How to Host an Outdoor Thanksgiving Filled With Warmth and Tradition

Here's how to take it outside for a safe and festive Thanksgiving this year.

overhead view of carved Thanksgiving turkey on a platter and Brussels sprout salad in a bowl on a wooden table
Photo: Victor Protasio/Meredith Studios

As we're still trying to figure out gathering in larger groups, people are navigating the holidays in different ways. One option? Taking the traditional family gathering into the great outdoors. Whether you are in a hot or cold climate, here are tips on how to put together the perfect outdoor Thanksgiving celebration.

With COVID-19 as the everchanging variable, Thanksgiving may not be quite as traditional as in years past. Some feel comfortable gathering indoors with extended family, some are opting to stay virtual (or just with immediate family), and others are thinking of creative options. Hosting Thanksgiving outside is one of those great options (the CDC says outdoor gatherings are safer) even in parts of the country that may be a little chillier on Thanksgiving.

With a little advanced planning, and a few pieces of kitchen and outdoor gear, you can still gather with the whole family, making new traditions. Allrecipes spoke with Jodi Fyfe, owner of Paramount Events, a catering and events company out of Chicago on all that you need to host a festive, outdoor Thanksgiving.

Keep Those Traditional Dishes on the Menu

We have a feeling a few family members may scoff at the idea of moving things outdoors, so try not to disrupt the overall menu as little as possible. "Thanksgiving is all about the menu — people know what they want," says Fyfe. That usually includes a traditional turkey, stuffing, and whatever other fixings your family usually has. The trickier part of outdoors is keeping all of those things at proper temperature for both food safety and overall taste.

Invest in a Few Essentials to Keep Food Warm

Lodge 6 Quart Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven

To keep things at proper temperature you'll want to grab a few pieces of equipment that caterers often use, but that you can find now at many national retailers. The first is a chafer which comes in both disposable and reusable units. "Anyone who entertains in their home should have a few," says Fyfe.

It's basically a warming unit with a heater (often gel sterno) underneath. This is where you'll put most of your food — a great way to serve everything from green bean casserole to sweet potatoes. If you are hosting a big group you may want to look at getting a full set of chafing warmers (these are disposable for easier cleanup) or if you entertain often you may want to instead invest in this stainless steel option. For items with more of a liquid consistency —like gravy — you will also want to get a bain-marie, a vessel that will gently heat and keep things warm over time, similar to a double boiler. They vary greatly in price but you can a bain-marie under $20.

A Dutch oven is another worthy investment. "Dutch ovens really hold in the heat," says Fyfe. "You'll want to make your mashed potatoes, put them in a Dutch oven until you are ready to transfer to your serving vessel."

Serve Buffet Style

The one thing you may want to change about your traditional family meal is to have most of the food served buffet style instead of passed around the table. You can keep the food inside until everyone is ready to eat and then set up a festive buffet table to let everyone serve themselves (while the food is kept in these warming vessels). This buffet warmer is another purchase to consider. You can still leave some of the colder items on the table like cranberry sauce, salads, etc. along with your rolls. To keep those Thanksgiving breads warm on the table, a festive basket with a linen cloth, should do the trick.

Keep it Cozy

three mugs of hot cider garnished with lemon slices and cinnamon sticks

Just because you are outdoors doesn't mean you need to lose the cozy elements of gathering around a table. Let guests know in advance that they will be outside so they can dress appropriately for the weather. It's easy to also find portable heaters that you can set up to keep everyone warm. Firepits are another option if it's something you will use again this winter.

If you want to add special touches, you can give everyone a fleece blanket or hand/foot warmers as necessary. Red wine, hot cider (spiked or not), hot chocolate, warm teas are all great additions," she says to help keep warm.

If you aren't in a cold temperature, you'll still want to do things that make your family feel as comfortable as possible. Maybe you are a jammies family? Have everyone come in pajamas! The goal is to make your family feel comfortable and keep the traditions alive –even if al fresco.

"You can even set up an outdoor TV if part of your family tradition is watching football or A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving," says Fyfe.

Hospitality is King

Just because you are outdoors doesn't mean you shouldn't decorate and add those special touches. Use a table runner on your outdoor table and cover it with gourds or something fun like these velvet pumpkins. "A cute touch is hollowing out real mini pumpkins and using them as serving vessels," says Fyfe. She suggests dishes like a pumpkin soup or mac and cheese.

But at the end of the day, "It's the hospitality that will really make your guests feel warm and comfortable."


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