Is there even such a thing as a stress-free Thanksgiving? When you’re a child, you just don’t understand what the adults are always so grumpy about. In one second- thankful for the holiday in the middle of the week, then in the next- cursing about something not working in the kitchen. The older you get, you quickly realize how it can so easily overwhelm even the most level headed person.
Normally I say our stress is mostly self-induced. Which is generally true. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves that doesn’t need to be there. Blame social media or trauma-filled past, it’s still just in our heads… that is, until a family filled holiday arrives. It’s no longer just in our heads, it’s now talking to us telling us how we are going to burn the turkey if we don’t cook it “this” way. But here is the good news, you can still give yourself a stress-free Thanksgiving. It IS possible.
You don’t need to come up with a lie to get out of the family time or do a quick blood sacrifice. It might seem like sorcery but really it’s just breaking down what the biggest causes of turkey day stress is and finding simple solutions to preemptively avoid them altogether. Best part? I did the heavy lifting for you.
There have actually already been a bunch of studies done to identify just what it is about the holiday that drives people to open the third bottle of wine before noon. It’s pretty obvious but I’ll lay them out for you.
- Family tension
- Cooking for a crowd/cooking expectations
- Holiday blues
That list is actually in order of how they typically rank in these surveys. I think it’s safe to say, even when you have a family that gets along, family tension still always ends up in that top spot. It’s also normally the cause for all of the stressors that proceed it on the list. So how does one avoid the typical holiday disasters? While these tips aren’t fool proof and can’t prevent a family trip to the ER for someone trying to deep boil a turkey, it should keep your blood pressure in check.
No matter what category you’re falling into, prepping early is going to help. Whether you’re the host, the attendee, someone traveling or someone who typically ends up with no plans on Thanksgiving…. everyone should be doing this one if they want less stress the day-of.
For the host: Most of us aren’t lucky enough to have the day before Thanksgiving off. Some might even be working earlier during the actual holiday. (Bless you all.) Prepping early is still something that can be worked out with a little time management. Not everything needs to be made on Thanksgiving day. A famous phrase in my family is always, “stuffing is always best the next day!” Well, go ahead and make “the next day” Thanksgiving day. Whip it up the night before. Stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauces, cold-serve desserts, and most casseroles reheat really well- to the point where no one would even know they weren’t made that day. So don’t break your back trying to time out getting everything done in one afternoon.
For the attendee/traveler: If you’re due to go to someone’s house for Thanksgiving, there are some ways to can prep ahead too. This year most of us aren’t traveling much more than a little time in the car so the extensive prep won’t be needed but don’t be fooled by that. I still recommend prepping ahead! As someone that is the attendee this year (just a little 30 minute drive across the valley,) I know the first thing I take care of is the timing! When should you be there? Get a firm time a couple days before. You don’t want to be waiting around the day-of, while the host is busy getting everything ready and missing your calls- just to find out you’re supposed to already be there or didn’t have to be ready for hours. Do you need to transport food? Find out if you can reheat it there. Traveling with cold food is easier than food sloshing around in your back seat. BYOB? Make sure you don’t just get it on the way. Thanksgiving day is a nightmare at the store. Not only do the associates not want to be there but every shopper who forgot one ingredient is there and not in a good mood. Just pick up the booze/flowers for your host etc, ahead of time. Take the stress off your plate before it’s even served to you.
For the loner: If you like being alone on Thanksgiving, skip over this! No need for you to make plans. Most people though, whether they admit it out loud or not, do want plans. You might not be near any family. It doesn’t mean you don’t get to celebrate the holiday. Feeling left out quickly leads to those holiday blues. Consider having other “orphaned” friends over for dinner. If they can’t come over, I am very willing to bet at least one of your friends will have their family adopt you for the evening. Still shooting blanks? Maybe you’re brand new to the area- shew, what a time to be new! One year, I volunteered at the community kitchen and gave out hot meals to those in need instead of a traditional dinner. It’s an amazing reminder to be thankful for what you have, meet new people, provide a meal for a family who otherwise would have had hungry children, and be involved in your community. There is also nothing wrong with being alone and planning for it to be that way. Get the stuff for your favorite meal and set up a time to Facetime a loved one over some dessert. No matter what sounds best to you, a little prepping will go in your favor. Start connecting with people today about Thursday plans.
Assign Dishes Out
This is mostly for the anyone hosting. Cooking for a large crowd is SO overwhelming. Your kitchen all of a sudden feels too small to get it all done. If it’s not the quantity that’s sending you into a tizzy, it’s trying to make your food’s quality meet the expectation of all the different people sampling it. There is a really simple way to break down this stress and if you’re a type A personality, you won’t like it. Assign out dishes to your attendees. I know, they won’t make it just how you want… but isn’t that kind of the point? Now they will have at LEAST one thing they like!
However avoid this common mistake. Don’t ask people to simply bring a side. I promise you’re going to end up with three pans of mac and cheese or 10 lbs of potatoes. Assign the dishes to really make your day easier. You can offer a “this or that” choice, and whatever option they take, you are now off the hook for. Just make sure you get confirmation from them on their dish before you finalize your menu.
I am VERY type A. This seems impossible but there are some things that even the worst cooks can provide for a good Thanksgiving dinner. My go-to items to shell out to others are: potatoes, salad, rolls, mac n cheese, or an appetizer platter. If you have dietary restrictions like I do, I give out the things I don’t intend to eat myself anyway. There is always a way! Try assigning your friends and family to one dish this year and feel the weight rolls off your shoulders and the mess cut down in your kitchen.
Assigning dishes out is step one to accepting help. You can go further into this- and should! Thanksgiving is all about being thankful anyway. Be thankful for help. You have friends or family either willing to spend the day at your house or that have invited you into their home. Of you are the host, accept the help that is all around you- even if they aren’t asking. It’s not wrong to ask them yourself. If you are the guest, you should be asking. If your host tells you no, stay in the room, look around and see what is left to be done.
Do these veggies need chopping? Table setting? Maybe glasses of drinks need to be filled/refilled? If the dishes are piling up from prep, see if you can get them washed for your host. Do it by hand if you actually want to be helpful because that dishwasher is going to be full by the end of the evening.
The day is all about coming together, so everyone should be putting a little effort into the meal one way or another. Accept the help, offer the help, and be grateful no matter your role in this.
Keep the News Off
Remember the family tension I was talking about? These days, politics seem to divide the generations of a family. One way to keep that to a minimum is by not having the news on. Even football isn’t always safe from a political debate anymore. Whatever the trigger is, avoid having it up on the TV. Don’t remind the great debater of the family of a hot button issue.
News isn’t always on cable. Sometimes the “news” is the latest family gossip. As much as you want to complain about the black sheep’s latest slip up, don’t. Because someone there is close to them or it’s going to bring up a time that your crazy aunt did the same thing and before you know it, someone has to go step outside to cool off or is running off to cry in the bathroom. NO NEWS of any sorts.
Be Prepared to Shift Topics
Of course the most dysfunctional families know that not talking about the news isn’t always enough to keep the family tension at bay. This is where you might need to prepare a little strategy. I know, this list was about making less work for you, but a little can go a long way with this one.
Be prepared to shift topics when conversation starts to get a little spicy. Don’t make it too obvious if you can. How great the food is can only work so many times. So where is the strategy? You know all the good news that you wanted to share when your favorite cousin walked in the door? Shh. Keep it to yourself until the time is right. It’s a great way to shift conversation. Act like it just popped into your head. Seen a movie recently? Maybe it’s time to share about that too. Have a compliment? Whip it out right before someone ends up offended by your racist grandfather. The secret is to pace out what you want to share with the family and use it to safely steer the flow of conversation.
If all else fails. Start feeding the family pet under the table in an obvious way. You might get yelled at- but wouldn’t you rather argue about the dog puking that up later than why you (insert insecurity always being exploited here.)
*Pro tip, the better the food the more times you can talk about it to switch conversation. Also, the more food being shoved into people’s faces, the less time they have to talk about your personal life.*
Eat Early, Don’t Drink Early
Isn’t there some saying about how time is the cruelest enemy or something? For holiday dinners, I think this is absolutely true. Most families have a cap of how much time they can spend together before something inevitably goes sour. You can keep the news off, steer the conversation through dinner, but somewhere around 8pm and the 5th bottle of cabernet you just know it’s going to happen. Every family has their own, “it.”
This is where we can use science to our advantage. What does a bear do right before hibernation? It eats, A LOT. Instead of having drinks for a couple hours before dinner- as tempting as it is, opt for appetizers.
“You don’t want to fill up before dinner!” Oh Carol, we both know that whether I’m hungry or not, I’m going to over eat.
Don’t just stop at appetizers. Have a nice early dinner. 3p is NOT too early on Thanksgiving. In fact, you’ll thank yourself for doing that when you’re able to have most of your guests gone by 7p that night. When people fill up, just like the bear, they sleep! Make your family too sleepy to argue this year.
The point of pushing food before alcohol is as obvious as it sounds. Alcohol on an empty stomach leads to loose lips. People are less offensive when they have a nice layer of food down first.
Plan a Family Favorite Activity for After
Your guests can only eat so much. When the food is gone, the floor is open for more conversation. At that point, the wine has been opened which can lead to good times just as easily as bad ones. Why is family like this? I don’t know. I think being around people you love is just exhausting and I’d be lying if I said I don’t get grumpy when I’m tired.
Keep things moving along after dinner. Have an activity or two planned for after. Don’t force the group to do it, but have it ready to save the evening from anything uncomfortable. Something my family loves to do is bust out the old home movies! Only the good times make it to film so it’s safe.
Old photo albums are a great thing to dig out beforehand and have sitting around. If you are a gaming family, have some board games already pulled down and sitting on a table. An after dinner stroll through the neighborhood will help settle the food and keep the conversation healthy. People tend to not want to bust out an outlandish topics when in public. How about a new tradition? Have the family help you set up some Christmas decorations? Gather everyone to decorate the tree this year!
You know your family best. Pick something to have on deck for after dinner just in case you need it.
Remember What You Have to be Thankful For
I wasn’t going to write an article about Thanksgiving and not mention this one. It’s so on the nose, I know but it works. Remember what you do have. Remember to be thankful that you are here in this moment. That you have the opportunity to be reading this, or eating that dinner.
The holiday blues are real. It can be a reminder of people we have lost or what went wrong during the year. So first let me state that those feelings are 100% valid. I always think about how much my dad LOVED the holidays. From being grill master to buying gifts for people, he loved it all. It stings a bit to not have him around, especially as I am expecting my first child. His accident was even in December to top it all off. Holiday blues are real feelings, but they shouldn’t be your only feelings.
Right now there is this theme going around called “toxic happiness.” You might have read about it. Basically it’s saying constant happiness being shoved down your throat can turn toxic because it invalidates your feelings of sadness when there are very real things to be sad about. So when I say, “remember to be thankful for what you do have,” that doesn’t mean to ignore the sh*t storm you went through this year. Being thankful does not negate your tough experience. It’s hard and it’s an elevated space to live in, but you can have both the bad and realize the good.
For example, this year I have felt gypped more than once. When the pandemic got into full swing, I didn’t lose my job but I did lose a huge contract deal that was going to make me financially comfortable for the first time ever. I didn’t get to see my mom at a concert we dropped a lot of money to be able to meet up at. I didn’t get to go publicly celebrate getting pregnant like I want to. My baby shower will not be the traditional fun with games and catered food. Finally, working from home, which is a privilege, also seems like a curse. As someone who thrives off of other people’s energy and interactions, it’s become very easy to be depressed and angry while I sit cooped up at home every single day.
BUT with all of that- and more- I am still feeling thankful. I am blessed with a pregnancy my husband and I prayed for. We are both employed. That is no small deal after so many people have suffered job loss. I have friends. I have the technology to get in touch with my family when I feel lonely. I am thankful my mom has decided to move across the country to be close to me and her first grandchild. There is even a beauty in the untraditional way I have to handle my pregnancy during a pandemic. Like how I get to be extra aware of the care I give him while he grows inside me. I GET to work from home to protect him. There is a blessing hidden in every hardship and I feel both of of them and know that getting to feel both of those emotions makes me alive and in a position to be around to make a difference moving forward.
What about you? In job loss, have you found anything that could be considered a blessing? The opportunity to spend more time with family or learn that you have interest in pursuing a new passion? In loss, maybe you can identify the joy in something small that you previously took for granted. It doesn’t mean your year didn’t totally suck. It just means your story isn’t over and I think that is something to be thankful for even if you’re not happy.
A completely stress-free holiday is actually probably not possible. That’s life. Sh*t happens. A little preparation and a little gratitude can go a long way this year. Remember that when your family (by blood or by bond) pisses you off, that you still go to see them every year because they are your people. There is something you love there. The holidays are ultimately a big ball of stress because we care. Thanksgiving is all about being thankful, so when you are getting stressed, take a breath and remember that you are only stressed because you are blessed with something to care about. It won’t unburn the turkey, but if you can laugh it off, it will make a great story next year.
I hope everyone has a fantastic Thanksgiving week and find the time to show a little grace. Grace for your family, friends and for YOURSELF!
Happy Thanksgiving, Friends!