Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday; unless you have to do all the cooking. The culinary responsibilities are even more labor intensive, costly and complicated when your holiday feast has many mouths to feed as often the case when everyone decides to have their holiday meal at your place. It is not just deciding on a menu that has to take into account specific dietary needs such as accommodating those who may be allergic to certain foods or lactose intolerant, you also want to WOW your guests with a memorable feast that everyone will enjoy.
Let's face it: You're stuck with the duty of preparing a huge meal for many guests. Whether that is fair or not is a matter to be discussed while planning next year's Thanksgiving holiday. For now it seems reasonable to create a meal that people will talk about in a positive way for years to come. The best way to accomplish this goal is to start by contacting those on your guest list at least a month before Thanksgiving to find out what, if any, dietary restrictions or preferences they have. This should be done by email so that you have everything in writing. Social media is also an option if that works better or faster for you.
Once you have a good idea of what can and can not be served during your past, wait about another week and contact your guests again. This time mention the fact that most everyone has a menu item that makes Thanksgiving special for them and ask what that item would be? It may be an appetizer, entree, side or desert item. Whatever the case encourage your guests to each bring that special item with them, prepared just the way they like it. It could be homemade or store bought. The point is that if each guest brings a special food item with them that immediately takes some of the pressure and expense off you and provides a nice sense of culinary diversity for all.
Send another email about two weeks before Thanksgiving to anyone on your guest list that you know is a good home cook. Mention that you really want your Thanksgiving to be special and request their help in preparing the meal. In the case of preparing a large holiday fever it is rarely true that too many cooks spoil the broth. Ask if they can come by a day before or early on Thanksgiving to help out? Mention that you would not be offended if they bought any prepared or raw food items with them that might help enhance the overall meal. There is always that one friend or relative that bought a turkey early and now has no immediate use for it. Tell them to drop it by the day before Thanksgiving. You can never have too much turkey or fresh bread for sandwiches later in the day or evening.
Take some advice from Chef Gordon Ramsey who says that turkeys should be cooked as early as possible, turned upside down once out of the oven and allowed to rest for hours. After all as he points out, most people prefer perfectly cut, moist and flavorful turkey served at room temperature, smothered with hot gravy and surrounded by warm sides to slices of poultry that has been hacked to pieces because it was cut too soon after coming out of the oven. It has been my experience that guests also like warm bread served with an assortment of flavored butters and chilled veggie dishes available as soon as guests begin arriving. It is not bad manners to serve these items on linen-style throw away plates, although glass salad plates are the norm (and also responsible for many pieces of glass scattered everywhere after people accidently drop them on the floor).
Guests tend to ungraciously brag about their own "special" ethnic food choices, stuffing, dressing, spices for the meat, appetizers or deserts while woofing down your holiday meal. Asking guests to bring something special makes them put their time, effort and money where their mouths are while taking some of the effort and expense of creating a large and memorable holiday feast off of you. Keep a careful list of who is bringing what and which guests have agreed to come early and help prepare the meal. Always have a backup plan just in case some of your volunteers chicken (or turkey) out and decide not to come.
Send a final email, social media message or make a phone call a week before Thanksgiving to be sure everyone who has said they will come to your holiday feast is still coming. Since it is likely that most of the men coming will sit and watch sports while kids, tweens and teens will want to watch other TV programs or play video games, do not be afraid to ask your guests to bring any sort of special entertainment items with them that will make your gathering unique and fun. These could be musical instruments (if they are willing to play and perform), a complete collection of a popular TV or cable series or even magic tricks. The idea is to move your event from the mundane to the remarkable.
People are used to being entertained. It is sad to say that the art of conversation so often practiced by people over fifty years of age is simply not something that younger people enjoy. Gone are the days of telling tales about those funny holiday moments of years past, dragging out the latest photos of the kids or grandkids for all to see or playing trivia games. Adults are more likely to enjoy binge viewing a popular series that most everyone enjoys and can talk about or watching someone who is very talented (or not very talented) play a musical instrument or perform a magic act. Whatever you do for this holiday, try to make it special and encourage your guests to be more than just couch potatoes by helping you to turn your Thanksgiving past into a festival.