The menu is planned, your contributing chefs have their assignments, and the shopping is underway. Time now to think about the day itself, and ways to make it run smoothly and enjoyably for your guests and for you. And even on this day of classic overindulgence, it’s possible to structure things so that guests are pleasantly satisfied but not stuffed.

Here are some suggestions for two crucial areas: meal structure, setup, and serving, and that often-overlooked but inevitable activity: clean-up.

Structure, Set-Up, and Serving

Introduce some small changes into the usual routine. Whatever the usual structure of your Thanksgiving celebration, I suggest you change it in one or two noticeable but not seismic ways. Perhaps you usually start by offering guests a glass of wine. Instead, why not serve a not-too-alcoholic, Prosecco-based cocktail with fruit or fruit juice? It’s lighter and more festive. Set out light nibbles, or tiny portions of richer fare, and encourage your guests to partake. The cocktail ‘hour’ matters here, as science tells us it takes about 20 minutes for the stomach to signal the brain that there’s food in it, and to start the process of feeling full.

Change the plates. You can subtly encourage your guests not to overindulge simply by your choice of dinner plates. Less-than-jumbo plates with deep rims will help with portion control, particularly if guests are serving themselves on a buffet line or family-style at the table—most people tend not to place food on the plate rim.

Consider serving courses. If the meal is served around the table—as opposed to buffet-style casual seating—a light course or two before the feast will continue to trigger the stomach-to-brain messages without having guests fill up too quickly. A light, flavorful soup makes a warm and soothing start. A small composed salad, served on individual plates, also does the trick. Pauses between courses, while the table is cleared and wine is poured, contribute to a more leisurely pace for the meal.

With a buffet, plan the culinary sequence. Serving ourselves at a buffet, we all tend to “eat with our eyes,” putting more on our plates than we might actually want. Help your guests to outwit this natural response by strategic placement of the platters. Put veggie dishes at the beginning of the buffet, then the turkey or other protein, and finally the starches—stuffing, yams, mashed potatoes—at the end.

Prepare some conversation game-changers. Arrange it with your guests so they’ll come to the table with a few new topics in hand. You might ask them to prepare a sentence or two about what they’re thankful for this year, or to read a few lines of favorite poetry, or to talk about a book or article they enjoyed. This kind of shared preparation can be especially useful when the conversation shows signs of veering into familiar ruts.


No matter how wonderful the food or glorious the table setting, if you’re disorganized the day will not be a success. Everyone who enters the kitchen and sees a mess will register it internally, and it will detract from their relaxation and enjoyment of the meal and the occasion—if only to make them say to themselves, “This clean-up is going to be a terrible drag.” If you hope to lift the day’s celebration out of its old routines, the kitchen may be one place to start.

Strip the kitchen for action. Unless you have an army of servants, the most important thing is to banish everything—and I do mean everything—that doesn’t pertain to the meal from the kitchen the night before. If you’re not serving the fruit in that bowl on the counter, off it goes to the den or study. Dog food and treats should be moved into to the closet, phone and message pad can take a nap in the bedroom. All surfaces must be cleared and ready for action.

Prep the night before. As you complete your kitchen strip-down, make sure you have on hand the things you do need for the next day. All plates, platters, and serving utensils should be waiting and out of the way. Garbage and recycling bins should be empty and ready to go. All pots, pans, and dishes that you’ve used for day-before prep should be washed and put away, and the dishwasher should be emptied. All the tools and utensils that you’ll need for the next day’s cooking should be within easy reach.

Come up with a spatial game plan. Designate an area for plating (or plattering) the food. Have another one in mind as a ‘holding area’ for dirty pots, pans, and tools until they can be cleaned. (This should not be the sink—it’s too vital.) Think about where the dishes cooked by your guests should be placed when they first arrive, before serving.

Communicate the spatial organization to your ‘helper’ guests. Explain the system, and where things should be placed, to everyone who’s helping you. If you’ve thought out the logistics, you won’t be tempted to say those fateful words, ‘Wherever you can find room.’ Instead of being intimidated by disorganization and mess, your guests will want to chip in and help. They’ll feel good about it, and so will you.

Final Thoughts

So give thanks to whomever: God, or the gods, for the land and the harvest, for good friends and family, and for the fortune of sharing in the bounty. People who are acquainted with need understand the importance of gratitude, thoughtfulness and thankfulness—something that’s often forgotten in the rush of day-to-day life. And isn’t that what Thanksgiving is all about?

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