The 5 Rules You Should Break While Setting Your Thanksgiving Table

November 22, 2013

When you're the host, you make the rules. Today, we're bringing you a list of rules that are totally acceptable to break thanks to our friends at Terrain, who help us celebrate occasions big and small with seasonal plants, housewares, and decorations.

Thanksgiving is definitely one of the top five most tradition-happy occasions on the American calendar. Whether it's sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top, grandmom’s special stuffing, or Uncle Bob appearing in a pilgrim hat, each family has its own Thanksgiving traditions that are familiar and comforting.

But certain old traditions just seem, well, old. Out-of-date. Passé. You don’t plan to dress in shoulder pads or acid-washed Z. Cavariccis this Thanksgiving (but if you do, send a picture). Your table shouldn’t be out-of-style, either. So breathe some new life into yours this holiday season. 

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Here are 5 traditional rules you should feel free to break when setting your Thanksgiving table:

1. Place cards.

Isn't it hard enough juggling a 20-pound turkey, seven side dishes, three pies, and all the guests without agonizing over whether your brother should sit to the left or right of your cousin in from Minneapolis? Thanksgiving is about family and sharing a comfortable, welcoming meal together, not fussing over place cards. (This isn't a wedding reception.) As the host, just offer general seating directions when the time comes, and let the guests sort it out as they like.

2. Formal flowers -- or any flowers.

Thanksgiving is the pinnacle of autumn, and naturally lends itself to rustic decorations. There's no need to fill your vases up with expensive or exotic flowers; just cull from the bounty of the season. The folks from Terrain like to bring outside elements to the dinner table, like branches, acorns, squash, and cabbages. Alongside a few votives, you will have a dramatic -- and dramatically simple -- centerpiece.

More: Learn how to build your holiday centerpiece.

3. A tablecloth.

The pilgrims didn't have a linen table cloth, so why should you? With all of that wine and food, there's no need to risk major spill damage and a whopping dry cleaning bill. Show off the natural wood of your table, or use simple placemats to create a clean, elegant place setting. Less is more when it comes to a tablescape. (The same cannot be said about food, though. On Thanksgiving, more is definitely more.)


4. The crystal.

Fact: Someone will break one of the fancy crystal wine glasses you inherited from your grandparents, who brought them from the Old Country, and your Friday morning playback of the otherwise perfect day will have that sad asterisk appended to it forever. Save the crystal stemware for a less boisterous occasion, and serve wine in your trusty weekday wine glasses. 

5. The food!

You've all sat down at the table, Norman Rockwell-style. The table is covered with the food you've been dreaming about: The golden centerpiece turkey, dressing, three kinds of potato casseroles, green beans, baskets of rolls, a great big salad, and can't eat for another 10 minutes because everything needs to get passed around, side dish by side dish, to all 18 guests.

Feel free to skip the outsized food tableau and serve everything buffet-style, right out of the kitchen. The food will stay hotter, and the guests can get exactly what they want, quicker. Best of all, your gorgeous centerpiece doesn't get elbowed out by the glazed carrots.

This post was brought to you by Terrain, whose tables are always beautiful. (For proof, check out the home entertaining wares in their Holiday Market.)

52 Days of Thanksgiving
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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Tina Degenhardt
    Tina Degenhardt
  • Jan nelson
    Jan nelson
  • Frances Smith
    Frances Smith
  • Adelucchi
  • frizz
Recovering lawyer, food writer, pastry chef, and lover of food-related everything (namely: cheese, baked goods, and anything made by Mom)


Tina D. November 18, 2015
I have been using buffet style for many years.i put everything in crock pots and turkey in heatproof dish placed on large heated buffet tray. No complaints about cold food. Socializing with family is easier.
Jan N. November 18, 2015
I especially like the idea of everyone serving themselves buffet-style!
Frances S. November 18, 2015
I really love this article.
Adelucchi November 17, 2014
The pathway to a happy thanksgiving!!
frizz November 7, 2014
Love, love, love every one of these tips!