Hosting your first Thanksgiving for family and friends can be a daunting task. You want the day (and the all-important meal) to be perfect, but you don't want to run roughshod over everyone else's holiday with the iron-fisted dictatorial fervor of a fledgling Martha Stewart. It's not your first Thanksgiving, but the first in which you're in charge, and you feel like the success of the day falls on your willing, but slightly trembling, shoulders. No holiday comes off without a hitch, but you can make the right preparations to ensure that the hitches don't turn into glitches, and the glitches don't land your party at an otherwise empty Chinese restaurant.
Make a Guest List
The best, and most logical, place to start is with a guest list. As this is your first Thanksgiving as host, don't overreach and invite too many people, because you'll most likely end up overwhelmed. Take it easy on yourself and start with a modest guest list. There will be people you can't invite, and so there may be some hurt feelings, but remind yourself (and them) that there's always next year.
Prepare Your Menu
Once you know who is attending, you can get down to the Thanksgiving Day menu. Have some fun with it, but apply the same caution to the menu that you did to your guest list. Keep things relatively simple. Remember that these are your friends and family, so there's no reason to make it seem like you're auditioning for "Top Chef."
Get Your Guests Involved
Once everyone is invited, and you have an idea of your menu, pick up the phone again and get your guests involved. Find out if anyone has any food limitations, and invite people to pitch in and bring a dish. It'll take some of the pressure off of you, while making everyone else feel as if they're more a part of the celebration.
Order Your Turkey (or Your Tofu Turkey)
You'll have enough on your plate (literally and figuratively) when the big day comes, so plan ahead and order your turkey well ahead of time, especially if you want a fresh one. Plan on 1 1/4 pounds per each adult, and if need be, know that there are companies that make, and deliver, fresh tofu turkeys as well. Also, defrosting a turkey takes a while (24 hours for every 5 pounds), so if it's frozen, remind yourself well before the day arrives to start the process.
Create Shopping Lists
At this point you should know who's coming, what you're having, and which guest is bringing which dish. So now it's time to figure out what you need, and the best way to avoid becoming overwhelmed is to make two separate shopping lists. Make one list of things that you can buy right away (decorations, nonperishables and frozen items), and make another, last-minute list of things you want to buy fresh.
Make a Seating Chart
Thanksgiving is a day about being thankful, and when the day comes you'll be thankful that you took the time to make a seating chart. It's your friends and your family, so you should have a good idea of the personalities coming to the table, and where they will work the best. You're the host, but you're also peacekeeper, and maybe matchmaker, and that all starts with a seating chart.
Clean Your Home
You're inviting people into your home, and you have to realize that no one is going to be comfortable if your place is dirty or messy. Your guests may even have a different idea than you do of what "clean" is, so give your place a thorough once-over. Pay particular attention to high traffic areas, as well as the bathroom, which should be stocked with fresh linens (and a scented candle).
Decorate and Set Your Table
Have fun with this, but try not to go overboard. Bear in mind that come meal time, the table will be brimming with plates, platters full of food and glassware. A cluttered table can detract from the mood of the meal, and you want everyone to be comfortable (and to be able to see each other). You don't have to recreate the Plymouth Rock landing to give the room an autumnal feel. A few candles, some dried maize and a few colorful gourds go a long way.
Do Last-Minute Shopping
Remember that second shopping list? Pull it out and get yourself back to the store. We call it "last-minute shopping" but don't wait until then. Try to get it done the day before, or at least during the early morning on Thanksgiving, or you'll find yourself in a packed grocery store that looks like it's been picked over by locusts.
Schedule Your Dishes
Cooking takes time, and depending on your menu and your kitchen, you're probably going to have to stagger cooking of some of the dishes. Set a time for dinner, preferably about an hour after everyone arrives, and then count backward, writing down the times that everything needs to go into the oven or the microwave.
Take Time to Be Thankful
With everything that you've put into this, it's easy to lose sight of what this day is all about. More than just a harvest celebration, it's a celebration of friends, of family, and all that is good or hopeful in our lives. Take a moment before everyone dives into the meal that you have so lovingly prepared to go around the table so your guests can share one thing they're thankful for.
Your work is done (as long as you're ignoring the stack of dirty pots, pans and dishes waiting in your kitchen). Hunger has been sated, thirsts quenched, belts loosened, and a football game is probably playing in the background. Not only did you survive hosting your first Thanksgiving, but you've given your guests a day they'll not soon forget. Take a moment to appreciate it, as you only have 364 more days before you do it all over again.