How to Style Your Thanksgiving Table, According to Experts

updated Sep 28, 2023
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Thanksgiving is all about excess—turkey, pies, and all the sides. That being said, minimalism isn’t really on tap when you create a tablescape for Turkey Day either, at least if you ask tableware and home accessories designer Joanna Buchanan. In keeping with the holiday’s overall vibe, she prefers to create a harvest scene that feels plentiful. “In magazines, tables look very full,” she explains. “You see accessories, foliage, and lots of glassware—think plenty of layers and lots of texture.” 

Easier said than done? We thought you might feel that way. So we asked Buchanan to share her best tip for creating an easy but beautiful tablescape that will wow your guests this Thanksgiving.

1. Start With a Good Base

For a round table, Buchanan prefers a tablecloth paired with round placemats. Rectangular tables look great with a long runner down the center, and she says it’s fine to layer a tablecloth and a runner if that’s your style. “The tables you see in magazines have so many elements,” she adds. “If you do decide to layer, be sure to vary the scale and pattern of your linens but keep them in the same color palette.” Washed linen is a classic, understated material for a tablecloth or a runner that you can easily build upon anytime you want to entertain.

2. Shop Your Closet

You don’t need to replace all of your dinnerware or flatware every holiday, Buchanan says. For your main pieces, invest in neutral dishes and a simple, modern set of silverware. “This will give you so much flexibility,” she adds, noting that neutral doesn’t have to mean boring. “Plates don’t have to have to be stark white—I love a gray and white leopard, for example.” 

One rule of thumb? If you’re using a tablecloth, Buchanan says you should put a placemat under your charger. “Layer your charger and two plates, then two forks and two knives,” she says. “That will really fill out your table.”

3. Use Foliage as a Focal Point

A mix of greenery, flowers, and gourds is perfect for Thanksgiving fall feels. But keep in mind that you don’t want to use large vases that your guests won’t be able to see over. Instead, Buchanan recommends a row of six to seven sage green or white pumpkins to anchor your centerpiece. If you have leftover pumpkins from Halloween that are still in good shape, feel free to spray paint them so you can get a little more mileage out of them.

Position individual flowers between your pumpkins if you like, or you can make a traditional bouquet if that’s more your speed. Finally, fill in empty spaces with fresh greenery like eucalyptus. 

Credit: Leela Cyd

4. Introduce Candlelight

Candlelight is so pretty and flattering, and it feels special,” Buchanan says. “After all, Thanksgiving is a party.” She loves sparkly votives and putting pillar candles in candlesticks positioned down the center of the table. Skip anything scented. “There will be plenty of other smells on Thanksgiving,” she says.

Credit: Minette Hand

5. Use Additional Side Tables

To keep your main table focused on decor, Buchanan recommends serving food from a sideboard. Even in a small apartment, you can easily pull up a desk covered in a tablecloth to create a makeshift serving station. Or keep it casual and serve from the kitchen. That way, your guests aren’t bumping elbows trying to fit all of the dishes on the table.

“And we mustn’t forget the bar cart,” Buchanan adds. “I love to decorate the bar and make it feel really special. It should be an extension of what you’ve done on the table—make it feel generous and full.” Another hostess tip? Stock your bar with plenty of alcoholic and non-alcoholic options, so guests can help themselves.

6. Add a Touch of Sparkle

Set a water glass and a wine glass at each place setting to round out the table. Any other glassware, Buchanan says, should go on the bar cart. Then, add a dash of sparkle to your place settings. Napkin rings can act as jewelry for your table, but they should work with your overall color palette.

7. Finish With Personal Touches

Even if you’re only hosting a few guests, Buchanan says place cards are a must. They’re also a great way to get kids involved in setting the table. “I have the children make the place cards,” she says. “It’s not massively coordinated, but it’s lovely to get them involved.” You could also use mini pumpkins or apples for this too.

Then, add a little gift—a box of sweets or a cookie—to each setting. The last element? “There are about a million ways to do the napkin,” Buchanan laughs. “Fan it out, or go into the garden and grab a little greenery to stick into the ring. There’s something nice about having some fresh greenery on the table.”

Credit: Havenly

8. Curate a Color Palette

For a Thanksgiving table that looks professionally styled, it’s a good idea to stick to a color palette for all of the various decor elements you’ll be using. Taking a beat to make sure your colors look good together will guarantee the finished product looks intentional and cohesive. As far as colors go, you have endless options to work with so don’t feel limited by traditional warm, autumnal schemes if that’s not your jam, says Colleen Simonds, an interior designer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Bright, bold colors, pastel shades, cool jewel tones — these can all look great on a Thanksgiving table, she says. The trick to nailing a non-traditional color palette? Layer bright colors on a neutral base, like brown or cream, to help the mix feel more like fall and less like spring or summer, says Simonds.

Credit: Havenly
Neutral tablescape in a modern room with statement overhead lighting

9. Layer Textures

Texture is an essential part of any well-designed vignette, including table settings. Add dimension  to your Thanksgiving table using items made of various materials — placemats, chargers, floral centerpieces, candle holders, napkins, tablecloths or runners, and more. Rattan and jute are a particularly great material for texture at the Thanksgiving table and can be integrated in lots of ways (just check out that jute-wrapped glassware!). However, for a cleaner and more non-traditional look, plenty of other materials are available at your disposal, including embossed glassware, textured metals, unglazed ceramic, and more.

10. Utilize Natural Materials

Give your Thanksgiving table a quintessential harvest feeling by utilizing plenty of natural materials in your tablescape display. Think wood, jute, linen, greenery, florals, fresh fruit, pumpkins and gourds, and more. This will give your table a natural seasonal touch, regardless of the overall style of your decor, says Simonds.