How To Host A Virtual Thanksgiving Dinner This Year
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COVID-19 has put a deep crease in many typical Thanksgiving traditions this year, nixing large in-person get-togethers for the sake of safety. The new CDC guidelines for Thanksgiving cites small dinners as the lowest-risk celebration, while “attending large indoor gatherings with people from outside of your household” is high risk.
Thanks to modern technology, you can celebrate virtually over Zoom (or whatever your preferred video conferencing app is). But if the thought of a Zoom Thanksgiving fills you with dread ― the kind you’ve experienced all year as you watch colleagues cut each other off and humiliate themselves in team Zoom meetings ― don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be that awkward.
While grandma and your far-away friends might not make it to your physical table, there are steps you can take to inject an in-person feel and connect with them on a whole new level from afar ― think perfectly synced playlists and collective cocktail making. These fun activities will keep virtual Thanksgiving attendees feeling grateful and connected during the entire feast despite the physical distance.
Sync your sound.
While family and friends might not share the same physical space this Thanksgiving, they can enjoy the same tunes during their virtual celebrations.
Music can be a useful tool for creating a feeling of closeness: “It really unites the crowd and establishes the vibe for any event…especially virtual ones,” explained Karina Guiteau, founder of New York event planning firm KPG Events. Since the goal is unity, it makes sense for everyone attending a virtual holiday event to be on the same page musically, and a synced playlist is an effective strategy for achieving that goal.
Tracy Young, a Grammy award-winning DJ/producer who’s worked with Cher, Madonna and Beyonce, advises, “A synced playlist will help everyone feel connected … like they are all in the same room together, even when they can’t be.” Young personally uses Spotify to create playlists and appreciates that the Group Sessions feature “allows the creator [of the playlist] to grant other people access, and in turn they can add songs to the playlist as well ― so it is a very engaging experience.” Learn how to set up Group Sessions and sync your playlist with friends.
Fine-tuning the playlist to suit your entire guest list is also an important step to musical harmony. Young cautions, “Keep the music age-appropriate and keep the genres diverse. Include several universally known ‘oldies but goodies’ that everyone will know and have fun with.” Young also recommends keeping things balanced when it comes to the tempo of the chosen tunes. “Don’t add too many slow songs in a row, it will drag down the mood. On the flip side, don’t add too many high-energy songs in a row — unless you want to turn your Thanksgiving into a rave.”
Do an on-screen cook-along.
The meal itself is typically the focal point of Thanksgiving gatherings. With the holiday going virtual for many people this year, chef Jumoke Jackson, a New York-based caterer and event planner who has hosted virtual cooking events for Airbnb experiences and Google, suggests turning the meal prep into the main event with an on-screen cook-along.
“Food usually brings people together and a virtual cooking exercise will get you as close to in-person memories as possible,” Jackson said. “Cooking together, even virtually, makes people feel less alone, and more connected ― especially during this pandemic.”
Jackson warns that time, skill level and the potential for technical issues all need to be considered when planning a virtual cook-along. “Be mindful of how long you plan for the event to last and be mindful (when possible) of the basic skill level of all involved.”
Proper organization and clear direction are essential. “Give definitive instructions on what must be done in advance,” Jackson explained. “Pre-measured ingredients and pre-heated temperatures should not be left to your guests to guess.” Jackson also suggests cook-along coordinators provide guests with detailed lists of all needed items in advance, including all of the ingredients and necessary equipment.
Don’t be overly ambitious ― trying to do too much can potentially ruin the fun.
“Two or three dishes is plenty to tackle,” Jackson recommends. “Anything over three dishes and I fear you’re biting off more than you can chew … you also have to build in time for being social, it is a social gathering.” Leave complicated, ingredient-packed dishes off the menu and don’t even think about preparing the turkey in group formation. Jackson believes that the star of the show should be prepared in advance. “Dishes that take the longest should be tackled alone. I would focus on the sides and desserts … to actually cook a turkey during a cook-along would be nearly impossible.”
Craft cocktails together.
“A cocktail mix-along is a cool way to connect with each other during a virtual event,” said William Sonnet, co-founder and managing partner at Etiquette Management Group in New York. “It makes a fun alternative to physical interaction.”
Similar to a cook-along, a mix-along allows guests to interact and create a part of the meal together in real time. But again, ensuring the activity runs seamlessly will require real forethought.
Sonnet recommends the host “decide on a cocktail theme, then share a specific shopping list in advance to give guests adequate time to get the right ingredients.” Speaking of ingredients, when it comes to a cocktail recipe’s components, Sonnet feels creative is good but overly experimental is not. “Forget the dry ice and pyrotechnics. A virtual mix-along [at home] is not the time for special effects.”
More isn’t necessarily better when it comes to virtual cocktail making, in fact overly complicated drink recipes can make things too stressful. Sonnet advises to “plan on making drinks with simple, easy-to-find ingredients and not too many steps, like a creative sangria.”
Sonnet also recommends the host runs through the recipe at least once in advance of the virtual event, to ensure you’ve ironed out any wrinkles. He also strongly advises having non-alcoholic options on the activity list, as well: “Having mocktails on the menu is an incredible show of inclusivity.”
Create a sense of togetherness by coordinating your decor.
Sitting down to a festively dressed table is a highly anticipated aspect of Thanksgiving dinner. Whether minimally accented or fully decked out, the table decor plays an important role in the overall Thanksgiving experience and the role of table decorator is one that hosts typically take great pride in playing.
“Sitting together around the table usually reminds people of home,” Guiteau explained. “The table is where we gather to laugh, to cry to eat ― and the table décor sets the mood.”
Although physically sitting together isn’t possible at a virtual gathering, Guiteau, who’s planned intimate and large-scale fetes for the likes of Sean P. Diddy Combs and Marc Anthony, says achieving the feeling of togetherness is not completely impossible. It will, however, take some creativity and pre-planning.
She recommends contacting guests ahead of time “to gauge who wants to participate in group table decorating. Then go over details like color scheme.” Once the chosen shades have been decided, Guiteau proposes the host share their exact picks and purchases so that guests can have the option to add those same touches to their respective tables. “If the host has time, they can send everyone links to the items they’re buying such as candles, tablecloths, napkins and vases.” As charming of an idea as matching table settings is, Guiteau urges hosts to be flexible when it comes to the details. “The host should encourage guests to stay within the decided color palette, but be OK with people choosing things that are more practical for their individual homes.”
Spend a moment in spiritual solidarity.
From a pre-dinner blessing of the meal to a moment of silence for a lost loved one, an element of spirituality adds a warm touch to a virtual Thanksgiving gathering.
Nadia Ameri, a fourth-generation spiritual healer and founder of The Flower Apothecary, advocates incorporating spiritual reflection into a virtual holiday get-togethers, especially this year, because a reflective component “provides hope and is an effective way comfort all participants. It recognizes what we have to be thankful for.”
Ameri advises keeping the activity neutral and not necessarily religious. “We live in a day and age where cross cultural and cross-religious families are very common. A non-secular moment of reflection, such as lighting a candle together or a brief meditation, will allow everyone in attendance to feel the love without anyone feeling isolated.”