Step into my crowded living room at 4 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, and you’ll find a glorious melting pot of religious, political and gastronomical ideals.
Among us are faithful Christians, ever-questioning agnostics and devout followers of the Baha’i faith. Some pull up in cars still emblazoned with Hillary stickers. Others voted for Trump or Bernie, or prefer not to disclose. Our food preferences are equally varied, with gluten-free, dairy-free vegetarian teetotalers seated next to unabashed carnivores who like a few stiff eggnogs before dinner.
Hosting this annual family gathering—which numbers as high as 27 people—has become a highlight of my holiday season. But do I get stressed? You bet. I am not alone.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, holiday gatherings can be an 11 stress-wise,” says Samuel Gladding, Ph.D., a professor of counseling at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “There is always that hope that it’s going to be a pleasant and enlightening time, but sometimes guests differ so much that making that happen can be really challenging.”
Although no gathering can be perfect, experts say hosts can avoid much of that stress with a little planning, some open communication and a few creative strategies to infuse food, conversation and holiday gift giving (if you choose to do it) with more meaning and less conflict. Here’s a look.
Keep Food Sensitivities in Mind
About 30 percent of U.S. consumers try to minimize or eliminate gluten, while 5 percent eschew meat and 2.5 percent are strictly vegan. In all, 15 million Americans have a food allergy, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. And, based on data from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, one in three adults does not drink alcohol.
To keep these myriad tastes from presenting a planning nightmare, call or email your guests a few weeks in advance to ask if they have any strict preferences. If some do, consider asking them to bring a dish that suits their restrictions. Otherwise, make two versions of certain primary dishes—one for those who can eat anything and one for those who can’t, advises Nancy Farrell, a registered dietitian nutritionist from Fredericksburg, Va. For instance, make one batch of stuffing with regular bread, eggs, nuts and sausage and a second batch that has no meat and is made with vegetarian stock, gluten-free bread and no nuts (suitable for most any food restriction).
Consider tossing your veggies in olive oil instead of butter, so vegans and people with allergies can enjoy them, too. And make side toppings your friend: Toss a basic salad that will work for everyone; then put croutons, bacon, chopped eggs, nuts and other commonly avoided foods on the side for guests to add themselves.
Take a similar DIY approach to cocktails, mixing booze-free eggnog or punch and allowing guests to splash a bit of alcohol in if they want it. Be sure to pick up some sparkling waters or juices for those who don’t drink wine with dinner.
And label everything, particularly if you have a large crowd. “That creates fewer questions from your guests,” Farrell says.
Serve Up Tradition
Farrell also advises making the food about more than, well, just food.
“There is so much history and culture surrounding food. It helps us gain insight into our heritage, acknowledge that we are proud of it and pass it on.”
In keeping with her Slavic grandparents’ traditions, Farrell’s family still serves fish on Christmas Eve and has 12 dishes on the table to represent the 12 apostles. To honor her Dad’s traditions, she and her grown daughters still take a slice of apple, a taste of honey and some garlic before a holiday meal for “good health.”
Ask your kids or other family members what foods truly represent the holidays to them. Look up culinary traditions online from your own family heritage. And consider inviting your guests—particularly newcomers to the gathering—to bring something that reflects their own heritage. (My brother-in-law, originally from Iran, brings a delicious Persian dessert for our Thanksgiving).
“It’s never too late to reconnect with old family traditions or create new ones,” Farrell says.
Keep the Peace
The past year’s political developments have added a new layer of stress to some holiday gatherings, says Gladding.
“It’s not that we haven’t disagreed before, but rude behavior seems to be a bit more in vogue these days, and people aren’t quite as tolerant of other people’s beliefs or political opinions.”
If your guests have a history of disagreeing, take a moment at the beginning of the gathering to request that everyone take a break from volatile topics. “Frame this as a special time to enjoy each other’s company, not fight about politics,” Gladding says. “Or, designate a no-politics zone.”
Consider appointing a close friend or family member in advance who can step in if the conversation starts to steer into ugly territory. You, as the host, have enough to do and don’t need to worry about playing referee, he says.
To get around the sometimes tricky issue of the blessing, Gladding recommends taking a cue from the Quakers and simply calling for a moment of silence in which your guests can reflect and give thanks privately in any way they see fit.
Another option: Ask them to go around the table and mention the one thing they are most thankful for.
Give Thoughtful Gifts
Although many opt to skip gift exchanges altogether, and some view them as materialistic and crass, consumer research psychologist Kit Yarrow, Ph.D., sees it differently.
“Throughout history, gifts have been a deeply effective, meaningful way to connect with others,” says Yarrow, who is also a professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. “A thoughtfully chosen gift given with emotion can show that you understand the other person and want to bring them joy.”
Yarrow, who has surveyed hundreds of shoppers and recipients over the years for her research, says the giver gets as much, if not more, gratification from a well-chosen gift (the thrill of watching the recipient’s surprise, the feel-good chemicals that surge when we behave altruistically) as the receiver does. “It resets our view of ourselves from someone who is self-focused to someone who is generous.”
But unfortunately, shoppers often get hung up on what they’re “saving,” whether it’s racing for Black Friday sales or buying a gift online simply because it’s discounted, than what they’re giving.
“I’d love to see people get back to that old-fashioned practice of really thinking about what the person would be delighted by,” Yarrow says, noting that more thoughtful givers often end up spending less.
If you opt to do gifts, start early, she stresses, so you have time to put thought into gifts you can make or afford, rather than plucking generic, hastily chosen throwaways off the shelf last-minute. If the gift exchange starts to get too large and unwieldy, set some ground rules (preferably before Thanksgiving when more than half of people have already started their holiday shopping).
“People tend to get stressed when they don’t know what is expected of them. They worry that they will bring body lotion and someone else will bring a diamond ring. They don’t want to disappoint their loved ones but they need to stick to a budget,” Yarrow says.
To minimize that uncertainty, consider putting a limit on how much guests can spend on each gift, asking guests to pick a name of an individual or family to buy for, or eschewing the gift exchange for one big group experience, such as a family vacation or a collective donation to a charity.
Yarrow also recommends homemade gifts, like cookies or crafts; or experiential gifts, like the promise of a hike or dinner out together. (Each holiday season, my sisters and I pitch in to treat my mom to a night at the theater).
People can also give of their time or skills: An older child could offer a babysitting certificate to Mom and Dad; a grandson could offer to hook up grandma’s new computer.
Another great gift from a holiday gathering: Take pictures and email them to everyone who came, advises Gladding.
My mom’s boyfriend has done this for years, sharing an annual portrait of our large and growing crew squeezed together on the couch.
When I look at it, I’m reminded that even if the gathering doesn’t always go perfectly, we all got to be together.