How to Organize a Friendsgiving

Hosting a potluck-style Thanksgiving this year? Private chef and food writer Anna Watson Carl dishes on her tried-and true tips and strategies for organizing a lot of tasks, food and people all in one (potentially small) kitchen.

Thanksgiving Table

Photo Credit: Anna Watson Carl 

Anna Watson Carl is a Brooklyn-based private chef, food writer, and a lover of dinner parties. She is author of The Yellow Table: A Celebration of Everyday Gatherings (Sterling, 2015) and writes the blog The Yellow Table opens in a new tab. Her work has been featured in a variety of publications, including Food & Wine, SAVEUR,, WSJ Magazine and 

Thanksgiving is hands-down one of my favorite holidays of the year. The past few years, my husband and I have hosted “friendsgivings” in our apartment in New York City, and each year we invite friends who don’t have family nearby. Everyone brings a dish, and we set up a buffet-style spread before gathering around the table. These gatherings, spent relaxing, eating, and laughing with good friends, have created some of my favorite memories around the yellow table.

However, there’s one drawback to living (and entertaining!) in New York City: space is limited, and kitchens are typically tiny. Which means it’s nearly impossible not to have too many cooks in the kitchen.

Two People Cooking

Photo Credit: Anna Watson Carl

Here are a few handy organization tips I’ve learned over the years of hosting Thanksgiving — and juggling large amounts of food — in a small space. You just have to remember two key words: plan ahead!

Plan the menu ahead. Find out what your friends are bringing in advance, and plan your menu accordingly. I usually make the turkey, cranberry sauce, and stuffing, and ask my friends to bring appetizers, salads, side dishes, and desserts. It’s good to have an email chain going with a little sign-up sheet — that way everyone knows what they’re all bringing so you don’t end up with five pumpkin pies, or four sweet potato casseroles!

Do as much ahead as possible. In order to clear up oven space, I roast the turkey and carve the turkey earlier in the day, and make my stuffing and cranberry sauce the day before. That way, all I have to do before we eat is reheat the turkey and stuffing — and it ensures that my kitchen is clean when guests arrive!

Ask friends to make their dishes (mostly) before they arrive. There’s no way five or six friends can cook their dishes from scratch in a small kitchen, so ask everyone to bring their dishes mostly made in advance. That way, when they arrive at your house, they can either reheat a hot side dish or toss together a salad. Also, I usually ask everyone to bring their own serving dishes to make sure they have what they need. (Bonus: Less cleanup for me afterwards!)

Set your table in advance. I do this first thing in the morning on Thanksgiving. It sets the mood for the day (I love a festive table!) and ensures that I’m not rushing around last minute trying to find extra glasses or silverware when guests are arriving. Plus, it’s really nice for people to walk in and see a beautifully set table — it builds anticipation for the meal ahead!

A Table Set for Dinner

Photo Credit: Anna Watson Carl 

Have a few backup appetizers. There’s nothing worse than having a friend volunteer to bring appetizers, only to arrive an hour late. (This has happened to me, and I’m left suddenly scrounging around for some nubs of cheese and half-empty boxes of crackers.) Better to just plan ahead and have some good olives, some cocktail nuts, and a few cheeses on hand.

Have a few small tasks ready for friends who want to help. Inevitably, people arrive and want to help, so it’s good to have a few things for them to do. Put someone in charge of pouring drinks (wine, beer, sparkling water or fruit juice) when people arrive. Have someone take coats. Ask a friend to light candles once the lights start dimming. And if a friend offers to help with dishes afterwards, the answer is always yes!

Don’t be afraid to use your bathtub for storage. In my old apartment, the counter space was so limited (and my dishwasher was so tiny) that during big gatherings like Thanksgiving, I used my bathtub to store dirty pots and pans that would otherwise stack up in the sink or on the counter. I just stashed them away behind the curtain, and brought them out to wash once everyone had left. The system was genius — and I really don’t think anyone ever thought to look behind the curtain!

What are your tips for get organized when you have a lot of cooks in the kitchen for big feasts?

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