“There’s no such thing as an effortless Thanksgiving,” Ina Garten states plainly. Words that may come as a shock to fans of the cookbook author—her latest, Go-To Dinnersis out now—who over the last 20-plus years has come to embody a particular and beloved brand of easy, breezy, oh, this old thing? American entertaining. But she’s quick to clarify that while the notion of “effortless entertaining” is a fantasy, hosting—be it a weeknight dinner for six or a Thanksgiving feast for two dozen—doesn’t have to feel like a trial. “You just have to be strategic about it,” she says. Which for her means a combination of canny decision-making, careful planning, and a good dose of humility. Whether this is your first time hosting Thanksgiving or your 30th, just relax: Ina’s got you.
Plan your menu wisely.
For Garten, the biggest mistake a host can make is doing too much in order to impress. “It’s not about showing off,” she says. Prioritizing simplicity is key to pulling off any size of dinner party, and even more so when it comes to Thanksgiving. “I make a menu of things that I want to make and serve, and then I go through it really carefully and ask, Will my friends have more fun if I make this thing and drive myself crazy?” The answer, of course, is no. Your friends will have more fun if you’re happy and having a good time with them.” Garten likes to keep her menu tight (“Do you really need eight different vegetable dishes?”). And “anything that requires me to make it at the last minute gets crossed off the list.” Remember: If you’re relaxed the day of, your guests will be too.
Yes, you can please everyone.
Vegan. Gluten-free. Keto. Dietary restrictions can feel like the bugbear of the modern Thanksgiving, but Garten is characteristically gracious when it comes to guests’ preferences. “It just pushes you to find creative ways to make everyone happy,” she explains. Her approach is to build a menu that has plenty of things that everyone can eat without singling anyone out. “What I never do is make something specific for one person, because then they feel like they’re not part of the party. This way, they’re just choosing some of the menu but not all of it.” That might mean opting for cornbread stuffing if a guest is gluten-free, or leaving meat out of side dishes so vegetarians can enjoy them.
Give yourself a pass on the apps.
Garten doesn’t let predinner snacks stress her out and neither should you. “I just like to make one thing and then buy the rest,” she says. “If you’re not careful, making appetizers can take as much time as making dinner.” These Chipotle Cheddar Crackers are ideal because they feel special but can be prepared months in advance and stored in the freezer; all you have to do is thaw, slice, and bake before guests arrive. She’ll round out her snack spread with store-bought things like salted Marcona almonds, olives, and slices of salami—nothing too filling and nothing that requires additional work on her part.
Make a (serious) game plan.
Shopping should be finished by Monday. The table should be set by Wednesday. Any cranberry preserves? She might make that one week out. Garten is a fierce advocate for creating an extremely detailed plan of action for at least the week leading up to Thanksgiving, and getting as much done ahead of time as humanly possible. “I literally write down the timing for each day. I’m really specific. Like, ‘Noon: Turn on the oven.’ I make a schedule for myself and stick to it. Otherwise it just stresses me out,” she says. This kind of rigorous planning not only prevents the day-of chaos, but also ensures that the prep work on the lead-up days is manageable. “My goal is not to have more than two or three things to do each day.”
Help is always welcome.
If you thought you were emulating the Barefoot Contessa by insisting on doing everything yourself, think again. “I actually love to ask people for help,” Garten says. “I might put somebody in charge of wine if they like wine.” But what about the dreaded offer of a dish from that aunt who never cooks? She just shrugs. “I like to say yes because then my guests feel like they’re valued and a part of the process.” Nobody likes a Thanksgiving tyrant, and your guests’ experiences are always going to be more important than your ego. “This is about making your friends feel good. Sometimes we get so obsessed with the food that we forget about why we’re doing it all in the first place.”
Keep drinks flexible.
One place you’ll never find Garten on Thanksgiving is shaking drinks behind the bar. “Most cocktail recipes are for one drink, which drives me crazy. I always choose drinks that you can make in a pitcher and set on the bar so everyone can help themselves.” In keeping with her rule about not wanting anyone to feel singled out, she likes to serve a nonalcoholic cocktail, like these Pomegranate Spritzers, that can be enjoyed as is or with the addition of booze.
Buffet or bust.
When she entertains, Garten always prefers a buffet. For one, she likes people seated very close together—it’s more convivial that way—which leaves little room in the middle of the table for platters of food. “And I find it more welcoming because people can choose what they want to eat and don’t want to eat.” But there is an aesthetic component to the choice as well. “I don’t like to see all of those half-eaten dishes on the table. I just don’t,” she says.
Set the table with care—but not too much care.
There’s a fine line between a well-set table and a stuffy, overly formal one, and Garten likes to err on the side of simple elegance. “If there are six glasses in front of each setting, it’s a little daunting,” she says. “I like to make it feel like you’ve come to my house not a restaurant.” Mix-and-match plates, chairs, and glassware can make for a beautiful presentation, as long as everything fits a loose motif. All you need to add is a flourish or two—a few sprigs of something green, say, and some seasonal fruit scattered about—and your Thanksgiving table is ready for the most important things of all: Your happy, hungry guests, and their mercifully relaxed host.