“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,” Joe Pinsker wrote this week, “I have a conclusion to share: The correct time to eat Thanksgiving dinner is 4 p.m.”
Pinsker is right—although not necessarily about dinnertime. Many do take stronger-than-usual positions on issues during Thanksgiving. And one such (highly contentious) issue is the question of when to eat dinner.
On Tuesday, Shan Wang asked readers of The Daily, The Atlantic’s nightly newsletter, to weigh in: “If you’re participating in a family Thanksgiving—or a Friendsgiving—this year, tell us: When is the correct time to start dinner, and why?” Several readers responded to the newsletter callout, while others wrote to us separately.
The earliest suggested time? Noon. Eating dinner midday, Anne Fitzpatrick from Albuquerque, New Mexico, argued, “allows time to cook without spending all day at it, time for a walk afterwards or for the kids and families to play outside,” and is “early enough so young children and older folks who need a nap can get one.” As for cleanup: “Do dishes later.”
For similar reasons, Jeanette Cook advocated for a 1:30 p.m. dinner. An early start time, she added, “ensures that the cook only has to prepare one meal on Thursday because there will be leftovers for those few who want to (foolishly) eat again at 6 or 7 p.m.” Bob Sassone—who thinks “if you’re just starting your Thanksgiving prep at 9 a.m., you’re doing it wrong”—explained that eating dinner between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. allows guests to get back on the road early, others who aren’t eating with you to come over for coffee or dessert, and even time for you to visit someone else. “If you’re worried about it ruining lunch,” he finished, “this is not a day for the meals of ‘lunch’ and ‘dinner.’ It’s the day for one big meal, and it’s called ‘Thanksgiving.’”
“My husband and I argued when we were first together because he wanted to eat at 4 but I was hungry!” Sue Wagner wrote. “Now I have him trained to eat at a normal time”: 1 p.m.
But a handful of responders agreed with Pinsker and Sue Wagner’s husband that 4 p.m. is the right time to dig in. By the time you sleep in, eat a “big breakfast at 10 a.m.,” “prepare (or if organized) heat up the side dish you have been instructed to bring,” shower, dress, and “head to the site of the feast,” wrote Helen Shreves from Denver, Colorado, there is just enough time to help organize the dinner, “drink a Bloody Mary,” and watch the Lions play football before “everyone is starving and dinner is served!”
“Here in Colorado,” she added, “some folks (not me) smoke a joint together in happy camaraderie at half time and are really starving at 4 p.m.”
Shreves touched on what for many is the day’s most important tradition: football. “Since 1934,” one reader from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, reminded us, “the Detroit Lions have played Thanksgiving Day football typically [around] 1 p.m. The Game ends three hours later at 4 p.m. (Eastern Time) and then Thanksgiving dinner commences. That is the true definition of tradition.” That rationale worked for Therese Bellaimey from Detroit as well, “unless the Lions game is still on and they have the chance to win.” And despite the time difference, 4 p.m. seems to work well for football watchers on the West Coast, too, wrote one reader from Kensington, California, allowing them to have “the meal between the second and third game on the tube.”
All readers agreed that Thanksgiving is a time when rituals matter. “This is my first Thanksgiving in my 66 years that I will not be at my mother’s,” said Kathy Dufault. “All our traditions come from her. So dinner is at 2 p.m., then clean-up, pie, and coffee at 5 p.m., then rest, and sandwiches at 10 p.m. Mom is no longer with us but we aren’t changing anything.”
But for Anthony Logalbo, only one person can really call the shots. “The correct time to start Thanksgiving dinner is obvious,” he wrote. “When the person responsible for cooking the centerpiece of the event (the turkey or whatever) is ready to put it on the table.”