Nobody knows how to throw an epic Thanksgiving better than culinary pros and chefs. Which is exactly why we asked them for all of their hosting secrets and Thanksgiving planning tips. Below, a can’t-fail cheat sheet to pulling off a next-level holiday dinner, whether it’s a traditional turkey day or a newfangled Friendsgiving.
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Think of a Theme
Tired of trotting out the same old traditional turkey and sides? “Our employees break into teams and each brings a bird, booze, and sides that fit a particular theme,” says Mark Estee, chef and owner of Nevada’s Liberty Food & Wine Exchange. “At the end, everyone votes for their favorite.”
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Related Reading: Fun Potluck Ideas for Friendsgiving
Have fun with your theme—think country, U.S. region, or even holiday movies—then challenge your guests to bring one dish and corresponding drink. For instance, if you go international and get Italy, make our Turchetta recipe (shown above) and mix up a Negroni, a spritz, or a Little Italy cocktail to go along with.
Schedule Your Dinner the Day After
There’s no such thing as a Thanksgiving without leftovers, so why not share the wealth? Plan your Friendsgiving for the day after the main event and have your guests bring a dish that they made with some of their staple leftovers.
Some ideas from Lorenzo Boni, Barilla’s executive chef: turkey pot pie, cranberry pancakes, Thanksgiving sliders with all the fixings, salad with pulled turkey on top, turkey frittata, turkey chili, or a casserole layered with turkey and all the sides.
Make Lists (Lots of Them)
Dave Leyva, culinary demonstrator at The Culinary Institute of America in California, lives and dies by his lists, especially when pre-gaming it. “Make a prepping timeline,” he insists. “There are things that can be done days ahead of time, like gathering dishes, utensils, and table linens.”
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Related Reading: The Ultimate Thanksgiving Timeline & Guide
Meal Prep Ahead
If you have storage space, make sides like stuffing or roasted veggies ahead of time.
Related Reading: Thanksgiving Recipes You Can Make Ahead of Time
If not, even laying out the pots and pans the night before can help keep you from getting too frazzled, says Mike Armstrong, executive chef of TAO Chicago. “Also, chop everything the day before and portion those ingredients out so that everything comes together quickly the next day,” he says.
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Before You Choose Your Bird, Do the Math
There’s nothing worse than having too little or too much food—Thanksgiving leftovers might be as exciting as the meal itself, but you can still get turkey-d out. “I always estimate about 1 ½ to 2 lbs per person,” says Stew Leonard Jr., president and CEO of Stew Leonard’s.
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Go Easy On the Apps
No party is complete without a few pre-meal snacks, but don’t go overboard. “Think of quick snacks and appetizers that you can prep ahead of time,” says Brian Riggenbach, executive chef and partner of The Mockingbird in Nashville, Tenn. “Have a big bowl of marinated olives, some simple spiced nuts, and a really nice dip like hummus or whipped herbed goat cheese. This trio is impressive without being overly fussy.”
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Deconstruct Your Bird
Deviating from a traditional roasted turkey is a good way to make your Friendsgiving feel different than the Big Day. “Last year, I experimented with cooking each part of the bird in the perfect way,” says Jose Garces, James Beard Award winner and a Food Network Iron Chef. “I brined the breast, then sous vide cooked it and finished with a quick sear in the pan to add some color.” Get creative—try grilling the legs, frying the wings, and pan searing the breast.
Related Reading: Tips & Tricks for Deep Fried Turkey
Know When to Cut Corners
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Don’t feel like tangoing with the gizzards or simmering veggies for hours to make your own gravy stock? “Spend a few extra dollars on fresh, quality stock from your grocery store,” says Manuel Trevino, executive chef of by CHLOE in New York City. “I like ones that have mushrooms or other ingredients that add an extra depth of flavor. Then, you can use this to flavor everything from gravy to stuffing to vegetable sides and potatoes.”
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Serve Some Room Temp Sides
Some veggies are just as delicious room temp or even raw, and you’ll save yourself some oven space and time. “Shaved brussels sprouts or sweet potatoes with a vinaigrette would be great and will help prevent the evening from being a juggling act,” says Bruce Bromberg, chef of Blue Ribbon in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Be Mindful Who’s Coming
If you have vegetarian or vegan friends, make sure you have some dishes they can enjoy, too. “Stuffing is a great dish to make vegetarian or vegan. Try adding roasted butternut squash or switching up the bread you normally use to really make it stand out,” says Trevino. Macaroni and cheese or a nice starter soup is also an easy way to accommodate dietary restrictions.
Yes, there can truly be too many cooks in the kitchen, but one or two “sous chefs” can help make the meal come together smoothly. “If there’s a glass of wine and conversation involved with helping out, you’re bound to get some volunteers,” says Pat Sheerin, executive chef at Ace Hotel Chicago.
Schedule Cocktail Hour
“A cocktail hour lets you make last minute touches without worrying about keeping your guests waiting,” says Tabatha Wilson, manager of The Market at Grelen in Virginia. “We recommend a signature cocktail, a beer, two wines, and something non-alcoholic.” Our fall fruit drinks include mocktails, mixed drinks, hot and cold options, and all showcase seasonal produce like apples, cranberries, and figs.
Related Video: Five Friendsgiving-Approved Wines
Header image courtesy of Manny Rodriguez / Getty Images