6 Tips For Ordering The Best Thanksgiving Dinner

You've decided to pay someone else to do the catering. Now what? Here's your game plan.

Sometimes, making a full-on multi-course meal from scratch is for the birds. We made what we think is a fine case for catering, and why you should seriously consider (or give yourself the grace of) ordering in Thanksgiving dinner this year. Now, let's talk about the how.


In theory, it sounds relatively simple to just say, "Hey, I'm just gonna pay for someone else to make my family's Thanksgiving feast for me." But that's not all you have to decide on. Some catering packages include more components for the price, while others might feed more people, but offer a more limited spread. And if you've got an eye on the budget, cost per serving can vary wildly between services.

So before you decide to take the plunge with Thanksgiving catering, here are six things you'll need to consider. Approaching the holiday strategically will help you avoid feeling like a turkey with its head cut off.

Narrow down your local options

The Honey Baked Ham Company is offering a turkey dinner package, which you can shore up with the new garlic buttered take-and-bake ham and cheddar biscuits for cocktail hour. Awesome! Can't go wrong with candied meat, right? Or maybe you want to revisit your favorite wings from the last tailgate party. Or is this the year you finally try that famous and increasingly pricey Popeyes turkey?


Before you get your heart set on a heat-and-serve feast from a chain restaurant, do a little homework first. While services like Goldbelly have made it easier to get specialty foods from farther afield, shipping can cost a pretty penny. Other establishments might be more affordable, but unavailable in your area. So it's best to start your search with an open mind.

Do a quick Google Maps search to see if the company you want to order from has a location near you. If so, call to make sure it's participating in holiday catering packages—some locations might not. Then ask if the restaurant's holiday policy is pickup only, or if they'll deliver catering (if you prefer that option). Special days usually come with special restrictions, so you want to make sure you know the lines you're coloring between.


And don't forget to think small, too... as in small businesses. Celebrate Small Business Saturday a little early by checking out local community restaurant groups on Facebook, exploring your favorite restaurants' Instagram accounts, and reading your city's local food publications for news on which neighborhood spots are offering catered Thanksgiving packages this year.

Figure out portion sizes

When comparing different Thanksgiving catering packages, it's hard to resist going with the one with more line items. Pumpkin is the spice of this season, but variety is the spice of life, amirite?

But not all Thanksgiving catering packages are created equal. Sometimes, a wider range of dishes means smaller quantities of each, while an abbreviated menu of basics can offer heartier portions.


Most restaurants and chains will tell you how many people their packages are built for, but no two appetites are the same. If you have a gathering of intermittent-fasting power lifters coming over for Friendsgiving, or your party is more early bird dinner bridge club, the amount of leftovers is going to vary wildly.

When doing your research, ask the restaurant how the serving sizes are calculated. Sides are usually weighed in cups for volume and by pound for weight, and meat is typically provided in a range of pounds, with an estimate of 1.5 pounds per person for turkey on the bone.

However, some establishments will just guesstimate full or half aluminum catering trays. If that's the case, you can check review sites and their photos to get an idea of how high they fill them—or just ask. It's less of an awkward conversation if you make it clear that you're just trying to ensure you're ordering enough. And remember, if the stated portions sound too skimpy, you can always add on to the standard package.


Calculate how much money you’re really saving

Let's be honest: Being of the Costco generation, we've been conditioned to believe that bulk shopping is better for our budget. While that's often true, that doesn't mean it always is, and the same extends to prepared foods, too.


What I learned writing this roundup of the best tailgate wings is that some restaurants charge the same amount per piece whether you buy the small order or the large, and other restaurants charge more per piece for big catering orders since it's a lot of work that requires a dedicated fryer to accommodate.

Additionally, you might be paying for accouterments you don't need. If you don't actually need ten pounds of sweet potato casserole or a catering package designed for 6-8 people, you might be better off buying multiple standard-size portions of each dish you want. And if your grandma is making her "famous" pecan pie, Dad's got the green bean casserole covered, and your sibling will only eat canned cranberry sauce, then it might actually not be worthwhile to do a preset menu with duplicates of all those dishes. Don't spend extra money where it won't count.


Check whether the catering will “cater” to you

You can also ask about customizing your catering. Yes, that might make you a pain in the ass, and sometimes it costs a bit extra to go off-script on their set packages. But on the other hand, it will definitely get you the best overall meal for your hard-earned bucks, and if you plan it right, you could theoretically shave off more than a few.


If the restaurant has a regular catering menu that will be available on Thanksgiving, find out what the a la carte prices are for the items you're interested in. Designing your own package gives you more power over your menu and your spend.

Adding items a la carte might give you an opportunity to bolster your meal, too. For example, if you're worried that your mac-and-cheese-loving fam will decimate the half tray, find out if the restaurant will cut you a deal to double it for less, or swap in a full tray for something in the package you don't need. You might be able to trade in that second pie for an extra helping of cornbread or clear room from the table by opting out of the salad.

Restaurants are open on Thanksgiving because they want your business. If the marketing doesn't say "no substitutions" and the business is not super booked already, you might be be able to design the meal a bit more. But make sure your requests are reasonable. Your odds of getting a second helping of mashed potatoes in exchange for the stuffing might fly, but no one's going to give you extra turkey in place of sprouts.


Confirm which party supplies are needed

Now that you've decided on getting your Thanksgiving catered, don't get all in a rush to stock up on serving supplies. We're talking sternos, napkins, plates, cups, disposable cutlery, and serving utensils like spoons and tongs. Some restaurants will provide a lot of that for you, saving you another run to the store. This only adds to the value of their service.


Chain restaurant catering packages tend to include disposable supplies, but it's not a hard and fast rule. Depending on the brand or location, it could be baked into the price and listed as complimentary, or it could be a convenient add-on that you can opt out of to save a couple of dollars. But if you already have some catering gear and party supplies from your last shindig, see if they'll waive the cost.

On the other hand, some restaurants list chafing racks, charcuterie display boards, bread baskets, buffet trays, and the like as equipment rentals that may require a fee or deposit. "Nice" restaurants will typically make this mandatory in order to preserve the quality of their food, and will expect you to return the stuff to the restaurant yourself after the event is over.


Regardless, if the place you choose is one that regularly caters, you can find this language in the catering portion of the website or menu. And if not, again, don't be afraid to ask.

Pickup vs. delivery

You figured out where you want to get your Thanksgiving meal from and which dishes you want to order. Awesome. The last question, then, is how it's going to get from where it's made to where it's going.


Thanksgiving is no ordinary day. Most restaurants cooking on the holiday will require you to pick up orders within a specified window of time to keep things organized (remember that these folks want to get home to their own families at a reasonable hour, too). The restaurant might even ask you to pick up your food the day before, which you can clarify when you place your order.

If a restaurant does deliver your catering package on Thanksgiving Day, expect to pay for the privilege. You can always ask the manager if they're willing to waive or reduce the delivery fee for a certain minimum spend, but remember that everyone else is asking the same. A 10%-15% gratuity is customary for catering, but if they're driving out to you the day of, definitely err on the higher end. After all, there's no better way to give thanks—and no way more American—than with the almighty dollar. That's capitalism, baby!