The holidays can be wonderful, but they can also be stressful. With Thanksgiving right around the corner, I thought I’d spend some time talking about how we can reduce stress around the holidays by doing a little bit of planning upfront. The better you plan, the more relaxed you’ll be; so relaxed you might even be able to enjoy those debates with your curmudgeonly uncle!

For many of us, this will be the first time we’ve celebrated with extended family since 2019. Vaccines have made holiday travel and gathering in groups a much safer possibility than last year. (However, vaccines have only just been approved for the 5-11 set, meaning kids in this age range will not be fully vaccinated by Thanksgiving and those under 5 will not be at all). As such, in addition to the general holiday planning tips, I’m adding some tips on how to think about safety, and your own boundaries, so you don’t find yourself in any dicey situations where you’re making game time (and probably emotional) decisions about health and safety for your family.

If you are hosting:

  • Make a big picture game plan – Get out a spreadsheet and plan the meal. Choose your recipes, and write down the ingredient lists. Check your fridge and cabinets to see what you’ve already got. Then, do one big shopping trip.
  • Make a timeline – Working backward from mealtime, figure out when you need to start cooking or preparing each of your dishes. Prepare a timeline so that you’re not scrambling. Take it a step farther and put reminders in your phone, or your Alexa/Google Home (i.e. “put the turkey in the oven at 11 am”)
  • Do what you can in advance – Spend a few hours the weekend before prepping and chopping all your veg and measuring out all your dry goods for breads and pie crusts. Get an extensive mis-en-place going. This will significantly reduce the time you spend in the kitchen the day of, make the operation run smoother and ensure that you can get help (the kind that is actually helpful) from family members and guests. Make your pies on Wednesday and let them sit out overnight. Prep the guest room on Tuesday.
  • Plan to keep it casual – Plan for convenience. Consider serving buffet style, with a big stack of plates at the front end. Plan to NOT set the table. Plan for everything that can be self-serve to be self-serve. Set up a bar station with glasses at the ready. Let your guests get their own drinks. Tell everyone who walks in the door you expect them to make themselves at home.
  • Plan to accept help – Plan to be gracious and accept help, even if you think you can do something better yourself. This is not the time for perfectionism. Prepare a list of things that others can help with, so when they ask, you’ll have something ready for them.
  • Decide on and communicate your safety requirements – Your own requirements for safety may be very different from those of your guests, so it’s important to define for yourself what you’re comfortable with and communicate these requirements to those you’ll be hosting well before the event. For instance, if you’ll require vaccinations from anyone over 12, let people know in advance. If you’d like everyone to take an at-home COVID test before they arrive at your house, let them know in advance. You can even take it a step farther to show them how to find the tests, and maybe even send texts out in advance if you’re concerned or just want to make it as easy as possible for everyone to comply.

If you will be a guest:

  • Plan what to bring – Ask the host what you can bring in advance. (And if they say nothing, bring booze or flowers.) This is easier for you (you’ll know just what to bring!) and avoids any awkwardness while the host tries to find a vase for your flowers or cringes as he or she adds your dish to his/her a carefully planned table/menu.
  • Plan to pitch in – Be ready for dish duty, or kid wrangling. Plan to look for opportunities to help. You’ll feel good, and your host will feel even better.
  • Plan when to leave – Will you leave after pie? Will you stick around until 10 pm? Decide in advance so that everyone’s expectations are the same and you can avoid hushed conversations or child meltdowns.
  • Plan a “let’s get out of here” signal with your partner or family – Sometimes, even with the best-laid plans, we need an escape hatch. Plan a signal that lets your SO know “it’s time to go”. And then plan your excuse so you’re sticking to the same story and no one’s feelings get hurt.
  • Decide what you’re comfortable with safety-wise in advance (and communicate your needs) – If you’re only comfortable being indoors with those who are vaccinated, or you don’t want anyone to hold your new baby, regardless of vaccination status, decide in advance, ask questions of the host so you can be prepared and be willing to make other plans if your safety needs can’t be met. If you want your not-yet-vaccine-eligible kids to wear masks regardless of everyone else’s vaccination status (or what their cousins will be doing), prep them (and your relatives) about that in advance.

If you’ll be traveling:

  • Make a packing list – Making a list ensures that you don’t forget the essentials. No one wants to be shopping for diapers or contact lens solution on Thanksgiving. And print a blank copy to use on the return. Don’t leave your kid’s lovey at your great aunt’s house in another state.
  • Bring a gift (that will make it through TSA)– If you’re traveling on a plane, alcohol and food are likely out as gifts. Plan to bring a gift that your host can enjoy, or that you can all enjoy together. Think a book, a card game, a board game, etc.
  • Plan to avoid boredom – Make sure to put that book you’ve been meaning to read in your bag for the plane. Download some audiobooks your whole family can enjoy on the car ride. Pack activities and snacks for your kids.
  • Plan for safety – If you’ve got small kids, practice mask-wearing (even when it’s uncomfortable) so they’ll be ready on the plane. Bring extra hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes. Decide if you’re comfortable eating/drinking on flights (or in other small space areas), or if you’d rather wear your masks the whole time. Plan for whatever you feel comfortable with.

When you plan, you are better able to enjoy yourself and be present in the moment. Holidays are no different. A little work on the front end goes a long way towards our own happiness, and the happiness of others.

Happy Thanksgiving!