With COVID-19 cases surging in most states across the U.S., health experts have heavily warned against large, indoor, family gatherings for the holidays. This means many of us are pivoting to a virtual Thanksgiving (yes, even Dr. Fauci).
Worried about planning and hosting a virtual Thanksgiving? We’ve got you covered on the tech side, but we can’t help recreate Grandma’s mashed potatoes.
How to use Zoom for a virtual Thanksgiving
Zoom is everyone’s favorite new video chat interface, and you can use it to host this Thanksgiving pretty seamlessly. The biggest drawback would normally be the platform’s 40-minute limit for free users, but the company said that it would be removing this limit for all meetings globally from 12 a.m. ET on Nov. 26 to 6 a.m. ET on Nov. 27.
So Zoom party all day on Thanksgiving, if you want.
To actually set up the event, it’s fairly simple to input your info and go. Use the “Schedule” icon, and decide what time you want everyone to log on (and probably what time you want everyone to log off. You can only spend so much time with the whole extended fam).
Make sure you also adjust some of the automatic settings, like whether the host’s and guests’ video and sound are automatically on. Usually, it’s useful to initially mute guests, but since this is meant to be social and not a work meeting, toggle those options on so you can actually see everyone’s faces and hear their voices.
Scroll a little further down and see if you need to adjust the advanced settings. If you don’t want to have to be the first person on the call as the host (awk, always), click the box next to “Enable joining before host” so your guests can hop on if they’re ready before you are.
Once your details are set up, your invite info will be generated. If you have one of the calendars selected, like iCal or Google Calendar, Zoom will automatically put the details into an event card on your calendar, where you can copy and paste it into an email invite for your guests, or invite them via those calendars. If you don’t use either, click “Other Calendars,” and a popup will show all of the same information for you to distribute as you please.
If you want to be able to see everyone at once, make sure to set your call to Gallery View, and tell your guests as well. No promises on whether Grandma can figure that out, but you might as well try!
How to use Google Meet for a virtual Thanksgiving
Google Meet is an equally accessible option and could be a better fit for your Thanksgiving if your guests already tend to use Google services, like Gmail or Drive.
It has a similar setup procedure and doesn’t currently have a time limit on meetings, but the easiest way to schedule your virtual event is through Google Calendar. As the host, go into your Calendar, click and drag a box around the desired time, and continue putting in your details from there. (Don’t stress about putting the box perfectly in the right time slot, you can always adjust it manually.)
When you create the event, make sure to click the big blue button that enables video chat. In that same window, you can add your guests email addresses directly, so it eliminates the need to copy and paste the code information into a separate invite.
This will generate an automatic email and put the event directly into any Google user’s calendars, where they can access the video chat link. Non-Google users will still be able to access the link via email, but make sure they know that they won’t be able to join via mobile device.
Similar setup suggestions apply here, such as selecting a gallery view, but your guests microphones should already be on upon arrival, unless they choose to mute themselves. You also won’t need to manually enable guests to join before you, since Google automatically allows this. One less step for you!
Virtual Thanksgiving activity ideas
OK, so you’ve got it all set up and ready to go…but what does one actually do at a virtual Thanksgiving? Online events can leave plenty of space for awkward silences, so it can be useful to have a schedule of events or a game plan going in, especially as the host. Here are some of our favorite activities that we’ve found from popular internet suggestions and personal experience:
1. Cook a meal together
Typically, cooking Thanksgiving dinner is largely one family’s (or person’s, if we’re being honest,) responsibility. While being together virtually presents its challenges, it also gives us a unique opportunity to cook our own meals, kinda together! To really up the camaraderie, pick one recipe that everyone will enjoy and can cook while you’re on the call. If you want to do other things later on the call, like actually eat together or play games, we recommend going with a low-effort side dish, like these biscuit dough garlic knots or a big batch of cranberry apple sangria.
2. Scavenger hunt
This one is a favorite for the kids, and it takes relatively little effort on the parents’ part, which is a score all around. Have one person come up with a list of various household items, mix in a couple random unique things, and read the list aloud one at a time to your guests. The kids can run around their houses trying to find the item, and whoever finds it first wins that round. You can tally up points for a prize.
3. Kahoot! or other online games
If your family is into trivia nights, tap into the platforms that will let you host one Thanksgiving-style. Kahoot! is a teacher favorite, an interactive quiz designed to make classroom teaching more fun, but it’s used by companies, families, and friends for all sorts of trivia-based presentations. Signing up is free, and as long as you give your guests the Game PIN, they can all access the game without an account. Get creative and design questions unique to your guests, or go traditional and think up some turkey-related prompts.
4. Stream a movie
A lot of us haven’t seen the inside of a movie theater since March, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy a feature film with our family and friends. Thanks to plenty of screen-sharing apps, you can synch up your favorite movie with all of your guests’ screens.
If you have a certain film in mind, you can go the classic Zoom screen share route. If you want to be able to browse shows and movies with the whole fam, (sounds disastrous, but you do you), you can try out Scener, which links all of your screens and streaming services together. Everyone will have to install the Chrome extension, but it’s free to use and works well.
5. Talent show
Another kid-friendly activity: Ask each of your guests to prepare a special talent demonstration for the entertainment portion of the event. This is a low-stakes, fun way to laugh together or appreciate some actual talent, which everyone could use right now.
6. Say thanks
To get back to the root of the holiday, set aside a little time to go around and just tell everyone what you’re most thankful for this year. Some families like to do this over the dinner table, some don’t usually do this at all – choose what’s comfortable for you. Even in this dumpster fire of a year, there’s lots to be grateful for, and sharing it with those you love most will feel mushy — in a good way.
Virtual volunteer opportunities to give back
While it may be harder to volunteer time at a soup kitchen or participate in your local Turkey Trot this year, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to give back. Reach out to your local community and your favorite charities and check if they have specific virtual volunteer opportunities.
Otherwise, volunteermatch.org is a nonprofit dedicated to helping you connect with virtual opportunities, both ongoing and one-offs. If you want to look even more broadly, search for “virtual volunteering” on event platforms like Facebook and Eventbrite, where you can browse through the many options to suit your schedule and interests. Some currently available opportunities include a virtual 5K benefitting a Tennessee homeless shelter and the Red Cross Virtual Volunteer Fair.
Other tech tips for a successful virtual Thanksgiving
Most of us haven’t hosted a virtual Thanksgiving before, so be sure to give yourself some grace for technological mishaps along the way. If you want to do everything to avoid glitches, we recommend a couple precautions.
Do a run through. Set up an event on your preferred platform a couple of days in advance, go through the motions of logging on, and even ask a couple friends to join as your fake guests. This is particularly helpful if you’re new to video chatting in general.
Be ready to switch from WiFi to cellular data, or vice versa. Sometimes the internet simply doesn’t want to work, and there’s nothing to be done. If that happens, try using your data plan or moving closer to the router.
Have designated tech support. If Zoom and Google Meet just aren’t in your daily rotation, ask someone in your household who’s used to the platform to be ready to jump in if anything happens. Even better, just ask them to host it from their device. Pass the headache on to them.
Regardless of potential tech issues or the hassle of planning activities, we’re thankful that there’s still a way to spend some much-needed time with our loved ones this holiday season, even if it’s not how most of us pictured. ‘Tis the season for gratefulness. Happy Thanksgiving!