How to Host Thanksgiving Outdoors
We know that you actually can spell “Thanksgiving” without “tradition,” but bear with us here: from the turkey and sides to the TV programming and family football game, every part of this holiday is rooted in past practices. In fact, we’re willing to bet your family has a unique Thanksgiving tradition you look forward to every year. (Ours? Gathering around the smoker, cooking up a few birds, and sharing some laughs. Though we’d hardly call that unique.) Customs are comfortable and often the highlight of the holiday season, but isn’t it time you create a new Thanksgiving tradition? We’re not talking about ditching the turkey or (gasp!) outlawing second helpings — no, you can revitalize your Thanksgiving by doing one simple thing: hosting it outdoors.
Staging an outdoor Thanksgiving dinner might sound complicated, but it’s actually an easy alternative that can relieve some of the normal holiday stressors. Anxious about tidying up every inch of your home and squeezing everyone around the dinner table? An outdoor space extends your hosting area so everyone can be comfortable. Dreading the yearly struggle of coordinating a cornucopia of dishes around the oven and a couple burners? Using your grill or smoker grants you much-needed cooking flexibility. Wondering how you’ll get everyone outside for the family football game? Well, they’ll already be there! (OK, maybe that last one isn’t as much about relieving stress as it is extending your winning streak another year.)
Perhaps most importantly of all, this is the year to start hosting Thanksgiving outdoors because of concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ll get to our recommendations for hosting a pandemic Thanksgiving in a bit, but let’s start by running through some general tips for an outdoor Thanksgiving dinner that just might become your family’s newest tradition.
Try a New Take on Turkey
Of all the Thanksgiving traditions, turkey in the oven might be the most common. But we’re here to tell you that smoked or grilled turkey is tastier — that’s not just the party line talking — plus it can be a welcome change of pace for guests tired of the same roasted bird every year. Don’t know where to start? Our smoked turkey recipes are your best bet for a deliciously different Thanksgiving dinner. And if you find the idea of slow-cooking your bird in the smoker a little overwhelming, our smoked turkey FAQ will clear up any confusion you might have.
We have even better news: many typical Thanksgiving side dishes can be cooked in an outdoor kitchen! Corn on the cob and vegetable skewers are easy to grill, while a side burner is more than up to the challenge for beans, rice, and even your famous turkey gravy. Wise enough to have invested in a pizza oven? Congratulations, you also have the ability to bake breads and desserts! Big bonus points if your outdoor kitchen includes a warming drawer, which is the best way to keep sides toasty while the turkey finishes smoking. It’s also a good idea to have some chafing dishes on hand just to ensure everything stays warm in the cold conditions.
Of course, you don’t have to cook every part of the meal outdoors (though it’s much more fun that way). We’d rather be hanging outside with the family instead of running inside to check on food every 15 minutes, but your situation might require help from the oven and stove burners to complete every dish on time. Just take stock of your menu and how you want your outdoor Thanksgiving dinner to play out, then plan accordingly.
Make It Feel Like Fall
Just because you’re hosting outdoors doesn’t mean you shouldn’t decorate for the occasion. After all, what’s a holiday gathering without a festive backdrop? Break out your usual holiday decor, with less of an emphasis on autumnal colors that are already present outdoors. Look for dinnerware and table settings that are heavy enough to stay put should a gust of wind blow through your backyard. No one wants to get up from their delicious smoked turkey to chase lightweight pumpkins around the yard during dinnertime!
While you’re arranging outdoor Thanksgiving decorations, you should definitely plan for lighting too. This is especially important if you’re hosting for dinner instead of lunch — the days are getting shorter, if you haven’t noticed. You can always count on string lights to create a cozy atmosphere, and setting up candles around the dinner table goes a long way toward establishing an intimate feeling around your holiday gathering. Consider citronella candles to ward off insects as the sun goes down, or flameless candles for an added layer of safety.
Turn up the Heat
Outdoor Thanksgiving dinner sounds pretty great so far, right? We imagine many of you are on board, while some of you… let’s just say this article keeps giving you the chills (and not in a good way). Don’t worry, we’re well aware that in many parts of the country, late November doesn’t exactly bring patio weather with it. You’ll have to forgive us — we’re headquartered in Louisiana, where consistently hitting the mid-80s in late October is apparently business as usual.
So, if you’re among those who live in a region that actually has seasons, you’ll need some type of outdoor heating feature to make Thanksgiving dinner outdoors work. Patio heaters and fire pits are among our favorite subtle solutions, but you can go bigger with a chiminea or full-on outdoor fireplace. Well-placed fire features are one thing, but you can also provide your guests with some warmth from within by serving hot beverages like cocoa, tea, mulled cider or wine, and rum or bourbon cocktails. Perhaps the easiest remedy of all is to make your Thanksgiving dinner into a lunch affair so the weather isn’t quite as cold during the feast.
Provide Holiday Programming
Whether you prefer the Macy’s Parade or 11 straight hours of football (put us in the latter category), the TV is almost as magnetic as the turkey on Thanksgiving Day. After pulling off Thanksgiving dinner outdoors, do you really expect everyone to shuffle indoors and fight for the prime spot in front of the tube? Nonsense! The whole point of Thanksgiving outdoors is to be in the backyard, so have an outdoor TV or projector screen ready to go before the family arrives. The operative word here is “outdoor” — these types of TVs are built specifically to handle the elements, which will be fairly harsh this time of year.
Set the Table & Grab a Seat
Now let’s finally get to what Thanksgiving is all about: winning the family football game! Wait, sorry. What we meant was: gathering around the dinner table with the people you love most! With that in mind, don’t you think your outdoor Thanksgiving dinner needs a backyard dining set worthy of the occasion? We sure do! Make sure you choose a set made from strong material like cast aluminum, resin wicker, or teak that can handle the elements while adding a desirable aesthetic to your outdoor space.
You’ll also need outdoor seating sets for the rest of the day, especially for post-dinner dozing in front of the TV. If you’re considering incorporating a fire pit into your outdoor space for the holiday (excellent choice), a fire pit conversation set might be the way to go. A more casual atmosphere may call for bar stools, with a party bar replacing your usual indoor cocktail station.
5 Tips for Hosting a Pandemic Thanksgiving
As you’ve certainly considered at this point, the idea of gathering everyone around the table and passing dishes back and forth doesn’t exactly sound all that smart in the age of COVID-19. But there are ways to safely gather with loved ones this Thanksgiving, and it starts with your outdoor space. Take it straight from the CDC: “Indoor gatherings generally pose more risk than outdoor gatherings.” That means hosting an outdoor Thanksgiving dinner instead of the typical indoor celebration is the best choice for these holidays. Good thing you’re already going down that path!
Your pandemic Thanksgiving planning shouldn’t stop at simply being outdoors, though. As the host, it’s your duty to create the safest possible environment for everyone involved. To help you make it happen we’ve assembled 5 tips for hosting Thanksgiving during the COVID-19 pandemic. You’ve got your turk(ey) cut out for you, but we promise it’ll be worth it.
- Carve out a Clear Plan
- Prepare a Hygienic Harvest
- Save Some Room (Not Just for Seconds)
- Buck the Potluck
- Include Those Who Can’t Make It - Virtually!
1. Carve out a Clear Plan
Before doing anything else, look up local and state guidelines regarding the permitted size of gatherings in your area. Those recommended numbers, along with the size of your outdoor space, set the bar for how many people you should invite. When sizing up your space, factor in the recommended 6 feet of distance guests should keep between themselves and others who live outside their household. This will also play a big role in seating, which we’ll get to shortly. Oh, another thing to consider: if you have out-of-town relatives coming over for dinner, check the community spread rates in their area. If they live in a coronavirus hotspot, it’s probably wise to celebrate with them virtually rather than in-person (more on that in a bit, too).
The least fun part of this exercise will be shrinking down your guest list if your area has tight restrictions on gathering size. We can’t help you make those tough decisions, but it might be a little bit easier if you know who shouldn’t come to your Thanksgiving dinner based on health concerns. For everyone’s safety, people who meet the following criteria shouldn’t be present at any gathering:
Showing symptoms of COVID-19
Have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and haven’t cleared quarantine protocol
Believe they have may COVID-19 and are awaiting test results
May have been exposed to COVID-19 within the last 14 days
Are at an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19
We won’t sugar-coat it (we’ll save that for the holiday cake) — these conversations will probably be difficult to have. But they’re for the safety of everyone, and we’ll soon cover ways to keep at-risk family members involved in the holiday celebration despite being unable to attend.
Once your guest list is settled, communicate the ground rules to those invited well in advance of the big day. Make sure everyone is on the same page about what’s expected as far as mask-wearing and frequent handwashing in accordance with CDC guidelines, and if you have additional guidelines, consider printing out the details and posting them around your outdoor space. It’s also not a bad idea to ask those who can to quarantine themselves for 14 days leading up to your Thanksgiving gathering. You should consider doing the same, if possible. Most importantly: be firm about safety practices, but don’t hover over your guests and their every move. You want them to feel relaxed, and you should take some time to enjoy the holiday, too.
2. Prepare a Hygienic Harvest
Distancing and mask-wearing are extremely important, but basic sanitation also goes a long way. Offer guests a cornucopia of sanitation products like hand sanitizer (the CDC recommends brands that contain at least 60% alcohol content), gloves, tissues, disinfectant wipes, and no-touch trash cans. You can even keep extra masks out for your forgetful family members. Make sure you have enough of these supplies at dining tables and in heavily trafficked areas, especially the bathroom, where extra sanitary precautions should be taken.
Providing guests with sanitation aids is one thing, but you can take the safety measures a step further by preparing individual dinnerware for each person. That means pre-packaged utensils, seasoning packets, cups (write names on them so no germy mix-ups occur!), and anything else they’d need to enjoy your holiday feast. Remember, the less person-to-person contact, the better.
3. Save Some Room (Not Just for Seconds)
No more cramming as many people as you can around the dining room table — the only stuffing at this year’s Thanksgiving should be what’s on your plate. To maintain proper social distancing, place chairs and tables at least 6 feet apart, factoring in the groups of households that can sit together. If the outdoor TV will be involved at some point (you already know we’ll be kicking back to watch football after dinner), plan ahead so you know exactly where to move chairs after mealtime.
Got the space but not the seating? There’s nothing wrong with asking your guests to bring their own chairs. In that case, it would once again be wise to plan ahead and pre-mark the spaces where everyone will sit. Everything will run more smoothly as guests start to arrive, and you’ll also prevent unintended contact. Seating aside, it’s still a good idea to set up markers spaced 6 feet apart on the ground. That way, there’s no guessing what 6 feet is! And if you typically set up a cocktail or drink station that attracts a lot of people at once, consider asking guests to bring their own drinks.
General planning for seating is important, but the most crucial setup is where you place older and higher-risk guests, should you all agree you can arrange for their safety. Take special care to seat them as far from the rest of the pack as possible, and perhaps even designate a bathroom specifically for them.
4. Buck the Potluck
For many families, Thanksgiving dinner is a combined effort where each attendee brings their own dish. Coronavirus Thanksgiving has other ideas. While the CDC has stated that the risk of contracting the virus from eating or handling food and food packaging is low, a potluck-style meal where multiple people handle dishes isn’t the safest route. It may be a pain, but everyone will be safer if you’re in control of the food from start to finish. (Instead of focusing on the difficulty, we encourage you to attempt to learn a family member’s recipe. Who knows, having them virtually instruct you on their signature dish might be a great bonding experience!)
Guests can still pitch in, though — rather than toting dishes over to your home, have them bring extra masks, hand sanitizer, and tissues. And if guests insist on bringing their own dishes, ask them to prepare that dish for their specific household rather than sharing with everyone. You want everyone to enjoy their favorite holiday foods, but not at the risk of getting people sick.
Safely prepping food is one thing, but what’s the best way to serve it? Our top recommendation is with packaged meals, box lunch style, that allow guests to easily take one (in a socially distanced line, of course) before returning to their seat. This grab-and-go strategy will require you to be on the ball as far as timing your dishes and quickly serving while still hot, but it’s absolutely the safest option. Pass the gravy? No thanks!
Your other choice: arranging a properly distanced buffet line with a single server who has taken every precaution when it comes to hygiene. This puts less pressure on the host to quickly box hot food, but the trade-off is that there’ll be more person-to-person contact than necessary, even if it’s limited.
In the event your outdoor space is minimal and some or all guests have to eat indoors, try staggering eating times. Send shifts of a few people inside until everyone has eaten, then repeat the rotation for anyone who wants seconds (or thirds — no shame here!). If space is at a premium, you can seat some of your guests inside and the rest in your outdoor space to spread them out as much as possible.
5. Include Those Who Can’t Make It
As we mentioned above, there will almost certainly be some family and friends who can’t come because of age, gathering size restrictions, or health risks. But you should still do everything in your power to make them feel included, especially around the holidays. Fortunately, the last 8 months have given us plenty of practice for keeping in touch with our loved ones even while remaining distanced.
There are a few things you can do to loop in non-attendees on the holiday feast, depending on their proximity to your home. If you live nearby, safely prepare and make a contactless dinner delivery to your elderly or immunocompromised family members. (Bonus points if it’s a surprise!) Then stay awhile and chat from a safe distance on their front porch or in their backyard.
For those family members who live too far, you can go the virtual route we’ve all grown accustomed to and have them join the festivities through a video chat. If you have enough room, give them their own seat at the table so it feels like they’re really there. And when they can finally attend your outdoor Thanksgiving dinners in person, it’ll be like starting a new tradition all over again.
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