From Shopping to Prepping, 5 Ways to De-Stress Thanksgiving

From structured Zooms to being okay with asking for help.

November 16, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten

We’ve already admitted to ourselves that Turkey Day 2020 will be a far cry from your average Thanksgiving, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic keeping out-of-town relatives at a distance and in-person gatherings to a minimum.

But in coming to terms with the reality that this year’s celebration will undoubtedly feel different, we must also face the fact that our normal strategies for planning a (relatively) low-stress holiday may need to change, too.

Below, Matt Lundquist, LCSW, a psychotherapist in New York City, and Laura Calder, author of The Inviting Life: An Inspirational Guide to Homemaking, Hosting and Opening the Door to Happiness, share their best advice for staying organized—without getting overwhelmed—while preparing for Thanksgiving in the midst of a pandemic.

5 Tips For A Less Stressful Thanksgiving

1. Ask for help.

Your guest list and workload will likely be on the lighter side this year, but recruiting an extra set of hands (whether they belong to your partner, child, roommate, or pandemic pod-mate) is still a great idea to avoid feeling overburdened when the big day rolls around.

“This is a perfect occasion for sharing the workload,” Calder says. Not only will you get through tedious prep tasks faster, but you’ll get to spend even more quality time with your loved ones—lean in to the fact that this year’s festivities will be lower-key, and make your time spent in the kitchen part of the gathering. Put on some music and turn slicing and dicing into a fun group activity.

You can even delegate whole sections of the meal to your guests (the dessert course and the wine come to mind), or even ask someone to commandeer the turkey process the day of while you oversee the dinner as a whole. If the idea of asking friends and relatives to chip in intimidates you, don’t worry—but don’t shy away from requesting assistance if you really need it.

“Something like Thanksgiving can be an opportunity to push beyond what's comfortable, perhaps opening up a new habit of welcoming help,” Lundquist says, adding that you can broach the subject gently, in a way that doesn’t put undue pressure on your guests. “A great point of entry is to start by asking, ‘I've got a lot on my plate; do you have bandwidth to help?’”

2. Scale your meal up or down.

In the midst of a pandemic, the temptation to panic and over-shop is undeniable. In order to avoid stocking up on groceries you don’t actually need in quantities that crowd your fridge, plan the meal according to how many guests you’ll have. Create your menu and grocery list based on that group size, and have a few substitutions in mind in case certain things are sold out.

Once you get to the store, stick to your plan—and remember that this year’s menu doesn’t have to follow the traditional Thanksgiving template if the guest list, ingredient availability, or anything else doesn’t allow it. In previous years, Calder has hosted gatherings small enough that she could cook the entire dinner in the oven at once—a sauté of stuffed turkey bundles with chestnuts and Brussels sprouts, served with pumpkin purée on the side. The single-pan method is a great strategy if your Thanksgiving will be similarly intimate. On the other hand, if you’re hosting a larger group (and weather permitting), Calder says you can make the turkey on the grill and save the oven for the rest of the meal.


3. Work ahead.

In addition to asking guests to make some of the food themselves, Calder recommends also cooking most of the dinner a day in advance and keeping it in the fridge until showtime. Roasted sides, desserts, reheatable toppings, and dressings are not only easy to whip up ahead of time, but they may even taste better the following day. Just leave fresh salads, cut fruits, herb garnishes, and—of course—the turkey for the day of. Figure out the turkey’s ETA once it starts cooking and reheat everything else as that time approaches, Calder says.

4. Have a schedule.

Generally speaking, in-person Thanksgivings can entail slightly, uh, fluid schedules: “As with any family party, there’s a built-in expectation for a certain amount of chaos...Also, since the meal tends to be one that happens at an odd time of day (mid-to-late afternoon), the timing can be a bit flexible,” Calder says.

But if you’re celebrating virtually, Lundquist says that sticking to a preset timeframe will help the day run more smoothly. “Remote connections, especially with more than two people on the call, benefit from structure and a time limit,” he explains.

“Just setting up the tablet and expecting organic conversations to follow likely isn't going to work and may leave everyone feeling awkward and disappointed,” Lundquist adds. Instead, he recommends either scheduling a brief group phone call (perhaps for a family toast before dinner) or gathering for a video call after dinner, during which you can share photos of your meals or play a game online.

5. Manage your expectations.

“It's not just social distancing and travel restrictions that are making things harder this year,” Lundquist says, alluding to the fact that we also have election anxiety and general holiday-related stress to contend with right now. “We're all in an extended, unprecedented emotional malaise.”

Openly acknowledge that plans, guest lists, and menus may need to adjust, and recognize that this year will very likely feel a little strange, he says. Doing so will not only help you manage your expectations of what the day ought to look like, but will also allow for you and your guests to have a more honest, candid experience of the day. And in setting your expectations, Calder advises keeping the core meaning of Thanksgiving in mind: “It’s not about performing the culinary equivalent of an opera, but about being with people we love and being grateful for the good things in our lives and on the table.”

What other ways will you be switching things up this year? Let us know in the comments.
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Sara Coughlin is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. Although she writes about food, health, wellness, lifestyle trends, skin-care, and astrology, she’d much rather talk to you about professional wrestling, rock climbing, and her personal favorite true crime theories. You can find her in her studio apartment doing yoga while a pan of veggies gently burns in the oven.

1 Comment

AntoniaJames August 11, 2023
The best way dramatically to minimize stress in just about anything, in my experience, is to start planning / preparing well in advance, committing the plan to paper, and bringing all of your project management skills to bear. Break it into pieces, schedule like activities together, and create deadlines for each of the components of the project. I go quite granular on my plans, down to figuring out when every ingredient prep and advanced cooking / baking activity is going to happen. Review and update the plan frequently.

We typically take a challenging hike on Thanksgiving (so many great options here in Colorado - often involving microspikes) so I minimize what needs to be done on Thanksgiving Day. More here:

One other tip, one not often mentioned, is (especially if you work during the day) to plan and prep / freeze your dinner meals during the 7 - 10 days leading up to Thanksgiving with as much care and as much advance thought and effort as you're devoting to the big day itself. You'll need all the energy you can get to do those week-before prep activities in the evenings. Adding those extra tasks to your normal dinner responsibilities will otherwise be quite exhausting. More about that here: ;o)