Putting on a flawless Thanksgiving is no small task, even for seasoned hosts. From planning the menu and accommodating overnight guests to deep cleaning the kitchen and setting the table, each element helps lay the foundation for a festive, seamless celebration.

“Thanksgiving is not as much about good cooking as it is about good execution and planning,” says entertaining expert Brenna Gilbert of Feste. “Sure, you want to nail that famous stuffing recipe, but if guests are eating two hours late or you don’t have enough plates, no one remembers how good your gratin was.”

We asked the experts for their smartest tips for tackling a Thanksgiving to-do list in advance—and keeping the holiday focus on the party, not the prep.

Finalize Your Guest List 

Whether you host an open house for 100 or set an intimate table for eight, finalizing your guest list is a key building block for the rest of your planning. For a smaller group, says Gilbert, “I recommend getting your invitations out in early November and having a firm number 10 to 14 days before so you can confirm the size of your turkey and secure any additional rentals you might need.”

If you have a larger guest list, family members who need to travel, or several sets of in-laws to work around, Liz Curtis of Table and Teaspoonrecommends sending invitations in early October or late September. “During the holidays, the more notice the better,” she says.

Plan the Menu 

Your menu might remain a work in progress as the holiday approaches, but it’s never too early to sketch out a plan. “Turkeys, especially specialty or free-range birds, need to be ordered in advance with your butcher or local farm,” says Gilbert. Choose a food service style—seated meal with courses, elevated cocktail party, traditional buffet, potluck—and decide which items you’ll make, order, or ask a guest to bring.

The key to success here is simplicity, say the experts: Don’t fill your menu with complicated dishes you’ve never attempted before. “There is no shame in the deli or grocery store game—many offer full turkeys and sides this time of year, for the items on your menu that you aren’t comfortable making in the kitchen,” says Curtis.

Putting some thought into your menu ahead of time also allows you to minimize your week-of grocery shopping, avoid last-minute ingredient swaps, and incorporate your family’s favorite dishes. “Remember that Thanksgiving is usually emotional and nostalgic for everyone—ask if there’s a dish or side that they would love to see included,” says Gilbert.

Design Your Decor 

Thanksgiving aesthetics range from on-theme turkey illustrations to minimalist tablescapes in muted seasonal tones. The most important part of preparing yours is knowing what you have—and what you need—to bring it all together. “If you anticipate that all of the platters will be on the table, you need a much less elaborate table setting, as you will need to anticipate having space for all of the serving dishes,” says Gilbert. “If you’re doing a more formal coursed service, make sure that you account for your courses in your table setting.”

You should also map out your serving pieces against your menu—do you have enough platters, bowls, and serving spoons?—and get creative where you can. “This is the perfect holiday to layer in family heirlooms—that large punch bowl? Perfect for chilling down the Champagne. My grandmother’s tablecloth? Going on the dessert table. My father’s candle sticks? Covering the mantle,” says Gilbert.

Order Rental Items 

Whether you’re short on chairs and tables, want to add warming lamps to your outdoor spaces for after-dinner drinks, or have a vision for specific linens and plates, finalize your rental order at least two weeks before the holiday. “If you want fine china or something truly specialty, you will need a month,” says Gilbert. “Know that with the holiday season, you will have to rent for several days, as many places will not drop off on Thanksgiving day.”

If you’ve never worked with a rental company before, expect two main benefits, says Curtis. “If you need help designing your holiday setup, party rental companies are the best place to go because they typically offer free design services,” she says. “Literally everything you need for your event can be rented, which means minimal clean-up since rental companies universally accept your wares back unwashed.”

Prepare Guest Rooms 

Make your home a haven for guests who braved planes, trains, and automobiles to celebrate with you by adding an array of thoughtful touches to your guest rooms. “Imagine what you have access to in the comfort of your own home, and replicate those items for your guests,” says Curtis. This could include extra paper goods and toiletries, towels and a robe, spare blankets and pillows, and (of course) your Wi-Fi password. Make sure there are outlets and extra phone chargers near the night table, and invest in a luggage rack that keeps suitcases off the floor.

“Hosting houseguests for the holidays adds a whole new dimension to this Super Bowl of dinner parties,” says Gilbert, who also asks guests for their breakfast preferences in advance so they can DIY their favorites. “Since I’m usually focused on the big meal, I like to make it clear that everyone should feel comfortable grabbing their own breakfast and making themselves at home for coffee.”

Clean the House 

Keeping your house clean and tidy in the week leading up to the holiday can reduce your overall stress levels while wiping down bathrooms and deep cleaning the guest rooms several days in advance allows you to focus on your day-of-hosting duties.

“For Thanksgiving in particular, which is a food-centric celebration, I highly suggest a deep clean for the kitchen,” says Curtis. “Bathrooms, the entry area or foyer, and wherever your guests will be sitting before and after dinner should also receive special attention.” Clear counters, wipe out your refrigerator and freezer and clean your oven to ensure your space is ready for rolling out pastry dough, chopping vegetables, mashing potatoes, and roasting the turkey.

This is also a task you can hire out: “If cleaning isn’t your specialty, hire a professional,” says Curtis. “And if you’re feeling extra indulgent, schedule a cleaning service for a day or two after Thanksgiving to help get your home back together.”

Courtesy of MarthaStewart.com