Last update on March 11, 2019

We offer a short guide to Thanksgiving, with tips, recipes and decoration ideas for non-Americans out there.

Anyone can plan a fabulous Thanksgiving dinner, even while living abroad. The tips below include some great recipes plus a few new twists, ideas for decorating your dining table, as well as some history. There’s something for everyone – whether you’ve been doing it for years or are a Thanksgiving dinner first-timer.

Tips for planning a Thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving is usually celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. In the United States it’s an official holiday but if you live abroad and are planning to invite family and friends to a meal, give them plenty of warning – many people don’t expect a slap-up dinner on a work night (and if you invite a Canadian, keep in mind they celebrate Thanksgiving in October).

What’s really great about this very America tradition is its focus on your nearest and dearest, sitting around the table to celebrate friendships, family, good fortune and nature’s abundance. And it’s becoming increasingly popular outside North America.

Thanksgiving is about sharing and so getting everyone to contribute to the meal by bringing a dish is part of the spirit of the occasion. It’s also typical to serve all the dishes at once, rather than the European tradition of different courses. It’s not unusual for Americans to mix sweet and savoury dishes with abandon. A great de-stresser for us Brits is to worry less about getting everything to the table ‘piping’ hot, particularly if other guests are bringing dishes.

Recipes for cooking a Thanksgiving dinner

Cornbread for stuffing a Thanksgiving turkey
In America they call it dressing, and cornbread forms the base of lots of traditional stuffing for your Thanksgiving dinner turkey. Here’s a recipe to make cornbread.

Green beans
Green beans are traditional Thanksgiving fare and we’ve got tips for serving them with a twist, such as this Californian recipe for caramelised shallots and green beans.

Thanksgiving cranberry chutney
It’s a slant on that British Christmas favourite, cranberry sauce. Cranberries play a big role in Thanksgiving dinners and this recipe for cranberry chutney is thoroughly American.

Sweet potatoes with marshmallows
Sweet potatoes with marshmallows is an unrelentingly traditional Thanksgiving dish and will be unfamiliar to many non-American palates. But try this recipe – it’s absolutely delicious!

Indian pudding – a colonial recipe
Indian pudding is a fantastic alternative to pumpkin pie and its history goes way back to the early settler days. Here’s a recipe.

Editor’s note: If you are looking for pumpkin pie recipes, Martha Stewart provides a number of pumpkin recipes, and here’s a recipe for Betty Crocker’s pumpkie pie.

Mashed potatoes
This simple dish can almost take centre stage at Thanksgiving. Cristina Beesemyer, an expat American living in London, has shared her favourite recipe with us to make mashed potatoes with onion.

Or what about a wild rice casserole?

Savoury tart
Another American expat, Kathy Thexton, has lent us her special butternut squash tart recipe.

Turkey and gravy
And of course there is simple recipe for roast turkey and gravy.

Thanksgiving recipes

“Thanksgiving for me is caught up in childhood memories from Texas: turkey, dressing (stuffing), gravy, cranberry sauce, sweet potato pie with marshmallow topping, macaroni and cheese, collard greens or green beans, cornbread and pumpkin pie. Scattering autumn leaves on the table along with miniature pumpkins and squash gourds always looks festive.” – Jamie Lehrer, New York.

Presentation and decoration

You can’t go wrong with Jamie’s autumn leaves mentioned above. But here are some other ideas for decorating your Thanksgiving table:

  • Use berries and autumn fruits as table decoration; even small pumpkins can look really effective.
  • Go for a natural look rather than formalised centrepieces.
  • Pick up the Autumn theme using napkins and serviettes in golds, browns and rich reds.
  • Candles give soft light and gilding can make them look spectacular.

Thanksgiving history: How it all started

It was first celebrated by the Pilgrim Fathers in New England in 1621. It celebrated a successful harvest but also recognised the extraordinary hardship the settlers had been through.

The meal itself was based around what the pilgrims had grown – including corn or maize. The wild turkey was native to the United States and was written about in the History of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford some 22 years after the first known celebration.

As more and more of the new American states adopted the idea, President Abraham Lincoln appointed a national day of Thanksgiving in 1863.

For those of us who aren’t American

We may not have the tradition of Thanksgiving in our own countries but this is one celebration that has to be worth adopting. What could be nicer than dedicating a day to simply saying thanks for all the good things in life, when so much of the time we’re moaning about the bad ones? And the lovely thing about Thanksgiving is that it doesn’t involve an orgy of gift-giving and commercialism – just a great excuse to spend time with friends and family and reflect on how much we have to be thankful for.