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Lay things out early, keep it casual, and other tips for setting a Thanksgiving table

Hosting Thanksgiving this year? Get ahead of the holiday by setting the table a day or two early to free up time for the all-important food preparations. And maybe give yourself a break by stepping the table decorations back a bit.
This image provided by Southern Living magazine shows three small squashes, hollowed out and filled with flowers, a pretty display that doesn't interfere with holiday table conversation. (Robbie Caponetto/Southern Living via AP)

Hosting Thanksgiving this year? Get ahead of the holiday by setting the table a day or two early to free up time for the all-important food preparations.

And maybe give yourself a break by stepping the table decorations back a bit.

“Easy and effortless is one thing I’m enjoying seeing” for entertaining, says Betsy Cribb Watson, senior home and features editor at Southern Living magazine.


“People are more and more using the pieces they have and love, and finding autumnal ways to use them... making it feel fun for the season,” she says. “That alleviates pressure right off the bat.”

She recommends pulling out Grandma’s blue china or setting the table with hot pink and red dishes atop a brown tablecloth. Or use your usual dishware but change the napkins — anything with a pattern will camouflage stains and spills. Less costly still: Incorporate paper cocktail napkins as drink coasters.

Erica Finamore, Real Simple magazine’s home director, also recommends easing up on formalities and decorating the table with what’s on hand, even if that’s a pretty sheet from the linen closet.

“Setting a beautiful table has become somewhat of a party trick,” she says. “Now we do it more casually but we want it to feel special. …

"Take a lap around your house to see what you’ve got to work with,” she suggests.

Comb bookcases for small decorative items, such as brass objects, vacation souvenirs and small food-safe baskets.

“They make it interesting and they’re conversation starters,” Finamore says. “It’s nice to have so much of yourself represented at the table.”


Don’t have matching place settings? Go more artisanal by mixing up the linens and dishware patterns. Use glassware in different shapes and colors (colored 1970s glassware is popular right now, according to Finamore).

“It still makes guests feel special,” she says.

A rule for incorporating many colors and patterns: Stick with three or four colors, in addition to neutrals, changing each item’s pattern size. For example, if the tablecloth has a micro-print, the napkins should have a larger, bulkier print, with the dishes providing a differently sized pattern (or go white – food looks best on white plates, says Finamore).


As for the centerpiece, both editors advise against a large flower bouquet -– they’re difficult to see around. Rather, run a few small pots of healthy herbs or bud vases with one or two stems down the center of the table. Or use small pumpkins and gourds, individually or in a shallow bread basket. Intermix a few candlesticks or votives on the table.

“It’s zero effort, and the whole point of Thanksgiving is to have good conversation,” Cribb Watson says. “You don’t want to get in the way of that.”

Display a colorful “mini garden,” she suggests, to punch up color and interest. Use purple cabbage — the ornamental kind — with small bunches of kale, herbs, even radishes for a pop of red. Add baby eggplant, tiny pumpkins and various succulents, such as a purple sedum and the hardy hens and chicks.


— Accent with gold: It’s classy and reflects the fall colors. “Gold makes the table feel less rustic,” Cribb Watson says.

— Be inspired by the outdoors: If you live on a coast, incorporate river blues and greens. If you live near the mountains, work in warm and woodsy greens and browns.

— Line up inexpensive tiles down the center of the table as a runner where hot dishes are set, or use them as coasters, says Finamore.

— Place folded napkins and silverware atop the dinner plate. “It makes it feel a little more formal,” Finamore says.

— Use place cards, advises Cribb Watson. “It’s one more way to make whoever is coming to the table feel special, to know they have a place where they belong.”

Finamore’s No. 1 tip to reduce stress: Take care of all this decorating a day –- or days -– in advance. Besides, you’ll learn what might be missing.

“Do whatever you can ahead of time to make the holiday more relaxing,” she says.

Jennifer Forker, The Associated Press

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