9 Ways to Make Hosting Holiday Dinner a Breeze (And Look Like an Old Pro While Doing It!)

hosting holiday dinner tablescape with dried flowers

Nervous about hosting a holiday dinner this year? Trust us…we get it. It can be really nerve-wracking to host your first holiday dinner – especially when you’ve already had great prior experiences that you feel you need to live up to! Luckily, we reached out to top experts in the event planning industry to ask them for their best advice for first-time holiday hosting. We’re giving you the scoop on how to knock your guests’ socks off this holiday season. And *spoiler alert* it’s a lot easier than you may think!

Big thanks to this talented team for all the photos in this feature! Event design, styling, and florals by Hello Pretty Events, photos by IOWJ Media, grazing table by SAYANG, and cake by Sweet Deetails.

Hosting Holiday Tip #1: Make It Your Own!

holiday hosting for first thanksgiving at home with dried flowers

First and foremost – everything you create should have a special touch that screams ‘you’. Michelle D’Anna of Michelle’s Catering says, “Thanksgiving is about our closest friends and family. Traditional but modern spins on the classics is key. When guests ask what they can bring, reply with a game, wine and cheese pairing, or centerpiece. Your guests will love to be involved, leaving the menu in your control! Make it easy (think fun side dishes and a signature “thank you for being my friend” drink!). Fall colors are all the rage but set your table with eclectic touches like grandma’s dishes or Aunt Betty’s hand-me-down linens. Have enough variety for all guests, but always remember turkey is a must! Play a game, create a fun atmosphere, and everyone will be looking for an invitation next year!” 

Tip #2: Get a Head Start

The easiest way to sabotage yourself (and make things super stressful) is to leave things until the last minute.

Here’s what AJ Williams, Founder & Creative Director of AJ Events had to say: Your guests are coming to celebrate being together, so make it special for them. Start setting your table a couple of days prior, since this allows you to view your table in advance, look at guest placement (as placement is key!), and identify any gaps like missing napkins or not enough or too much table décor.

Make it special: Add a thank you note at each place setting or add a small cute gift. They will so appreciate how thoughtful you are! The more organized you are, the less stressed and overwhelmed you will be. Make a list at least 2 weeks in advance and a list for your groceries, excluding the turkey. That should be ordered as soon as available, and order a larger turkey with enough for about 6 guests more than your guest count – think yummy leftovers! You should also create a list for alcohol and a soft beverage list, including knowing what your guests prefer, a plan for music, and a tablescape list. Then double and triple-check your lists. For those that are staying over, ask for help. Thanksgiving is a lot of work and they really do want to help. That’s what I tell myself!” 

Tip #3: When It Comes to Holiday Hosting, Timing Is Everything

There’s nothing worse than when your timing is off for hosting a big holiday event. Things can quickly get out of order, and you may find yourself scrambling trying to make sure everything is running smoothly.

Invite your guests two hours prior to the time you plan to have guests sit for dinner. Please ask your guests for an accurate arrival time and confirm arrival and details with them 3 days before. People are busy and forget times. Encourage your guests to come on time. If you have a large party, stagger the arrival time by 30 minutes, so you have 2 sets and all aren’t arriving all at once. That allows you to cater to them and be more hospitable.” – AJ Williams, Founder & Creative Director, AJ Events

Hosting Holiday Tip #4: Don’t Forget the Entertainment!

Everybody loves some tunes! Setting the ambiance is a huge factor in crafting the ideal tone for the evening. AJ Williams says, 

Make sure you have great music and activities for everyone so that the kids are entertained while the adults are watching the game or chatting it up over wine in another area. Music is key pre-dinner and post-dinner. You know your audience, play music that keeps the energy high whether it’s Billy Joel, The Eagles, Phish, or Motown.

Tip #5: Get a Grip on the Guest Count

friends toasting at a galsgiving dinner

Have you ever forgotten to confirm your guest count for a party and then found yourself with not enough resources to entertain all of your guests? Yeah…it’s not a great feeling! Knowing your guest count is key to helping things run smoothly when hosting your holiday dinner party.

Just like with weddings, planning a holiday dinner really depends on the guest count. First, you’ll need to determine how many guests your home can comfortably accommodate—whether that’s with everyone seated together in one room, or spread throughout the house! Once you settle upon the number of guests you’d like to invite, you may find that you’ll need additional tables, chairs, linens, dinnerware, glassware…or even canopies or patio umbrellas if you’ll be celebrating outside. Finalizing the guest count early will give you plenty of time to solidify any rental orders, plan out the shopping list, and budget for the event.” – Jenna Miller, Creative Director of Here Comes The Guide

Tip #6: Assess Your Kitchen and Equipment

Thanksgiving food spread

You may love to cook, but don’t overextend yourself when you don’t have the means to accommodate a crowd with your particular kitchen. Jenna Miller, Creative Director of Here Comes The Guide advises,

If you’re planning to cook a full holiday meal in your kitchen, [ask yourself] is it up to the job? Professional caterers will assess the kitchen facilities in advance to determine whether they need to bring in extra equipment. But if you’re handling the cooking yourself, we recommend doing your own appliance-and-equipment check! You don’t want to discover too late that the huge turkey you were going to roast won’t fit in the oven, ya know?” 

Tip #7: Don’t Be Scared To Ask For Help

Anyone who hosts events for friends and family knows how big a job it can be. Sometimes, you really can’t do it all alone – and that’s more than okay! Asking for help will make you feel more confident in your end result and will alleviate some pressure off of you. After all, you should be able to enjoy the party as well!

If the thought of handling all the organization, preparation, cooking, and cleaning involved with hosting a holiday dinner at home makes your head spin, consider asking for help! Because the more you do yourself, the less time you’ll have to kick back with your guests and enjoy the party. Ask some of your closest friends or family members to pitch in. They can bring a side dish, contribute extra plateware or glassware, supply the signature cocktails, or even bring over a few festive centerpieces. The more help, the merrier!” – Jenna Miller, Creative Director of Here Comes The Guide

Hosting Holiday Tip #8: Get Creative With Your Menu

hosting holiday dinner with grazing table for centerpiece

We all love the classics. Extra stuffing for me, please! But don’t feel the need to shy away from putting a creative spin on things, either. Here’s what Ari Busch, Operations Manager and Lead Planner of Bridal Bliss had to say on the matter:

Getting creative with your menu is an easy way to take your holiday celebration to the next level! Although Thanksgiving tends to have a traditional selection of entrees and sides, you can find ways to alter the classics for a fresh new approach to this holiday meal with items like turkey meatballs, make your own mashed potato bar, or pumpkin pie cake pops! Not only does this help reduce your time in the kitchen, but it allows for guests to have a break from the usual holiday spread and customize their plate entirely to their liking!” 

Tip #9: Sometimes, Minimalistic Decor Is Better

A daring display of flowers and decor is almost always fabulous. However, that doesn’t mean it’s always feasible. Don’t be scared to keep things simple! After all, your guests just want to spend time with you!

I am actually hosting Thanksgiving for the first time this year, and I am very excited and a little intimidated – even as a professional wedding/event planner. As much as I would love to go all out with the decor, I think that I am going to go more minimal so that I can focus on providing a great meal and experience. I live in Florida, so the weather is amazing this time of year, and my husband and I have a great deck that I think would be perfect for a family dinner. We are going to hang string lights on our pergola and use taper candles and pampas grass for the table decor. We are looking forward to a great meal that is more traditional – turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, stuffing… all the carbs!” – Anna, Whitehead + Co.

These nine tips should help you expertly host your first holiday dinner this year. Thanks so much to the experts for showing us how it’s done. Now let’s get ready to party!