5 tips for a simple, seasonal $20 Thanksgiving tablescape

With a little money and little more creativity, you can create an Instagram-worthy holiday table

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published November 13, 2021 5:30PM (EST)

thanksgiving autumn table setting (Getty Images/Carol Yepes)
thanksgiving autumn table setting (Getty Images/Carol Yepes)

Thanksgiving is now fast approaching and there's so much to consider, from supply chain snags to menu planning to the vaccination status of your guests. For that reason, it's easy to let tablescaping fall to the wayside, especially if you don't have a cabinet full of linens and an endless budget for fresh flowers at your disposal. 

However, at the risk of sounding like my grandmother who has spent years collecting antique china and festive accents, a simple, seasonal tablescape really does help bring the whole entertaining experience together. Put another way, your food is the star of the show, but the entire production would definitely benefit from some set design. 

RELATED: Want to make a fresh and festive Thanksgiving dinner for $40? Here's your menu

Don't think that you have to carve out hundreds of dollars to set a good table, though. With $20 and a little imagination, you'll have an Instagram-worthy set up in no time. 

Hit up your local thrift store for table linens

Honestly, Goodwill, flea markets and local thrift shops are lifesavers when it comes to creating a tablescape on a budget. Entire baskets of cheap tablecloths for like $3? Amazing. Even better if they come in seasonal colors — rusty red, orange, chocolate brown — or patterns like gingham, plaid or a jaunty leaf-print if you want to go in that direction. Pro tip: Bring some gloves on your scouting excursion so you can really pick through the piles of (potentially dirty) fabric and make sure to toss everything you buy in the washer for a cycle before using it to set your table. 

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Check the restaurant supply store for a cheap table runner 

You say "table runner," I say "kraft paper." It's cheap, it's easy to recycle and it adds a kind of shabby-chic touch (which can be a little ironic, if that's your thing) to a formal-ish dinner table. Huge rolls of it are available at restaurant supply stores for just a few dollars and once you've cut it to-size, there are infinite ways to dress it up. Use white paint to create a simple pattern like polka-dots or pinstripes, or break out your inner calligrapher and write folks' names in front of their assigned seat. 

Choose one or two seasonal flowers as centerpieces 

The temptation to blow your entire budget on beautiful bouquets of flowers is real, but consider picking one or two seasonal favorites — I really love deep purple pincushion flowers and giant orange marigolds — from the supermarket floral department to build a bouquet around. Let those anchor the arrangement and pad the rest of the space with filler flowers like baby's breath, seasonal herbs like rosemary (which you can reclaim to cook with at a later time) or outdoor finds. 

Take a trip outside

Speaking of, fall is an ideal time of year to take inspiration from the outdoors. I'm not going to tell you to bring in damp, already-trodden leaves to serve as a centerpiece just to save a few bucks, but do keep an eye out for a few items like pinecones or fallen twigs with a little greenery or berries. You can hang these upside down to dry and use them to accent your floral bouquets or centerpieces. 

Don't shy away from "shopping" the other rooms of your (or your friend's) house 

Finally, take a tour through the other rooms of your home to collect items that could work on your table. Those candles in the bedroom that you never light? Grab those for sure. The butcher's twine sitting in your kitchen cupboard? Sounds like a DIY napkin ring to me. The succulents in the corner of your living room? Toss them on the table. The old glass Topo Chico or Perrier bottles sitting in the recycling bin? Strip the labels off and you have yourself some no-cost vases. 

If you don't feel like you have anything you want to use, call up your closest — or most stylish — friend and ask if you can borrow a few items from their place. 

You may find yourself subtracting items from the tablescape once you bring them in because they look janky or things get too cluttered— and that's okay, too! This entire process is about experimentation and creativity. If in doubt, simple and seasonal is always good and candlelight really does make food look ten times more appealing. Not that you need help in that department, especially if you follow some of Salon Food's favorite holiday recipes. 

Here are some holiday dishes that will shine on whatever table you create: 


By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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