8 tips for hosting Thanksgiving outdoors

Written by Simple Bites contributor Jan Scott of Family Bites.

The first time I told my mother-in-law that our annual Thanksgiving dinner was being held outdoors, she replied with “well, that’s interesting.” Not one to openly voice her opinion, or critique her sons and their wives, there was no mistaking the “lady, you’ve lost your mind” tone in her comment.

I’d wanted to celebrate the day of Thanks outdoors for a few years, and every October had arrived with uncertain weather forecasts, forcing me to hold the event inside. It had become a tad tight and crowded in our small urban home, as our family had nearly tripled in size in recent years. Of course, as each Thanksgiving Sunday arrived, the skies were blue, the temperature warm, and I cursed myself for not dining al fresco.

I’m happy to report that three years later, the Scott Family Outdoor Thanksgiving is a delicious success, thanks to our glorious October weather, and I dare say it’s now a holiday the entire family looks forward to. It does take a little coordination, though, as most outdoor meals are casual affairs, and I’m always determined not to loose the specialness of our holiday meal just because it’s being eaten outside.

Here are a few tips to help you host your own holiday dinner in the open air this year, if you’re so inclined.

1. Design Your Tablescape In Advance

At least two weeks before the dinner I know exactly how I want my tables to look. One year we had one long harvest table for the entire group, and another year we did three tables of 6-8 people each. There is no right or wrong answer here; do what works best for you, but know how you want them set-up and what your tablescape will look like. This will give you the chance to craft or purchase anything you may need for the table’s décor, making it fun and not stressful to put together a pretty centerpiece or handmade placecards.

2. Setting Up Smartly

If it wasn’t for the early morning dew that’s practically synonymous with fall, I would set up my tables and chairs a day or two in advance. Since I prefer to keep everything dry, I do it the morning of. It’s a quick job thanks to my pre-planning (see point #1) and I ensure that the tables are placed where the sun will be the brightest in order to ward off the late afternoon chill. Because I prefer to enjoy the sunshine, we tend to eat slightly earlier than the normal dinner hour; the guests come for 3pm and dinner is served at 4pm.

3. Enlist a Little Help

I’m not too proud to ask for help when it comes to executing a large meal like this, so I enlist the help of the females in my family. I provide the appetizers, turkey, gravy, stuffing and desserts, and everyone else rounds out the meal with a hot side dish. Although it may sound a little bossy, I am very specific in my requests of what our guests bring, which allows me to keep control over what’s being served. I know for a fact that I need two people to bring mashed potatoes because they’re so popular with our crowd, and that Caesar salad doesn’t really go with the meal, so I’m specific in asking for what I need: hot vegetables that come in oven-safe dishes.

4. Keep the Food Warm

When the turkey comes out of the oven it needs time to rest, which is the perfect opportunity for the vegetables to be gently reheated. Pull the poultry from the oven and gently tent it with aluminum foil. This gives you time to heat the side dishes, and when they’re ready transfer everything to the outdoor table. You can use chaffing dishes to help keep things warm, but in our family the food doesn’t stick around long enough to get very cold.

5. Carve the Turkey Tableside

It did take us two years to figure out that carving the roast turkey tableside was the best way to ensure a warm and juicy piece of meat for dinner. The first year we carved it, and then brought it outside, but by the time the fourteenth person made it to the table the meat was cold. Rob, my husband, happily slices and serves the meat to our guests, ensuring it stays warm right up until it hits the plate.

6. Use Rentals (if your budget allows)

I can’t stress this point enough. I have enough dishes to feed ten or twelve people, but not 20-plus. Instead of buying paper plates, or storing additional sets that will only get used twice a year, I order some rentals. My list of required items is quite simple: dinner and dessert plates, dinner forks and knives, coffee mugs, and dessert forks and spoons. I spend less than $40, and the best part is that everything gets sent back dirty so there are very few dishes to wash after the meal. This alone is worth the price, and I encourage you to become friends with your local party rentals store.

7. Have a Plan B in Your Back Pocket

Anyone who’s hosted an outdoor wedding knows that the most essential ingredient to a successful day is to have a back-up plan. The same is true when you’re planning a large outdoor meal. If you have to bring the dinner inside, know exactly where your guests are going to sit, and how the food will be served should you have to move to plan B.

8. Plan Something Fun For The Kids

Last, but certainly not least, are the kids. Plan something fun for them to do at the dinner. I’m determined to never become a boring old aunt, so I have two or three activities planned for the little ones each year. We have done scavenger hunts, pumpkin painting, bobbing for apples and donut-eating-on-a-string. Take inspiration from your favourite fall fair activities and organize some kids-only excitement.

Canadian Thanksgiving Sunday falls on October 7th this year. My table has been planned, my rentals secured, my turkey ordered and my potluck provisions organized. I’m crossing my fingers that the weather cooperates, but if not, we’ll move indoors and my mother-in-law will be slightly disappointed; I think she’s secretly come to like our new tradition almost as much as I do.

Are you hosting Thanksgiving this year?

About Jan

Jan Scott is a Canadian food writer, party planner, and mom of two active tween boys. She is the home cook and creative behind Family Bites, a blog inspired by the simple recipes and party ideas she’s put to the test on her family. Prior to making the transition to freelance writer, Jan spent five years as a party planner for a private catering company, but shifted to working from home in order to spend more time with her growing family.

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  1. What a great idea! I am hosting Thanksgiving for the first time in years with the possibility of many families and kids! This could be a great way to do it! Thanks for sharing.

  2. I won’t be hosting Thanksgiving this year for the first time in years as we’re headed to see family for Thanksgiving this year.

  3. Wow! Hosting Thanksgiving outside…that would definitely be something 🙂 We live in Maine though, and it tends to be a bit cold by the time Thanksgiving comes around 🙂 We will be having a very small Thanksgiving this year, just my husband, kids, and possibly my mom. But, it will still be a lot of fun!

    • I live in Maine too, and was thinking about how much fun that would be. The cold will probably keep us from doing Thanksgiving outdoors. Much of the time there is snow (at least a little) by the end of November. Our Thanksgiving table also seems to be getting smaller year by year. People move away and such. Still it is a happy time to reflect on the year and remember God’s goodness.

  4. That sounds and looks so lovely, especially for such a large gathering.

    Here in Michigan, and our Thanksgiving falling in November, we often have snow piling up outside, so it’s really not an option for us!

  5. I grew up in Florida, where it’s often still quite warm by Thanksgiving time. Thanksgiving has always been one of my very favorite holidays. My family does a more casual-style gathering. It’s a potluck, we use paper plates, and sit wherever we can find a spot. Sometimes it’s out on the grass, picnic-style. It makes for an intimate, relaxed setting which focuses on the company and experience, rather than the decorations. I know our family is out of the ordinary, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. 🙂

  6. What a great idea! And I love the tablescape you pictured here Jan – the apples are a perfect touch. You’ve got my mind rolling now . . .

  7. I love this idea…small-ish dining rooms have always held me back a little from hosting a big dinner but this makes it sound quite do-able. And? As a fellow Canadian, it’s a last hurrah to a beautiful season.

    One of my favorite Thanksgivings was actually a hotdog roast in provincial park just outside of Montreal. We did do a full-blown turkey weekend on the Sunday but did something special on the Monday as well. It’s one of our favorite family memories.

  8. Melissa @ Baking For The Boys says

    I love this idea. It would be ideal for our Texas Thanksgiving weather. I have yet to host a Thanksgiving but would love to when the reigns are handed down by the elders of the family.

  9. Sounds fun, but I cannot imagine! We generally are getting deep snow fall by that time and it would be a very, very unpleasant experience!

  10. That is definitely a unique Thanksgiving dinner. Sounds nice bringing it outside – I bet it is great for the kids.

  11. It’s great to hear from you and see what you’ve sent up. This is a great blog. You deserve an award of some kind. Thanks!

  12. Looks great! Where did you find your tablecloths? Thanks!

  13. WOW! Thanks for sharing these great tips. I got a lot of ideas our next Thanksgiving.

  14. What is the lowest temperature that is acceptable for outside Thanksgiving? I have 23 people coming this year! Although it keeps changing it looks like it will be around 65 degrees. I am in Dallas, tx.

  15. THANK YOU for reposting this. We had made the decision to eat outdoors, and some points you made we had not thought of. To keep it simpler (for carving), we will be doing bacon wrapped turkey breast, and roasted thighs. We will have heaters (wet west coast here), and I will have quilts available (but that is because I love quilting).
    Rather than eating al fresco being a burden, it will be an adventure!

  16. We enjoy hosting Thanksgiving here in Florida,
    Many of the guests/friends have different diets that the traditional Thanksgiving menu might not satisfy. Vegan, no corn, no gluten, Then those with no issues.
    Then to plan dining out doors , those that are challkenged with allergies. All guest are our friends. How to address these issues and enjoy the day together at our home, without hiring a caterer, I have catering experience, I am in need of suggestions. Thank you.

  17. Thanks for sharing tips for hosting Thanksgiving outdoors, actually I own a home stay in uttarakhand , india ( hill station ), love to know these tips .

  18. it is very nice very good

  19. Thanks for sharing these tips for hosting Thanksgiving outdoors, love to know about these.

  20. Thanks for sharing these tips for hosting Thanksgiving outdoors.

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