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Tips on How to Organize Thanksgiving Dinner for a Large Family

Posted November 26, 2013

Ten years ago, I attended my first Thanksgiving with my future in-laws. In addition to wanting to make a good first impression, I quickly realized that I would soon get my initiation into the life of a large family. Coming from a small, nuclear family with only two children, I had no idea what to expect. Unlike my own family with only one sibling, my husband has six, four brothers and two sisters. Too, they each have large families of their own, making any gathering quite an event. The Thanksgiving dinners that I remember—quiet, polite moments over turkey and dressing—left me unprepared for this new dynamic. Over the years, though, I have learned from my husband's family some of the more crucial elements to organizing Thanksgiving dinner for a large family.

Food in a Buffet Line
While it may seem a bit odd, lining up the food buffet style provides an efficient way for every member to easily move through the line and find seating. In my own home, we had more than enough room on the table for the food as well as ourselves. Dining was slow, with a ceremonial cutting of the turkey by my father and lots of conversations that began with phrases such as “Please pass the gravy.” While traditional, successfully organizing such a meal with a large family would be difficult, if impossible. The amount of food required for so many members would fill up the table, tantalizing the children but leaving no room to sit. Too, such dining would require more tables than might be available at any one home. Buffet-style dinners certainly seem to work for my husband's family.

Thanksgiving Dinner Buffet

Coming from a small, Southern family, I was unused to the hazards of such dinners. At our home, there was a strict order of who was served first, with the men of the family first, then the children, and then my mother and grandmother. Here with my husband's family, it is a sort of free-for-all. I quickly found that there was no order to lining up for the food, and if I didn't dive into the fray, I would not eat. Losing my inhibitions over the years, I have managed to find a place in the line and not elbow any kids in the process.

Modular and Fun Seating
Obviously, in a family with many members, sitting around a dining table would prove difficult unless it is a rather large table with numerous chairs. Therefore, my mother-in-law will often set up different “areas” for eating. For example, the youngest kids will often eat on a washable picnic cloth, making the cleanup from their dinner that much easier. The older children can sit at card tables for their dinner and chat with their nieces and nephews. And for the adults? Well, we will often take to the dining table, the sofa, or wherever else is available. As with the food, it's often “first come, first served” with the seating.

One idea for making such dining more pleasant would be the addition of bean bag chairs to any home with a large family. Those bean bags from Ahh! Products come in multiple sizes and so could accommodate everyone from adults to the smallest kids. Easily movable with washable covers, the bean bag chairs would be a great way to create those small eating areas throughout a home. Additionally, they could be easily moved out of the way for everyday use, making them perfect for grandparents who might not want to sit in bean bags when their children and grandchildren are not at home. Bean bag chairs are certainly practical as well as fun for every member of a big family.

Potluck for Any Meal
Traditionally, the mother or grandmother will fix the bulk of any Thanksgiving meal. In my own family, my grandmother loved to cook and so prepared the entire feast. My grandfather definitely wouldn't have eaten anyone else's cooking! However, that would be quite the burden on any one member who must cook for a big family. With dinners at my in-laws, we each bring a dish, or possibly two. For people such as myself, this often brings about some anxiety in that I must cook for women who are much more skilled in the kitchen than I am. It is only fair, though, and gives everyone the chance to try new recipes and chat about their culinary experiences. And for the older girls, they get to show off a bit when they make their first batch of brownies or pie. For my in-laws, dinners are truly a family affair, one in which everyone participates equally.

One downfall to this, of course, is the chance that everyone will bring pies, for example. After spending all day cooking an apple crumb pie from scratch for this year's Thanksgiving celebration, my husband discovered through Facebook that his pie would not be the star of the show. Indeed, at least two—and possibly more—pies will join his at the meal. Signing up for dishes to bring, either through social media or more traditional means, might be a way to avoid such a downfall. Doing so would make sure that you don't have twenty desserts, with no vegetables or dinner rolls.

Despite the rude awakening that I faced ten years ago, I have grown comfortable at the family gatherings with my in-laws. With the many kids and often crowded seating, these dinners bear little resemblance to the Thanksgivings that I remember. No matter the rowdiness of the kids or the confusion in food that will be brought by each member, the focus on gratitude and family is central. For a small family or a large one, that is the true meaning of Thanksgiving.

How do you celebrate Thanksgiving? Do you have any tips to share?

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family, from Ahh! Products!

Another fantatic guest post from Krista!  Thank you!

Jade is the founder and CEO of Ahh! Products. Find her on

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