A guide to navigating your virtual Thanksgiving

A thanksgiving meal being served
With COVID-19 cases on the rise in Minnesota, many families are planning to swap their traditional in-person Thanksgivings for virtual celebrations.
Wendy Wei on Pexels

With COVID-19 cases on the rise in Minnesota, many families have decided to rethink their Thanksgiving plans and find alternatives to traditional in-person gatherings. State officials are now asking Minnesotans not to gather for Thanksgiving outside their immediate household, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is strongly recommending that people stay home for Thanksgiving.

But, as many look to move this year’s turkey day celebrations online, it seems a new family member has plans to crash the party: Zoom (or whichever video chat service people prefer). 

Let’s be honest — we’ve all had our share of good, bad and ugly Zoom experiences throughout the last eight months. But introduce family members with varying degrees of technological know-how and, well, you can imagine what might go wrong.

To make things easier, we’ve compiled tips to keep your video call on track, along with a collection of activities to keep the whole family entertained. 

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Keep a loose agenda

Consider keeping a flexible schedule and sending out guidelines prior to the event so the experience can maintain general organization. This way, family members know what to expect and can jump in and out of the call as needed. 

“Have some go-to topics in case the conversation lulls, but also give room and space for what people want to share,” says St. Paul-based etiquette expert Juliet Mitchell, also known as Ms. J.  

Mitchell also suggests setting a loose time limit on the call and making sure everyone gets the event information at least three times. When speaking with family members, she says to use phrases like, “Hey, I know you’re going to be having dinner in your own place,” “I’ve set aside an hour or an hour and a half,” and, “You can join at your leisure.”

But don’t worry — the family fun won’t be on a time crunch. Zoom recently announced the platform will be lifting it’s usual 40-minute limit for all calls taking place from midnight ET on Nov. 26 through 6 a.m. ET on Nov. 27. 

Stay on topic by using a moderator 

Encourage or elect a family member to facilitate the call. Without one, you run the risk of not hearing from everyone or overwhelming the group when the video lags and family members talk over one another. 

As far as who to elect, Mitchell says the moderator “should be a person in the family that everyone respects, listens to and likes. It should be someone who is patient and can help those who don't know how to navigate as much.”

Mitchell says the moderator should be someone who plans to be on the call the whole time and suggests it may be valuable for the moderator to reach out to family members ahead of time to ensure everyone is comfortable with the technology and able to join the call. 

If the term “moderator” seems too formal, Mitchell recommends telling people it's more of a guide or a helper. 

During the call, Mitchell says the moderator should make an effort to check in with everyone, saying phrases like, “We never get to hear from uncle so-and-so, we want to hear from you. How are you feeling?”

Mind your manners

Despite the celebrations moving online, Mitchells says maintaining proper etiquette is still important. 

“When I look at things from the etiquette perspective, etiquette at its core is about respect,” she says. “Respect for yourself, respect for others and respect for the world around you, so we have to have this agreement when we come to the table.” 

Everybody say cheesy potatoes! 

At some point during the festivities, take a screenshot of everyone on the call. Consider scheduling the photo at a specific time to ensure all family members are present and featured. 

Not only will you be happy to add another family photo to the collection, but documenting this year’s memorable celebration will surely be a conversation starter for years to come. 

In addition, consider adding in a time to share photos since many families have spent the pandemic apart. 

Tip for moderators: Mitchell suggests saying, “If you have some special pictures you want to show, [I’ll] give you an opportunity to share or send the pictures to me and I’ll share them during our conversation.”

Trivia time 

Put together a trivia contest for the whole family using a free online game-based system like Kahoot!, Quizizz or AhaSlides. These platforms allow users to input questions and create multiple-choice quizzes that score participants on items like speed and accuracy. Once the quiz is created, look for an access code or link that you can share with family members, near and far. 

Consider asking family members to submit trivia questions, and sprinkle in a few superlatives or “most likely to’s” for some extra fun. This offers an opportunity for some friendly competition and a chance for participants of all ages to learn something new about their family history. 

Curate a playlist 

Use a music subscription service like Spotify to create a playlist for the whole family to enjoy. Give family members the opportunity to submit their favorite songs so that no matter where they’re celebrating, the whole family feels connected. Share the link to the playlist in the call’s chat so that everyone can access it. 

Here are a few options to get you started: “The Thanksgiving Song” by Ben Rector; “I’ve Got Plenty To Be Thankful For” by Bing Crosby; “Family Table” by Zac Brown Band; “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” by George Winston; “Thanksgiving Theme” by Vince Guaraldi Trio; “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge; and “(Do The) Mashed Potatoes” by James Brown. 

Don’t forget to add an out-of-context song or two to see who’s paying attention! 

Get crafty 

Ask around and see if any of your family members have a creative twist on Thanksgiving crafts or recipes. Depending on the interest, consider adding an interactive tutorial during the call. To prepare, ask family members to buy ingredients or materials ahead of time so they can follow along. 

For those looking for a simple holiday snack, try making pumpkin pie Rice Krispies cereal treats, Oreo cookie turkeys or your very own turkey appetizer plate. Or, if you’re a cooking connoisseur, be sure to check out The Splendid Table’s Thanksgiving guide for table-pleasing recipes like white wine pan gravy, spiced cranberry sauce and maple-pumpkin stack cake

Show and tell

If coordinating an activity for the entire group seems too overwhelming, consider designating time for everyone to share how they spent the day. Maybe even include a show and tell for the little ones. 

What virtual activities are you planning for Thanksgiving this year? #TellMPRNews and we may update this story to include your ideas.