Remember when you sat at the “kids table,” and your only concern was who sat next to you?  You might have hoped to sit next to your favorite cousin and your cousin was five chairs away.  Now – fast forward – you’re hosting Thanksgiving, and you’re in charge!  You can designate who sits next to who (place cards!), decide on the menu, and choose entertainment.   You establish the look and feel – china & silver, pumpkin soup bowls, whoopee cushions, whatever.

Hosting has perks, though planning might seem overwhelming.  If you’re at the Thanksgiving five yard line, the end zone might be out of sight.   Fortunately, no matter where you are in the planning process, it’s easy to host a winning Thanksgiving with a solid game plan.

Envision your ideal Thanksgiving Dinner; then list steps to accomplish your goal.  For example, I want to spend as much time as possible with guests, as well as orchestrate a fun, entertaining, delicious dinner.   One way to spend time with guests is to enlist them in food preparation.  Volunteers congregate in the kitchen on Thanksgiving morning.  This works well if you’re comfortable with organized chaos.

Only once did this tradition go terribly bad.  After reading that cutting the turkey results in a more evenly baked bird, one of our sous chefs cut it up – not delicately, not without flying bits of raw turkey.  Other cooks took cover and escaped.  The clean-up crew disinfected the scattered mess, shoved the hacked turkey into the oven, and sous chefs returned – peace restored.

Another family tradition that dates back to past family vacations is Charades, an interactive, inclusive game.  Our family comedian’s first “stage” experience was collaborating with his grandmother, brother, dad, mom, aunt, and uncles in competitive rounds of Charades.   Today he’s acting and producing sketch comedy like Zip Baby, Millennials in the Workplace, and Pumpkin Spice: Official Movie Trailer.

Thanksgiving provides a stage for a range of emotions.  There’s a reason why many films include Thanksgiving scenes (IMDb).   People’s histories intertwine at the table. I have fond memories of Thanksgiving as a child.  Growing up, my immediate family converged with over 50 relatives and packed into the living room, dining room, and hallways of my Aunt Myrtle and Uncle Lou’s home.  Aunt Myrtle introduced us to a variety of children’s games with toy prizes and baked a chocolate cake roll that was the highlight of the meal.  The entire evening was chaotic, noisy, and fun.

Years passed, and Thanksgiving dinner locations and participants changed.  Having experienced the joys and challenges of each Thanksgiving, I appreciate the inherent opportunities of the day.  As an “Aunt Myrtle,” I want to sustain successful Thanksgiving traditions.

If you would like to plan your ideal Thanksgiving Dinner, here are a few tips for what not to do:

1. Procrastinate. 

Thanksgiving is a perfect occasion to dine with “the team.”  Planning requires time and imagination.  The more complicated the menu, décor, and possible activities (family touch football, watching TV football, anything but football, etc.), the more planning required.

But whoa, let’s face it; there are tasks in life with higher priority.  Though procrastination is not recommended, procrastination happens.  Thanks to Food and Wine, there are recipes for that.  Make reservations.   Or hire a caterer.

For those who can plan ahead, check the Epicurious Thanksgiving Planning listEpicurious also features a variety of Thanksgiving recipes

2. Guess. 

Rather than assume that everyone will enjoy the menu, ask guests about food allergies and preferences.  If your table is comprised of people with food restrictions, it’s an opportunity to be the “Iron Chef.”  Work with ingredients that are ok.  Make two versions if necessary.  Our table features people with the following diet resstrictions: low fat/low salt; no nuts; no nuts or fish; no meat, fish, dairy, nuts, or oil; no hot peppers; no dairy; kosher style; and baby food.

3. Stress. 

Are you concerned about the appearance of your home?  Bottom line: keep it clean and comfortable.  It’s likely that guests care most about being together, not whether your home is worthy of an Architectural Digest cover.   If you’re worried about worn wooden floors, my friend Judy suggests filling the house with flowers and tea candles, and guests won’t notice the floors.  It works!

4. Strain.

Delegate.  Consider letting others contribute food, beverage, or table décor.  Consider assigning cooking, set-up, and clean-up tasks.  Epicurious features a helpful Pot Luck Thanksgiving Planner.  (Wedding Receptions, Milestone Events, and No Reason Necessary Celebrations are ripe for “Operation Delegation” – an article for another time).

5. Disregard.

Decorate!  A Welcome Sign can be made out of newsprint, freezer paper, or clothesline or colorful ribbon with clothes-pinned lettering.  Pumpkins, squash, and Indian corn adorn side tables.  Background music sets the mood as people arrive.  If any guests are arriving early to help cook, have extra aprons on hand.  Leave a basket of silly Thanksgiving hats in a conspicuous place.  Martha Stewart offers decoration craft ideas.  Find more Thanksgiving decorating suggestions on Pinterest.  Or purchase Thanksgiving decorations at your local Paper Source store.

Any event is memorable with elements of surprise.   Create a turkey vegetable platter as shown on Mavis Butterfield’s site.  Present sweet potato surprise balls, as described by Tish on  Make surprise party ball favors buy following Robert Mahar’s easy u-tube instructions.  Customize cocktail plates, napkins, and mugs at Café Press.  Or do it yourself at your local ceramics painting store.  Include a casserole dish with a lid as a “side dish.”  Rather than filling it with food, fill it with a colorful giant sign or felt tipped penned helium balloon that reads, “Surprise! Look under your seats (or plates).”  Have a message or favor taped under the seat of each chair (or plate) – Oprah style.

6. Overlook.

My hosting Achilles heel: By the time we sit down to dinner, I realize I haven’t given much thought to conversation.  This year I’ve gathered expert advice:

“Table Talk, the New Family Dinner,” by Susan Dominus, New York Times, is about making an effort to have meaningful conversation.

“The Stories that Bind Us,” by Bruce Feiler, New York Times, reveals that children who know about their family’s history have stronger self-esteems.

“Family Dinner Download, Huffington Post, offers timely topics for family dinner conversation.

Create a “Conversation Wheel” with ideas from Real Simple.

“The Family Dinner, Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time,” by Laurie David (producer of “An Inconvenient Truth” and former wife of Larry David), is a compendium of conversation starters, poetry, recipes, and ideas to inspire family dinner traditions.

Marcie McGoldrick, featured on Martha Stewart’s site, shares how her family created a Family Trivia Game.

Write “Thank You Notes” Jimmy Fallon style and share.

7. Neglect.

Reach out with money, food, or time.  Contribute to a nonprofit organization.

8. Forget.

Remember to take a good look around the table.  A nod to the Kids Table, Kids Table Graduates, and Hosts.  Enjoy.  Toasts!  Accolades!  Happy Thanksgiving!

Life is short.  Celebrate!