Entertaining, Holiday

Thanksgiving Planning from a “Girl of 100 Lists”

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Thanksgiving Entertaining

If you’ll be so generous as to allow me a somewhat obscure 80’s reference – I can completely identify with the Go-Go’s song “I am a girl of 100 lists.” I am all about my lists; I have lists of my lists! They save the day, every time. Lists help me focus on enjoying the moments of Thanksgiving preparation instead of feeling like I am in a race against the clock.

Thanksgiving Entertaining

After all, Thanksgiving is about relationships – not about stress.  The key ingredients to a fabulous Thanksgiving experience are all here – friends, family, food, free time…wine. The event is chock-full of potential. But, large gatherings and a culmination and confluence of effort can lead to pressure. A harried host’s energy cannot help but be felt, but when the host is calm, guests can enjoy themselves that much more.

With the goal of being a cool, calm and collected host, please allow me to share of my Thanksgiving timeline/checklists, entertaining tips, plus images to inspire.  And please watch for my next post featuring Thanksgiving recipes from my days at Bon Appetit magazine.  

In the go-go spirit of the season, queue the Go-Go’s, “Check items off – Let nothing be missed – Sing I to myself and my 100 lists.”

Thanksgiving Checklist

Early to mid-November

Decide on type of dinner – formal, buffet, casual, intimate, elegant
Guest list
Menu planning – hors d’oeuvres, first course, main course, sides, dessert
Order turkey
Order flowers
If not baking, order pies, baked goods
Delegate dishes (if you wish)
Troubleshoot new recipes
Décor elements ~ wreath, centerpieces, candles
Extra tables/chairs needed? Make plans for borrowing or renting.
Additional linens needed?
Identify items which can be made ahead of time.  Bake items that can be popped in the freezer (pumpkin bread is a favorite).


One to two weeks prior

Prepare serving pieces, plates, utensils, flatware, trays, glasses; polish silver

Confirm RSVP list
Compose shopping list
Food shop for non-perishables
Shop for wine, alcohol, mixers, soft drinks
Iron table linens and hand towels
Make any items which can be made ahead of time

Two to three days prior

Create centerpiece/arrangements Ideas here
Select music – for both the kitchen and the dining area
Shop for perishables
Create place cards

Thanksgiving Entertaining
Click here to view the yummy recipe for my Harvest Spice Bars. Photo Credit: Maaike Bernstrom
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Pumpkin bread, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin mini-muffins. (Image by Catherine Bowen Brophy)

One day prior

Set table & place cards
Set out decorations
Set up bar
Buy ice for bar
Assemble any food that can be done ahead of time
Wash vegetables

Thanksgiving Entertaining
Photo Credit: Mick Hales

Day of: ‘It’s Go Time’

Turkey day – today is all about food prep
While turkey is roasting, make the sides
Chill wine, bar set up before guests arrive
Have a few spare aprons available for kind helpers
Enjoy the fruits of your labor!


Thanksgiving Entertaining Tips

Delegate, it’s a win-win. It is quite acceptable,  even preferable, for guests to bring hors d’oeuvres, a side dish or desserts.  Guests are then a bigger part of the celebration, and your to-do list is reduced.

Thanksgiving Entertaining
Photo Credit: Maaike Bernstrom

Seating.  Separate couples?  Alternate boy/girl?  Mix in children or use a kids’ table?  You decide.  Use fun place cards.  Here is a super-cinchy place card option.  I bet you don’t even need to buy a thing.


This easel (below) isn’t difficult, but takes a little bit of time.  Gather 4 small twigs per place holder + raffia twine.  Configure and wrap as seen.  Place card, or leaf on the twig easel and voila.  Finit.

Thanksgiving Entertaining
Photo Credit: Maaike Bernstrom

Kids table options

  • An activity for actives – Plan an activity, preferably attended to by an older (therefore cooler) youngster.
  • Snack attack – If there is a long socializing time prior to dinner, those little tummies will rumble. A child-friendly snack/hors d’oeuvre can stave off the hungries/hangries.
  • Doodle-friendly surface – Place a roll of art paper over the kids’ table, along with pencils crayons.

Centerpiece/table arrangements.  Research ideas but be inventive. As a guide, remember not to go too big – you’ll need room for serving dishes; or too high – so people can talk without craning their necks around a bunch of birds of paradise.

Thanksgiving Entertaining

Bar/Beverages.  If you intend to offer a full bar, making drinks for your guests will steal you away from precious visiting time and also kitchen time. Assign someone as ‘Isaac your bartender’ (another 80’s reference-this time from ‘The Love Boat’).

Wild turkeys
I couldn’t help adding my photo of Wild Turkey(s) to the bar section of this post! Cheers!

Music.  This is a key atmospheric component.  Choose your method – create a Pandora station, Apple playlist, or go classic/retro with LPs .  Plan music and place sound speakers accordingly.  All done in advance – no messing with wires while guests are arriving.  And don’t forget music is needed in both the kitchen, as well as the dining area.

Round robin.  As in volleyball: “Rotate!”  Changing seats prior to dessert helps keep  conversation fresh and lively.

After the meal, pat yourself on the back.  Job well done!  Now, it is time to walk it off. Phew, that was a lot of work, a lot of fun, and a lot of food.  Take a scenic walk with whoever is left standing! Fresh air, exercise and a change of scenery can be just the ticket after a big involved meal.  Plus, it makes for a special annual ritual, as well.

Thanksgiving Entertaining
Photo Credit: Maaike Bernstrom

There you have it, checklists and tips as simple as (Thanksgiving) pie.  This Thanksgiving, one thing I am extremely grateful for: YOU!  Thank you for reading and commenting, I so enjoy this!

Referenced “Girl Of 100 Lists” lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, Songwriter: Jane Wiedlin, from the Go-Go’s ‘Vacation’ LP

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About Bettie Bearden Pardee

Author of Private Newport and Living Newport, garden furniture designer (The Parterre Bench), national lecturer, and entertaining expert. An honoree for the second year on "The Salonniere 100 America's Best Party Hosts", she was also the host and creative producer of "The Presidential Palate: Entertaining at the White House".

One thought on “Thanksgiving Planning from a “Girl of 100 Lists”

  1. Dear Bettie, I would say there is a lot I can learn from you as I do make lists; however I am not so great at the timeline!! Brava!!

    The Arts by Karena
    Artist Sandra Goroff

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