I’ve always met the holidays with part enthusiasm and part dread – it’s one of the happiest times of the year, but it can also be one of the most stressful. From gift giving and present wrapping to the steady stream of visiting friends and relatives and tons and tons of food preparation, there’s a lot to do in a short period of time, and sometimes that family feeling is more Christmas Vacation than It’s A Wonderful Life. But while a lot of the chaos of the holidays isn’t anything you can control, a little planning can go a long way toward taking the pressure off… especially when it comes to your big holiday meal. So what can you do to prepare?
1. Plan Ahead – Way Ahead
That means starting with a guest list as soon as possible, at least two weeks in advance. This is really the crux on which all of your holiday dinner planning rests. How many people you’re inviting will determine how many dishes you need to prepare, and how much of everything you need to make, and what kind of equipment you’ll need to make it all and keep it hot. Who you’re inviting matters, too – any dietary restrictions or allergies should be taken into consideration early on to make sure they’re addressed properly. On top of that, if you know you have any big eaters, you can take that into account with your portion sizes, too.
2. Prep Your Home
Before you even think about starting cooking, you need to make sure you have everything you need to serve however many guests you’re expecting. If you have a special Holiday Dinner Service, get it out of storage and make sure you have enough complete place sets. If you have silver flatware, bust out the Polish. If you’re serving a different number of people than usual, or in a different space, make sure there’s enough room at your table for all your guests, your serving platters, and maybe a nice Centerpiece. As well, you want to start thinning out the stuff in your Refrigerator and freezer to make space as the big dinner approaches – the more space you have, the easier it’ll be to juggle a lot of dishes.
3. Make A Menu
This is the big one, because not only are you laying out your holiday meal course by course – how much of what for who – but this is also where you should start thinking about the how. Sure, you want a balanced and tasty meal, with at least one main course, a starch, a couple veggies, and maybe appetizers and dessert to feed all your guests + leftovers, but it also has to be something you’ll actually be able to make in the days and hours beforehand. Plan for at least some dishes and desserts that you’ll be able to make a day or two ahead of time that can be served chilled or quickly and easily reheated (like pies, soup, or casseroles), and do a little math with preparation and cooking times to make sure each dish can realistically be prepared along with all the others.
For the things that need to be prepared immediately before you eat, mix dishes that need to be cooked in the oven (taking into account any large meats that will need to spend several hours baking) with those that can be cooked on the stovetop or in the microwave. Or, better yet, go for a potluck style and plan at least a dish or two (or even a dessert or hot drink!) that can be cooked in a crock pot – they require almost no attention, can be started early in the day, and will keep all your food hot without overcooking until you’re ready to serve.
4. Take Stock
Now that you have your menu, you want to be sure you have everything you need to actually be able to make it. From the right number of Baking Sheets to a big enough Roasting Pan for your bird, if you don’t have it, you want to find out NOW, not when you go to grab it with three things in the oven and an hour til dinner time. Also check for staple ingredients like flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and spices. If you do a lot of baking, you might want to stock up anyway – and if you haven’t used your holiday spices since last year, it might be time to replace them.
5. Shop Til You Drop
Once you know what you have already and what you need, consolidate all your recipe ingredients into a single list and head to your favorite supermarket. With the exception of leafy greens and some fruits, it’s best to buy everything about a week in advance (which is why you need the fridge space!) so you can start prepping early – just remember to bring lots of canvas bags.
5. Say YES!
If someone asks you if they can contribute – side dish, bottle of wine, signature dessert, or whatever – absolutely say yes! It will help keep everyone feeling involved, take some stress off your shoulders, and make your kitchen less chaotic the day of. In that same vein, if there’s something you know you’re bad at – whether it’s pies, cranberry sauce, or the bird itself – it’s okay to outsource, either by asking for help or having part (or all) of the meal catered. It may seem strange for a homey holiday, but 10-1 your family would rather spend time with you than have you stressed out in the kitchen all day.
6. Cook Early, Cook Smart
The very hardest part of preparing a holiday meal is trying to get that huge amount of food hot and ready to serve all at once. Especially if you only have a single Oven, things can get a little frantic – remember, chances are your main meat course is going to be cooking in there for hours, or all day for a bigger bird. So anything you can make ahead and reheat in the microwave, you should. If you planned your menu right, you should have a good mix of stovetop, oven, and Crock Pot recipes, but always keep in mind that sauces, desserts, and even vegetables hold up well, or even taste better after a day or two, so don’t be afraid to spend a whole day or two beforehand preparing for the big meal, and order dinner in. The day of, plan a little more prep time than you think you need, accept help where it’s offered, and keep everything covered in Foil for your best shot at getting everything on the table at the right temp. Oh, and if you are cooking a big hunk of meat or a large bird, be sure to keep a Digital Thermometer stuck into the thickest part, so you’ll be sure to know when it’s done and not let it overcook because you got distracted with the green bean casserole!
…not just the food, but the process, too. I honestly believe that if you hate cooking and get stressed out by your time in the kitchen, you and your family would both be better off ordering Chinese. No matter what holiday or holidays you observe, it should always be about the people you’re with, not the food you’re shoving in your face. A non-traditional holiday dinner, a catered one, or just one that doesn’t turn out like you hoped it would isn’t the end of the world, but a sour mood from too many hours in the kitchen can really put a damper on the festivities! And, hey, it turned out okay in A Christmas Story, right?
What do you do to keep your holiday plans running smoothly? Any particular pre-meal rituals? Do you ever have parts of your meal catered?