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How to Coordinate a Family Gathering Without Going Insane

A family toasting over Christmas dinner.
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Whether you’re planning a reunion or party, or hosting the holidays at your home, the stress of coordinating a family gathering is real. But don’t panic—we’ve got some tips that’ll help you get it all done and keep your cool (yes, it’s possible).

Why are family gatherings so darn challenging, anyway? Well, one reason is that everyone has their own routines, preferences, personalities, and quirks. Throw all of that in with those of an entire group, and things are bound to get frustrating at times.

Luckily, though, with just a bit of thoughtful planning, you can smooth out any bumps before they arise and make your event as enjoyable as possible.

Delegate, Delegate, Delegate

First, don’t be the sole leader of this venture if you don’t have to. Recruit some of your relatives and create a committee to help you see things through to the very end.

It might be difficult to hand over some responsibilities, especially if you have a clear idea of how you want things to go. But trust us, you’ll have way more fun if you have less on your plate.

For example, you might put one person in charge of lodging, one in charge of activities, another can handle any decorations, and ask several to help you with meals. You can still oversee it all and have the final word if you like, but take this as an opportunity to practice the art of letting go.

Have a meeting or planning lunch, give everyone a pocket notebook, and divide up the responsibilities so everyone has a list of what they need to do.

Lodging Logistics

A family arriving for Christmas.
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When you have guests visiting from out of town, trying to figure out where everyone will stay is enough to make your head spin. Should you try to cram everyone into your own home or split them up with other relatives who live nearby? Should you book them hotel rooms or an Airbnb? Pitch a tent in the backyard? Probably not the latter if it’s the holiday season.

If your family is all meeting at another destination, like a beach or the mountains, it might be worth the cost to rent a large house and all stay together. Although, if you have a particularly large group, it can sometimes be challenging to find a place that’s the perfect size.

If you can, though, having everyone in one place can make things much easier. This is especially true if you have small children because after you put them to bed, you can enjoy some time with the other adults.

One problem that might crop up when renting a large house is figuring out how to divide up the rooms. Everyone might fight over the master, or single folks might be forced to sleep on uncomfortable couches.

One way to alleviate this is to split the price based on comfort level. For example, whomever stays in the master bedroom would pay the most, while the poor unfortunates stuck on the couches and air mattresses would pay the least. After all, no one who’s sleeping on the floor should have to pay the same rate as someone snoozing on a down featherbed, right?

There are definitely times when separate accommodations is the better idea. For example, if you have some relatives who can be a bit (ahem) overbearing, and you know you’ll need a breather, this would be the best plan.

Just be sure to factor in the driving time for meeting at restaurants, activities, other relatives’ homes, or other common areas. Also, double-check the cell phone reception at the location at which you’re planning to stay or reserve for others. Nothing’s more frustrating than trying to coordinate with someone who can’t receive your calls or texts.

Schedule Activities in Advance

A family playing cornhole near a beach.
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One problem with trying to coordinate a large group of people is that everyone has different interests. Little ones might want to swim in the hotel pool all day, while others want to play Scrabble indoors.

Some folks might rise with the sun, while others want to sleep until noon. And then, of course, there are the babies and toddlers, who’ll scream their heads off if they miss their nap.

If you leave scheduling activities until the last minute, you’ll spend half your day running around trying to figure out what everyone wants to do, when to do it, and how to get there. By the time you have a plan, half the group might change their mind, it might start raining, or the mini-golf course might be closed for the day.

Jotting down a few activities for each day in advance will allow people to start thinking about which they want to do. You can even offer a choice between two activities for each day. Just put a different family member in charge of each activity to ensure it actually happens (encourage them to remain firm about the departure time).

You don’t have to do everything together. In fact, everyone will likely be in a better mood if they’re given a choice of things to do. Some might choose to do neither or none, and that’s also fine. Just be sure to set aside some time in the evening for everyone to come together again for dinner, a movie, or a game.

Finally, make sure you have enough vehicles to allow people to split into smaller groups and go on separate adventures.

Plan Meals

A family eating a spaghetti dinner.
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When it comes to food, accomodating everyone’s likes, dislikes, allergies, and diets can be an absolute nightmare. Definitely delegate this job if you can because you don’t want it!

Alas, if it’s just you, you have our sympathies. If it’s just a few large meals, consider having one of them catered. To make things easier, plan dinners as the only group meal, with breakfast and lunch being DIY. You can get some fruit, cereals, and meat and cheese trays for the other meals, if you want.

It’s best that the person preparing the meal also does all of the shopping. You can then either split the cost evenly, or, if you’re lucky enough to have multiple people making meals, you can just consider it an even swap.

If certain people will only eat more expensive foods, like only organic, for example, you can either let them know it will cost them more or ask them to bring their own groceries. Of course, many of these items don’t cost that much more, especially if you have a Trader Joe’s or Costco nearby. It might be worth it to accommodate them rather than ruffling feathers.

If you have a mix of vegetarians and meat-eaters, it’s easy enough to cook one meal together. For example, you can make spaghetti with vegetable sauce, and then just fry up the meat on the side. If someone has Celiac disease, you can now find gluten-free pasta just about anywhere.

Schedule at least two people to cook each meal, and another two to do the cleanup afterward. You can even put the kids in charge of setting out the easy breakfast and lunch stuff.

This isn’t the best time to bust out all your gourmet, five-course ideas, unless someone in your family is a passionate chef. If so, tell them to knock themselves out! Generally, though, it will help to keep the menu as simple as possible to allow more time for hanging out together.

Here are some easy meal suggestions for large groups:

  • Spaghetti
  • Pizza
  • Tacos
  • Burgers, Hot Dogs, or Sloppy Joes
  • Stir-fry and rice
  • Macaroni and cheese

Also, make sure there are plenty of snacks on hand in case someone doesn’t like what’s being served for dinner. And don’t forget dessert—ice cream and cookies are easy options!

Be Mindful of Others’ Routines

Don’t underestimate how much people hate having their regular routine disrupted. This is especially true for small children, but it might also be the case with grandma, grandpa, or auntie Edna.

Perhaps everyone else wants to spend a full day at an amusement park, but you have no idea how you’d fit in your toddler’s nap. Or, maybe grandma wants to go to spend time with the kids, but what is she supposed to do while everyone is waiting in line for rides? Maybe your aunt or grandpa doesn’t want to go at all.

Sometimes it can be difficult, but try to understand and abide by everyone’s needs and wants as best as you can. Again, not everyone has to engage in the same activities. In fact, everyone will remain in a better mood if they can just do whatever they want without sticking to any sort of “schedule.”

This is why planning only one group activity per day, and offering a choice of two or more, is the best approach. And if some folks don’t want to do any of them, that’s cool, too! You can catch up with them at dinner.

Don’t Forget the Photos

A young man taking a picture of his family at Christmas dinner.
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Planning a family gathering is all about being together. Even though there’s a lot of work and stress involved, you don’t want these special moments to slip by.

Even if you’re miserable, exhausted, or on the verge of a nervous breakdown, you’ll appreciate it later if you take the time to capture some meaningful snapshots. Pictures of everyone doing things together will make any stressful memories fade away. Plus, then you’ll have some to print and hang on your walls to commemorate the event for years to come.

If it’s in your budget, you might want to consider hiring a professional photographer to stop by and snap a few precious shots of everyone running on the beach or hugging in front of the Christmas tree. Trust us, it’s worth the cost.


Coordinating a large gathering is stressful and a lot of hard work. Just keep in mind that it’s impossible to please all of the people all of the time, so just do your best. And don’t forget to take some time to enjoy the event yourself!

Jill A. Chafin Jill A. Chafin
Jill A. Chafin is a freelance writer, aerialist, dancer, food enthusiast, outdoor adventurer, and mama, based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Read Full Bio »
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