14 Tips For A Low-Stress Thanksgiving

Having a low-stress Thanksgiving might sound impossible, but we assure you it's within your grasp. You'd think that a holiday centers around food and being thankful would be easy, but that's not always the case. When CivicScience surveyed 6742 U.S. adults about Thanksgiving, 71% said the holiday made them feel some type of stress. The biggest stressors seem to be food preparation (22%), family drama (27%), and political conversations (11%).

A low-stress Thanksgiving is within your grasp with just a few strategies under your belt. For those who find the food portion of Thanksgiving to be stressful, it can be a good idea to plan, clean, and even cook ahead. You can even have the food catered or ask guests to bring some dishes. On the other hand, if family drama and political conversations are the biggest stressors, maybe it's time to consider making the guest list smaller. If you can't limit your guest list, it's a good idea to have some strategies ready to prevent or deal with unpleasant conversations.

1. Make a Thanksgiving plan

If your Thanksgiving usually involves a Wednesday evening cleaning frenzy and waking at dawn to cook until mid-afternoon on Thanksgiving, you're stressing yourself out unnecessarily. Making a low-stress Thanksgiving plan that spans weeks rather than a few hours can keep you from wearing yourself out by the time you finally sit down to turkey and pie.

Two weeks before Thanksgiving, it's time to contact your guest list to find out who is coming and what they plan to bring. Knowing who is coming and what they plan to bring can give you a better idea of how much food you need to make since there are items you can buy ahead. Consider buying pantry staples like flour and sugar, freezable items like bread and rolls, and disposable supplies like paper napkins and paper plates.

A week before Thanksgiving, you will want to buy the turkey. Since you learned who's coming last week, you can better guess what size turkey you need to buy. This week is also great for deciding on decor, making less-perishable foods like cranberry sauce, and selecting the best wine to serve with Thanksgiving dinner.

The week of Thanksgiving is for cleaning, shopping for perishable items, and doing early food prep. You can go ahead and set up extra dining spaces as well. A clear by-the-hour plan on food prep left for Thanksgiving morning can keep you from forgetting anything.

2. Make some food ahead of time

Making some of your food ahead of time will make Thanksgiving day less like a juggling act to help you relax a little more. Anything you can freeze can be made weeks in advance, while desserts and less-perishable items can be made days ahead and reheated.

America's Test Kitchen says that pie dough, gravy, soups, and dinner rolls are easily freezable. You can wrap pre-made pie crusts in plastic wrap or foil to freeze and then defrost them in the fridge the day before Thanksgiving. Frozen gravy and soup are easily reheatable on the stove. And, frozen dinner rolls simply require rebaking in the oven for 10 minutes. You can also freeze some chopped veggies and cooked sweet potatoes ahead of time.

The timing of other make-ahead foods depends on how long they will safely keep ahead of time. America's Test Kitchen says fresh cranberry sauce is good for a full seven days. You can make and refrigerate pie dough, pre-cut veggies, roasted veggies, creamy dips, relishes, and casseroles (like sweet potato casserole or green bean casserole) two days ahead of time.

The day before Thanksgiving, you can make and refrigerate any of the previously listed items, plus stuffing or dressing (or just the cornbread portion), mashed potatoes, and pumpkin or other custard pies. The day before Thanksgiving is also a good day to brine the turkey and peel and cut potatoes to store in water in the fridge.

3. Keep your Thanksgiving menu simple

Having a low-stress Thanksgiving is often about simplifying. Everyone has a list of their favorite must-have Thanksgiving foods. There's no need to make a lavish menu with loads of Thanksgiving side dishes when a simple menu will be filling and make people happy. Consider a menu that contains the basics, like turkey, dressing (or stuffing), mashed potatoes, green beans (or green bean casserole), cranberry sauce, rolls, and pumpkin pie. If guests want something additional, they can bring it themselves.

There's nothing wrong with taking a few shortcuts if you don't really feel like going all out or don't like to cook. Canned pumpkin pie filling, canned or frozen sweet potatoes, canned or frozen green beans, store-bought rolls, canned cranberry sauce, and pre-smoked turkey can save lots of prep time. If you can get away with it, you could even make instant mashed potatoes (just upgrade them up a bit). There's also no need to buy a whole turkey when you're cooking for just a few people if a turkey breast will do.

4. Don't worry too much about appetizers and drinks

Making fancy drinks and appetizers for people to nosh on while you're making Thanksgiving dinner takes a lot of extra time and energy. So, why not go low-key for appetizers and drinks? Even the queen of French cuisine, Julia Child, drew the line at fancy appetizers and drinks for Thanksgiving. She simply served reverse martinis (mainly vermouth with a little gin) and Goldish crackers (via Fast Company).

Fruit or veggie trays are always good since they pack fewer calories than the meal everyone is about to consume. Or, you could try fast and easy one-bite appetizers like cheese and crackers or deviled eggs. A Thanksgiving charcuterie board is on-trend and easy to assemble with ingredients like ham, sausage, soft or hard cheese, dried or fresh fruits, sweet sauces or savory dips, bread or crackers, veggies, nuts, olives, and pickles.

You can keep Thanksgiving drinks simple with chilled water, soft drinks, and wine or hot tea and coffee. Other fairly easy ideas include Bobby Flay's mulled apple cider or easy fall cocktails like an Old-Fashioned or Rusty Nail.

5. Have Thanksgiving catered

Sometimes, it's just easier to have someone else cook for you rather than make everything yourself if you want a low-stress Thanksgiving. There's no shame in not having the time or energy to make your Thanksgiving meal from scratch. Even if you normally love to cook, it's okay to take a holiday over the holidays. Tell yourself you deserve it and order your Thanksgiving meal or parts of it ahead. If you hate touching a raw turkey, get a pre-smoked turkey to heat up. Or just cook the one dish that's a family tradition (like your grandmother's cornbread dressing) and let someone else take care of the rest. Everything will still taste lovely, and you'll leave just as stuffed if the food is catered.

We have composed a list of 25 places you can buy pre-cooked Thanksgiving dinner. You can get Thanksgiving feasts from grocery store delis like Albertson's and Costco. Several restaurants also cook up Thanksgiving meals to go, including Bob Evans, Cracker Barrel, Denny's, and Logan's Roadhouse. Don't forget meat catering businesses like Boston Market and the HoneyBaked Ham Co. Even meal delivery services like FreshDirect and Schwan's have gotten in on the Thanksgiving catering business. If you don't enjoy or have time for baking, a local bakery can make your desserts. Just remember that most places will require you to order ahead, so don't wait until it's too late.

6. Limit who you invite

Limiting who you invite can be the key to having a low-stress Thanksgiving. If you just want to keep Thanksgiving to your immediate family or a handful of close friends, that's entirely okay. It's far easier to enjoy Thanksgiving conversation when you're not having to keep the peace over old family feuds and increasingly volatile political banter.

If you want to invite people outside of your immediate family, Williams Sonoma suggests considering size constraints and your budget when deciding how many people to invite. The amount of eating space you have around your table can help you determine how many people you can comfortably seat for Thanksgiving. Houzz suggests that each guest should have at least 24 inches of space at a rectangular or large circular table and 26 inches for a small circular table. With the price of food going up, the cost of Thanksgiving is also going up. Yahoo! Finance says the Thanksgiving turkey will cost is 23% higher this year compared to 2021. A 2022 Finance Buzz survey indicates that 21.35% of people plan to have fewer guests with Thanksgiving costs on the rise.

7. Outsource food to Thanksgiving attendees

Even celebrity chefs who cook all the time like to take it easy on Thanksgiving and ask guests to bring some of the dishes. Bobby Flay admitted on Always Hungry With Bobby Flay and Sophie Flay that "Thanksgiving is a monster to cook." So, while he handles the main course and sides, he always asks guests to bring desserts since they're not his strong point. If you take care of the dishes you make best, you can ask others to take up the slack.

Giada De Laurentiis' trick for a stress-free Thanksgiving is to host Thanksgiving but assign various dishes to family members. She explained her strategy to People, "When you bring something that you're proud of and make, it empowers everybody. Otherwise, I just feel like I outshine everybody if I don't give them something to do. Because that way they feel like they're really part of the meal." So, if your aunt is famous for her pumpkin pie, your grandmother is the queen of cornbread dressing, and your cousin is a master at turkey smoking, let them make those dishes.

8. Make a cleaning strategy, but don't think your house has to be immaculate

Consider who will be attending when you think about how much you need to clean your house for Thanksgiving. If it's just your immediate family or a few close friends who have seen your house in its natural state, you don't have to stress as much about intense cleaning as you might if you're inviting others.

No matter how much and how deeply you need to clean your house, it's easier to do over time rather than all at once on Thanksgiving Eve. Allow yourself an entire week with different cleaning tasks to complete each day. The more people in your house that you can get involved with cleaning, the better. Then, divide and conquer. Merry Maids suggest starting by walking through your house to see if you have big problem areas and which specific areas need cleaning. You'll want to make a strategy that includes entryways, guest rooms (if anyone is staying over), living areas, the kitchen, bathrooms, porches, floors, and dusting.

9. Don't worry too much about decor and presentation

There is no rule saying you have to decorate for Thanksgiving if you're having people over for dinner. You don't even have to decorate the table with anything but a Thanksgiving feast if you prefer.

Many people bring out their fine china or use everyday dinnerware, cutlery, and cloth napkins for holiday meals to make them feel special. However, if you're having a more informal Thanksgiving dinner, you're welcome to use paper plates, paper napkins, and plastic utensils for the meal. Some people may think it's tacky, but using disposable items makes cleanup a lot easier and prevents you from having to wash as many dishes at the end of the meal. You'll want to spend time with your loved ones anyway, rather than being stressed about the clean-up. Use Bar Keepers Friend to make the epic clean-up way easier, too.

10. Learn how to have better conversations

Sometimes, the most stressful part of a holiday meal is anticipating what everyone is going to say and how the conversation might go south. In the Psychology Today article, communication professor Elizabeth Dorrance Hall, Ph.D. suggests guiding the conversation. Most people like to talk about themselves, so be an active listener and ask your cousin about something from one of their recent social media updates or ask general open-ended questions. Nebraska Medicine suggests writing down conversation-starter questions so you have them ready to go.

You can try to find something in common to talk about, but it's best to avoid getting too personal. You'll also want to steer the conversation away from any topic that could become awkward. If you can't avoid touchy subjects, Hall says it's good to be empathetic and try to find common ground you can agree upon despite differing religious or political values. It's perfectly fine to take a break in the conversation or cut off the conversation and switch topics if it gets heated.

11. Call a Thanksgiving helpline if you need assistance

Sometimes, in the course of Thanksgiving meal preparation, it's okay to admit that you don't know how to do something, especially if it's turkey-related. An internet search can often yield conflicting pieces of advice written by people who aren't really experts. Luckily, experts are standing by waiting to help on Thanksgiving Day starting at 7 a.m. When you need an answer right away, a turkey hotline can provide you with answers from a knowledgeable expert quickly.

For turkey-related questions, The Butterball Turkey Talk-Line is available on Thanksgiving day as well as the days before and after Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving day, you can call 1-800-BUTTERBALL from 5 a.m. until 6 p.m. CST. If you like corresponding by words rather than voice, you can text Butterball at 1-844-877-3456. The Butterballl contact page (linked above) provides links for email or chat options, as well.

12. Make a strategy for handling after-Thanksgiving cleanup

Thanksgiving cleanup is an inevitable part of the holiday, but it doesn't have to be horrible. Merry Maids suggests cleaning as you go and cooking smarter so there's less cleanup necessary afterward. For example, if you line your baking trays with foil or parchment paper, you only have to rinse them clean. It's also helpful to choose cooking dishes with lids, so you don't have to dirty an extra dish for leftover storage. Guests will also make less of a mess if you provide obvious waste receptacles so they don't leave empty drink cans or other trash lying around.

It's also okay to channel your inner delegator and ask guests for help. In fact, you can even assign jobs in advance. Cleanup tasks may include removing everything from the table, putting away leftovers, pre-rinsing dishes for the dishwasher or handwashing, loading the dishwasher or washing dishes, drying dishes, wiping down tables and counters, and dealing with trash. If you don't feel like you can ask guests for help, there's no shame in hiring someone to handle cleanup for you after Thanksgiving.

13. Don't forget self-care

If holidays stress you out or you have social anxiety, it's especially important to up your self-care game for a low-stress Thanksgiving. Asking for help can take a lot of pressure off of you, and there are lots of areas where you can ask for help from food prep to cleanup.

Harvard Health suggests scheduling regular time during the day for self-care. If you don't feel like you have time for scheduled timeouts, it's a good idea to monitor your stress levels to determine when you might need to take a break. The National Alliance on Mental Illness says it's essential to respect the limits you know you have and to know when enough is enough. It's okay to take walks outside away from everyone to decompress, practice breathing exercises to calm down, or plan downtime for a cup of calming hot tea.

With Thanksgiving being such a big production, you may want to plan to take the day before Thanksgiving off to prepare and the day after Thanksgiving off to clean up and decompress. You know yourself best, so give yourself the time you need.

14. Plan a staycation or getaway instead

Sometimes, the best way to have a low-stress Thanksgiving is to not "do" Thanksgiving at all. You're entirely within your rights to just swear off the whole holiday celebration tradition and do something else to decompress and relax. Whether you stay home or travel is entirely up to you.

With pandemic restrictions, Thanksgiving of 2020 may have been the first time many people didn't celebrate Thanksgiving with extended family. The Guardian says that many people who spent a peaceful and quiet Thanksgiving alone in 2020 decided that they didn't need to travel to be with family for the holidays in 2021, especially if that experience tended to be toxic. The Embark Beyond travel agency told Bloomberg that the company saw a 43% increase in international travel over Thanksgiving in 2021 in comparison to 2019. So, people are deciding to spend their time off for themselves, instead. USA Today says that airline prices are actually lower on Thanksgiving day, so a vacation to anywhere can be cheaper if you're flying while everyone else is stuffing themselves with turkey. Plus, you're likely to encounter fewer people, shorter lines, upgrades, and maybe even get an in-flight Thanksgiving meal.

Staying closer to home during Thanksgiving can be nice, too. You don't have to necessarily cook anything if you stay home since you're likely to be able to find a Chinese restaurant that's open for people who aren't eating a traditional Thanksgiving meal. Maybe even treat yourself to a Thanksgiving day movie at home or in theaters.