Many friends tell me that Thanksgiving is their favorite holiday. People appreciate the simple focus of sharing a special meal with family and friends, and a chance to be thankful for the bright spots of the year. Sure, it’s work to pull off dinner for a crowd (not to mention all those dishes to wash), but the expectations are in bounds.
And yet…Norman Rockwell (or Williams-Sonoma) images of the classic American Thanksgiving table loom large. I’ve spent a fair amount of time fretting about my inadequacy in the serving pieces department. Growing up, my grandmother always seemed to have the right vegetable bowl or gravy boat, but I…don’t. When I serve dinner to a group larger or more fancy than my family + one sleepover guest, I find myself scrambling.
And yet…dinner always turns out fine. Right? It’s silly. We love Thanksgiving for the food and the conversation, not the size or shape of the turkey platter.
And yet…a beautifully set table is lovely to behold. It feels festive and generous to dress things up beyond the usual family dinner. But the stress and expense that comes with frantic houseware buying right before the holiday? Not necessary.
There’s a better way: a combination of gradual table setting acquisition combined with creative substitution.
The reason my grandmother had the perfect serving bowl for every side dish was because she collected Franciscan Desert Rose china piece by piece over 25 years. (My mom tells me that Nana used to go to the warehouse to buy the off-price imperfect pieces.)
Houseware sales are good now and will be even better right after Christmas. If there’s room in the budget, choose one serving piece you’ve always wanted and buy it. If you can’t afford it right now, make note of the piece you want and start monitoring the price. Then save a dollar or two each week till you have enough money to buy it.
Get a piece you truly love. It will make you happy each time you pull it out of the cabinet to grace your table.
In the meantime, fill the holes in your table setting setup by substituting pieces you already have or by borrowing from neighbors. Chances are one of your neighbors is heading out of town for Thanksgiving so none of their kitchenware is in use during the holiday.
Here’s what I do. (Check out the slideshow, then scroll down for more ideas.)
Turkey platter 1 of 8In my family, the bird gets carved in the kitchen. It's not a pretty sight. The results are delicious, but no one wants to watch my Dad go at a turkey with a two-pronged fork and a carving knife. If this is the case in your family, you don't need a huge turkey platter. Arrange the turkey slices and pieces on a smaller platter (or foil-covered baking tray) and refill from the kitchen as necessary. To dress up the platter, garnish it with fancy kale leaves and a few scattered grapes. A smaller platter keeps the table more open as well.
Serving bowls 2 of 8Anything goes. Cereal bowls, pasta bowls, clear glass mixing bowls, ceramic ramekins and small baking dishes have all worked well in my house. Because I have such a motley collection of pieces, I use white dinnerware so the whole scene looks somewhat intentional.
Wine glasses 3 of 8I like drinking wine out of a small juice glass. (Then again, I'm not a wine connoisseur.) Somehow, serving wine in small, non-wine glasses makes the whole occasion feel more relaxed, at least it does for me.
Cutlery and serving spoons 4 of 8See if you can borrow from neighbors. Another option: Goodwill or a garage sale. You can pick up a bunch of forks or teaspoons inexpensively...possibly for the same cost as the same amount of plastic cutlery. You can save up for a matching set later.
Gravy boat 5 of 8Does anyone have one of these any more? I don't. I use an oversized ceramic creamer I picked up at a garage sale for a buck. If the gravy is thick, pop the creamer onto a small plate and lay a spoon alongside.
Matching dinner plates 6 of 8I never have enough matching plates for a large party, and it never matters. Because I use white dinnerware, I can alternate it with a set of borrowed plates and it looks fine. If you really want a coordinated look, you can buy surprisingly study and attractive paper plates at stores like Target or higher-end kitchen stores.
Tablecloth 7 of 8A big, off-white flat sheet will do in a pinch.
Table decor 8 of 8You can do wonders with tea lights and a bit of greenery from the back yard. Or pick up a few of those floating candles and place them in a glass or crystal bowl filled with water and fresh cranberries. Another option: put the kids in charge of decorating the table! They need something to keep them busy while they're waiting for dinner anyway. Pull out your art supplies, or have them scavenge the garden...then see what happens!
- I LOVE this idea: a simple paper cutlery sleeve that doubles as a conversation starter. Easy and clever. (Thanks to MAKE:Craft for the pointer.)
- Amy Allen Clark, creator of MomAdvice and author of the forthcoming book The Good Life For Less, has written a how-to for simple Thanksgiving table setting. As a bonus, the materials she used all raised money for charity.
- A lovely post about pulling back from fantasies of Thanksgiving perfection: Gathering with Purpose
- You really can make a centerpiece using materials from the garden: Live Pretty: Thanksgiving Floral Centerpiece
- Aviva Goldfarb always has great tips for simplifying meals. Thanksgiving is no exception: Thanksgiving Survival Guide: 10 Steps to a Calmer Feast
- Creative Kristi made seven free printable Thanksgiving place cards.
- Lots more Thanksgiving shortcuts at Parent Hacks: Best of Parent Hacks: Thanksgiving
What’s your favorite Thanksgiving table setting trick? Leave a comment, or, if you’ve written something up at your own blog, share a link so we can visit!
Christine Koh and I are co-authors of Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More By Doing Less.
We’re sharing share ideas for simplifying the holidays so you can focus on what’s important: enjoying the season with your family.
Visit the Minimalist Holidays page for links to the entire series.