Or make sandwiches with chips. Keep it simple and if at all possible light. Just don’t let that Wednesday evening meal sneak up on you as you prepare for the big day and save the room in your tummy for the big feast.”

4. Order online as early as possible

Camac suggests buying online, and buying early, is the best way to get the best price. “You should be able to order a good quality, organic turkey for $5-6.00 per pound,” he says. And to keep costs down, he suggests to stick to simple sides that please a crowd — and stretch your dollar. “Potatoes are ridiculously cheap, and string beans and salad reasonably priced as well. And, potatoes are more filler! Of course, add one or two pies for dessert. All in, you can feed 10 people less than $10 per person.”

Personally, I’ll probably stick with the online-ordering option at Whole Foods, which my family has done for years to great success. If you want to do a little cost comparison beforehand, poke around the internet for testimonials on mail-order turkeys.

5. Plan ahead for that “one last thing”

Finally, even if you’ve never hosted your own Thanksgiving, you probably know you’ll forget something. To avoid this, Lowe suggests doing your actual shopping as early as you can.

“If at all possible,” she says, “purchase your goods DAYS before you plan on cooking. You’ll want to give items like your turkey plenty of time to dethaw. Plus, you do not want to be out in the hot mess that is last minute Thanksgiving shoppers. As the days draw nearer, the crowds grow thicker.”

And don’t forget: grocery stores take full advantage of last-minute holiday shoppers. “Running out at the last minute will up your stress but more than likely cause more impulse buys, too,” Lowe reminds us. “Holiday items are marketed front and center to grab your attention and dollars from your bank account. The odds are, you’ll also be more likely to visit a higher priced grocery or convenience store (due to hours) and end up paying more and buying more, too.”

If there’s one thing I’ve taken away from all of this, it’s to plan ahead for everything. With these tips, I’m hopeful my first time hosting family for Thanksgiving will go wonderfully — and I’m sure yours will, too.

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