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?