How to Plan an Expat Thanksgiving in 9 Steps

Signing your first apartment lease. Starting your first job. Moving out. Paying bills. There are many moments both big and small that seal a badge of becoming a “real adult.”

Moving to Paris has given me the opportunity to reach another “adulthood” milestone: hosting a holiday. Now for the third year, I can say that Thanksgiving is my holiday. Each year I get the honor of gathering my Parisian family in my home to celebrate this wonderful American holiday. Want to know how I do it?

Here’s how to plan an expat Thanksgiving:

1. Coordinate the imported staples.

This step requires a little foresight and should be done 1-2 months before Thanksgiving. You need to pinpoint someone you know traveling from the US to your home abroad, and give them a shopping list of ingredients to bring. (Or in my case, I was able to do this when I visited in early October.) My list includes Ocean Spray jellied cranberry sauce (non-negotiable!), pumpkin puree, and marshmallows. All things that one could purchase in Paris, but a convenience that comes with a steep price. (Newbie mistake my first year - I paid over $6 for a single can of cranberry sauce because I didn't think ahead!)

Note: If you missed the opportunity to import some foods, check out my post with some ideas where to get some American products. 

2. Select a date, either the Saturday or Sunday after Thanksgiving Thursday.

People don’t get the day off for Thanksgiving living abroad, and it’s hard to coordinate such a festivity after work. My tradition is to eat out with Michael at an American restaurant on the actual day-of, and plan a big gathering over the weekend when everyone has more time and energy to enjoy (and cook!).

Thanksgiving abroad may require a little more prep, but the end result is so worth it!

3. Once the date is set, get the word out with plenty of notice!

Thanksgiving is one single day in America, but for expats it can span an epic four days or so. (I’m not kidding - I think we attended 4 Thanksgivings last year, and a 5th that we couldn’t make it to.) If you know a large number of American expats, everyone wants to get a taste of home and celebrate in some way. So choose a date and get your event on the calendar early! 

4. Figure out the turkey logistics: where to buy one and where to cook it.

This is an essential step to figure out in your new home country! In France, you can go to a butcher and reserve a turkey in advance. But you can’t just buy a bird like you would in any supermarket in the US - it is a specialty item to secure ahead of time.

Also on the checklist is to find an oven and willing friend to cook the turkey, if you don’t have one yourself. Many apartments in Paris aren't equipped with an oven, and even if they are, often not a large one. (My friend was questioned last year by some surprised French ladies when she picked up the turkey at the butcher’s. They curiously asked what she was doing with a bird that large and where she was going to prepare it!) I have a glorified toaster oven, so this is an important logistic for me to figure out. Because what would Thanksgiving be without the turkey?!

Kerri made not one but two turkeys in her oven last year - and they came out fabulous! That's another badge of "adulthood" I have yet to acquire - cooking a bird of that size myself!

Also of note - find a willing friend to do the messy job of turkey carving. Either the turkey cooker or turkey carver gets rights on naming the bird. Here's Ted the turkey preparing for his excellent adventure to the dinner table...

5. Ask your guests to bring a side dish or dessert to share, as well as a drink.

This is one of my favorite things about Thanksgiving abroad. I think every family has some specialty dishes that really take the spotlight at Thanksgiving. I look forward to my aunt’s corn bread, my grammy’s stuffing, and my mom’s spinach pie every year - all solid, tried-and-true staples on the table. 

The fun thing about having an expat Thanksgiving is that every dish on the spread is of that magnitude. And not only that, but it is a cultural experience as well. Before this move, I had only had Thanksgiving with my family in northern NJ. But now southern chess pie, Egyptian tabbouleh, and French tarte tatin make an appearance at my holiday gathering. And living in Paris, there is of course an abundance of wonderful French wines to accompany the meal!

I love the diversity that having a corn dish and tabbouleh side by side brings to the meal! 

Have I mentioned that my friends are phenomenal cooks? And kudos to Michael for being able to snap a picture of the spread each year before the hungry masses descend! 

6. Decide on what you’re making and figure out ingredient substitutes if necessary. 

Living abroad can pose some difficulties, and it has certainly taught me to be creative and flexible. Figuring out how to prepare American Thanksgiving sides has been just one of those challenges. So if you are living abroad, see what ingredients you need ahead of time so you aren't stressed out at the last minute trying to procure them.

Have time to hear about my 2 Thanksgiving challenges? 

  • Year 1. I set out to make my mom’s famous spinach pie. A Thanksgiving meal just isn't quite complete without it. (Which it turned out wasn't the same sentiment at home - she wasn't going to make it the first year I was away in France!) Anyway, this recipe takes about about 5 minutes max of prep in the US, a great one-bowl fix and bake deal.

    You would think that finding cheese in France is an easy task, with over 300 kinds to choose from. But cheddar cheese was more difficult to come across, and when I did track some down, it was quite expensive. So I did my research and used Mimolette, which doesn't have the bite of a sharp cheddar but it worked. Spinach pie saved. 

  • Year 2. I decided to switch it up and make a sweet potato casserole. I didn't plan ahead to get marshmallows, so I used a nut topping instead of forking over my euros for an overpriced bag. It seemed that making this year’s dish was going to go more smoothly than the previous year - until I cut open the cooked sweet potatoes to find that they were not orange. They were a pale yellow color! Apparently I bought Egyptian sweet potatoes at the market, which are different in color, but still tasted similar. The casserole came out successfully but since it didn't look like the normal American dish (especially sans the telling marshmallows), lots of people didn't quite know what it was. Which wasn't the end of the world - I got some leftovers out of the deal due to people’s uncertainty :-)

All the ingredients in place for Mom's spinach cheddar cheese pie. New equipment required in France: a hand grater for the cheese and a small scale to be able to measure American proportions in a metric-using Europe. 

Now it's Year 3. What will happen this time to continue the trend?

7. Get crafty, or consult with a friend who is, to make the decorations.

I really like the idea of pausing to focus on giving thanks on this holiday in some way. For smaller gatherings it’s easier to go around the room and share verbally. But I definitely have too many people over at chez moi to make this practical. My friends have crafted a turkey one year and a tree the next so everyone could take a moment to reflect and share in written form.

Our turkey of thankfulness!

8. Stock up on plenty of bread before the party starts! (And if you’re going to get a lot, perhaps give your bakery a heads-up beforehand.) 

Maybe this is more applicable just in France, but nothing is better to clean every last tasty morsel off the plate than some fresh baguette! 

Michael may not cook but he has the important task of procuring the baguettes for the party. Here he is happily holding 15 fresh out of the oven!

9. Eat, drink, and be merry!

Gather up all your friends, set out the meal, and enjoy! I love being able to open up my home to celebrate this holiday with my American friends to savor some tastes from home. And it has brought me so much joy to share this holiday with others who never grew up celebrating it! Eating sweet foods with the main course, using cinnamon heavily in almost everything, and eating pumpkin as a dessert are just some of the “weird” things we Americans do. I love sharing the full experience, and making it an international affair. Because after all, thankfulness is universal. 

Just a little peek at last year's dessert buffet. French pastries, pumpkin pie, homemade cookies...and yes, those are some doughnuts in the foreground glazed and garnished with bacon.

Have you ever hosted a Thanksgiving abroad? 
And even if you haven’t, what are you making this year? Send some recipe ideas my way!