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Listen Up, Turkeys: The Best Thanksgiving Dinner Time Is 8 p.m.

Most Thanksgiving stressors stem from the massive mid-day meal.

7:57 AM EST on November 22, 2022

A black and white photograph of a large family siting around multiple tables eating thanksgiving dinner in 1940.

“The family of Mr. Timothy Levy Crouch, a Rogerine Quaker, at their annual Thanksgiving Day dinner. A twenty-pound turkey was dispensed with in short order. Ledyard, Connecticut, 1940 (Photo: Jack Delano, Library of Congress)

Thanksgiving has a lot to answer for, but in its favor is a simple commitment to have a nice meal with people you care about. This mission is complicated by travel, the weird tradition of cooking a whole turkey, and the fact that some people we care about also happen to be terrible. Indeed, the two things you can count on during Thanksgiving season are Christmas music and content about how fraught Thanksgiving is. 

That's because far too many of us treat Thanksgiving as this all-day affair of pantomiming half-assed rituals instead of the properly elevated dinner that it deserves to be. Accordingly, the ideal time to sit down for a Thanksgiving meal is 8 p.m.

"But we always eat at 2," you say. Oh, yeah? Is that because your horses still need some daylight to make it back to Plymouth Rock before nightfall? 

A midday Thanksgiving meal poisons what is supposed to be a morning off, either because you have to fix the meal for the people coming over, or because you have to do the coming over. Some people "prepare" for an early Thanksgiving by not eating breakfast, which really means that by the time they disembark from their train or nauseating car ride in the false November sun they are pissy and disjointed, hitting the booze and snacks pretty hard for someone claiming to be "saving themselves" for the stuffing you spent two hours to make. 

This crucial Bitching Hour is also usually when the Bad Family Stuff happens. As the pressure mounts on the kitchen to put the food on the table, and the football announcers get louder, family members probe deeper, longer, for some kernel of commonality to keep killing time before the main event. No one should talk politics on six handfuls of pistachios and three of your cousin's weird IPAs.

If you're lucky to actually sit down and eat at 2, by 4 you're left with a mountain of dishes, weird burps, and a setting sun that, unlike most of your party, knows how to make an exit. You feel like shit, like you just had brunch. And gee, another football game? Yeah, definitely stick around for that, we always like hanging out with other people in prone positions, breathing shallow, watching the same T-Mobile ad with sleigh bells jingling.

A 4 p.m. start time, as suggested by this Thanksgiving freak in the Atlantic, is in some ways even worse. Listen to this:

A leisurely meal would then end at 5:30 or so, which is still plenty early in the day for an hour-long nap and a return to leftovers, in the form of a pre-bed snack, at 8:30 or nine.

Has this person ever lived in late November? There are no hour-long "naps" that happen at 6:30 p.m. after Thanksgiving dinner. And it's not "leftovers" if you're eating the same meal, the same day, 90 minutes after you ate it the first time. Congrats, you just invented a five-hour Dunch. 

What if Thanksgiving was at 8 p.m., so that if you care about all the pomp and circumstance and turkey hotlines, you can give it the time it deserves. Or not, and prepare whatever kind of dinner you feel best expresses the love and gratitude you feel for your companions. 

Is 8 p.m. too late? Come over a little earlier, have a cocktail, let the kids bonk their heads on our furniture, listen to the stories from the grandparents about how Thanksgiving used to be at noon, with the knowledge that after dinner, this is all over. Everyone can go home and go to sleep. Isn't that enough to be thankful for? 

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