The Correct Time to Eat Thanksgiving Dinner

A definitive, logical answer to an unresolved question

Angorius / / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

In the spirit of a holiday when people, in claustrophobic proximity to their loved ones, feel compelled to take stronger-than-usual positions on issues of even minuscule import, I have a conclusion to share: The correct time to eat Thanksgiving dinner is 4 p.m.

There are many obvious reasons why this is the case. Start with the turkey. It needs about four hours in the oven (give or take, depending on the size). It also needs to be prepped before it can go in, and then should rest for about a half hour afterward before being carved.

Let’s say this process, from raw bird to neat slices, takes about five hours (and that is if everything goes exactly to plan). If Thanksgiving dinner is to take place at 2 p.m., as many incorrect people have suggested, cooking must commence at 9 a.m. Does that sound like an unhurried, cozy holiday morning? No. It sounds like a workday.

Furthermore, anticipation is a key part of the Thanksgiving Day emotional arc. Two p.m. is underdeveloped, premature—a mealtime selected by someone who has not yet learned to delay gratification. And besides, what does one do after wrapping up the meal at three or four? A nap, yes. Leftovers, yes. But that leaves a Hunter S. Thompson–esque haze of unfilled time in which overstuffed, possibly tipsy diners wander without purpose, probably asking one another overly nosy questions, counting down the minutes till bedtime.

What of an evening mealtime? Dining at, say, 7 p.m., while standard on a regular night, precludes one from experiencing the vital activities that follow a feast: a genuine nap and ample time to digest before reheating a plate of leftovers later in the evening. Just as practically, if guests traveled any significant distance and are not staying the night, a late dinnertime means an even later return home.

Eating at 4 p.m. tidily resolves these concerns. 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.

One counterargument to 4 p.m. I have encountered is that it introduces the problem of lunch, a meal that 2 p.m. feasters need not consume and thus need not worry about taking up undue stomach space, not to mention organizational effort. My response is quite simple: Have a salad or something.

That is the crux of the argument, but there is plenty of other evidence to marshal in favor of a 4 p.m mealtime. To start, some very smart people whose job it is to think about food agree with me. Alison Roman, the author of the cookbook Dining In and a former editor at Bon Appétit, said four is her preferred time. “Anything earlier is lunch,” she wrote in an email, “and anything later is a recipe (no pun intended) for a sleepless, unfortunate heartburn/acid reflux/restless-too-much-wine kind of night.”

Dan Pashman, the host of the podcast The Sporkful, is also on Team 4 p.m. “2 or 3 is too early,” he says. “I can't make it to 2 or 3 in the afternoon without eating, and if I eat a light meal earlier then I won't be at max hunger again by 2 or 3, and I'm likely to be really hungry again at 8 or 9. 5 or 6 is too late. 4 p.m. is perfect because you want it to be late enough in the day that this meal is the main event—there will be no major meal before or after.”

Importantly, a 4 p.m. mealtime does not go against any prescriptions of etiquette. Lizzie Post, the co-president of the Emily Post Institute (and Emily’s great-great-granddaughter), told me that “there is no perfect time—it’s whatever makes sense for you and your family.” Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners, provided a useful framework. “People get grumpy when they're hungry, and they get grumpy when they're overstuffed,” she says, “so the helpful thing would be to have the meal early enough so that people are neither starving nor have given up and eaten a huge number of hors d'oeuvre, and late enough so that they can decently go home and not hang around after they've had too much to eat."

Not too early and not too late sounds like 4 p.m. to me, but before I could even finish my question to Martin asking what specific time she’d recommend, she said, “What do you want me to say, 3:17 and a half or something?" Incredibly, she was only off by 42 and a half minutes.

Nor does 4 p.m. deviate too far from what historians know about the holiday. “We know from accounts of the first Thanksgiving that it took place during the day, because it took place outside,” says Melanie Kirkpatrick, the author of Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience. Beyond that, not much is known about exactly what time diners convened.

Helen Zoe Veit, an associate professor of history at Michigan State University who studies the history of food, explained that holiday meals are throwbacks to when Americans regularly ate their biggest meal of the day—the word dinner used to refer to the size of the meal more than the timing—much earlier. “Midday dinners satisfied the hunger built up from many morning hours of manual labor, and they also provided fuel for more hours of exertion into the afternoon,” she said. “This kind of meal structure was feasible in the 19th century, when the majority of adults worked on or around small farms.” Dinner shifted later as workers began to do their jobs outside the home. “Intentionally or not, many of us replicate older meal structures when we continue to plan midday dinners on holidays like Thanksgiving,” says Veit.

Four p.m. may be late by 19th-century standards, but it’d be silly to abide too strictly by historical precedent. Kirkpatrick notes that in the decades after the first Thanksgiving (in 1621), it was common for Thanksgiving meals to be convened in celebration of something good happening, like the end of a drought or an epidemic. “That didn’t always place it in the fall,” Kirkpatrick says. “In fact, the first event that the Pilgrims referred to as a Thanksgiving took place in July.” In other words, the Pilgrims themselves ate their Thanksgiving meal at the wrong time.

I have tried to discern when, in fact, the average American family sits down to Thanksgiving dinner, and unfortunately I came upon conflicting results. According to the market-research firm the NPD Group, a little more than a third of Thanksgiving meals start between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., and the peak start time is six. A spokesperson for Twitter also sent along some data: Tweets including phrases like “dinnertime” and “time to eat” spike at 2 p.m. Eastern on Thanksgiving Day; mentions of “turkey” peak at 11 a.m. (perhaps when it’s going in the oven) and mentions of “nap” at 4 p.m. I am not sure how to resolve this contradiction between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. other than to say that many Americans seem to be wrong.