Hosting Thanksgiving dinner can be a stressful experience, even if you’re only inviting a small amount of people. It’s not just any dinner — it’s Thanksgiving, and because it’s supposed to be one of the best dinners of the year, it comes with a lot of high expectations. Not only do you have to worry about cooking, cleaning, preparing, and making sure everyone is happy, but you also have to think about the timing of the dinner. It’s a holiday, there’s a lot going on, and you want things to run smoothly. Figuring out the best time to serve Thanksgiving dinner is a big part of that. We spoke to experts to find out the best time to serve Thanksgiving dinner, to make hosting feel just a little less overwhelming.
Tips for planning Thanksgiving dinner
There’s a lot to think about when planning for a holiday like Thanksgiving. “Timing is really everything when serving a meal with so many components,” says Ellie Durbin, a professional event planner. Stay as organized as possible to ensure things run smoothly.
When trying to decide which time to serve Thanksgiving dinner, Marley Majcher, CEO of The Party Goddess, an event and catering company, recommends considering a few things:
- The age of the group: If everyone is older, you may want to opt for an earlier meal. If everyone is younger, later may feel more appropriate.
- How far everyone needs to travel: Family members or friends who have a long drive home may appreciate an earlier meal for an earlier commute.
- Double dipping: Are some members of the group heading to multiple dinners or going somewhere else for dessert? An earlier start might be better.
- The size of the group: “The more people you add into this mix, the later that bird is getting carved, so keep inching the arrival time ahead for every five people you add,” Majcher says.
- How responsible your guests are: Are they going to be on time or is this a crowd that runs late?
The best time to serve Thanksgiving dinner
For the most part, late afternoon/early evening seems to be the best time to serve Thanksgiving dinner. If you want to opt for a traditional timing, Durbin says somewhere in the 3-5 p.m. window is ideal.
“A late afternoon Thanksgiving dinner is perfect timing because you have plenty of time during the day to prepare dinner,” she explains. “And there’s time after dinner to linger over dessert and coffee, enjoy the time with loved ones, and maybe even take a walk.”
“I have yet to find an American family who actually gets the turkey dinner out anywhere near on time,” Majcher says. In her opinion, this means that 4 p.m. is the best time for Thanksgiving dinner because it leaves a little wiggle room if people are running late, there are issues in the kitchen, or you’ve gotten caught up with a bottle of wine.
However, if an earlier start seems to work out better for you, Majcher says that’s a perfectly good option too, especially if you have family members who need to leave early, a lot of older people who are used to eating early, and family traveling long distances. Plus, this is a nice option if you just want extra time with your guests. “I’ll admit, I sometimes try to wrangle people over extra early,” Majcher says.
Both Durbin and Majcher say any time later 7 p.m. is not ideal. “Of course there are certain cultures who just plain eat dinner later and the idea of a 4 p.m. arrival time is a bigger joke than James Corden dining at Balthazar,” she says. That said, she says that in general, an earlier start is just better on Thanksgiving.
Tips for a seamless hosting experience
Once you have timing in mind, it’s time to make everything else run smoothly. Start by setting a realistic goal, suggests Majcher. If you’re exhausted and dealing with some big life changes, keep it relaxed. If you want to go all out, go all out. Here are some tips for keeping the dinner running smoothly:
- Think of Thanksgiving like you would think of a construction project. “It’ll take twice as long and cost (at least) twice as much,” Majcher says. “My biggest piece of advice is to have a back up plan and not bite off more than you can chew.”
- Do as much prep as possible. “Anything that can be done in advance should be done in advance,” Durbin says. This could include “setting the table, prepping ingredients (i.e. cutting up and toasting bread for stuffing or chopping vegetables), and making whole dishes like pie or cranberry sauce.” You should also look at all of your items ahead of time, says Majcher, to make sure you have everything you need: utensils, bowls, candles, napkins, etc. “Save up and wash your delivery containers so they’re all set to send people home with all of the leftovers,” she adds.
- Prioritize the turkey on the day of. On Thanksgiving Day, Durbin recommends putting the turkey in the oven first before you start focusing on side dishes. Turkeys can take hours and hours to cook, so you want to start cooking it early, and side dishes don’t take nearly as long.
- Don’t opt for an over-the-top menu. Thanksgiving isn’t really the time to impress guests with fancy, complicated dishes you’ve never made before. “Keep the menu streamlined,” Durbin says. “You really don’t need more than the turkey (or other main), cranberry sauce, a potato or squash side, stuffing, and a green vegetable, plus dessert.”
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be a heavy lift by the host alone. Instead, think of it as a big potluck. Don’t be shy about asking guests to bring something, like a dessert or a side dish.
Ellie Durbin, a professional event planner and founder of the Aisle Assistant