Whether you are a seasoned pro or a newish home cook, preparing the holiday feast can seem like a daunting task. If you did it all the time, you’d have the whole program dialed down to the last cranberry; but Christmas dinner often places so much emphasis on the quantity, quality, and presentation of the meal, even veteran cooks can get in a panic.
However, with a little planning and some clever hacks, you can embrace the day with joy and ease.
Plan the Menu Early
Knowing your menu, all the way down to the snack bowls of nuts and hard candies will keep anxiety at bay as you start to visualize the days leading up and to the big day. Choose which ‘must-have’ family dishes will be prepared along with any new dishes that are needed to accommodate folks with dietary restrictions or kids with picky eating preferences. In need of a recipe? We have everything you could ever need in our recipe archive.
This is also a great time to reach out to friends and family and invite them to contribute or, if they are willing, to prepare a dish, dessert, or drink, or participate on the day-of, with something like minor prep or cleanup. Remember to follow up with them a week and then the day before as a courtesy reminder and to prevent any miscommunication.
Your List is Your Grail
Divide your shopping list into sections: Meat, Produce, Pantry Staples, Dairy, and Beverages (including soft drinks, beer, wine, spirits, mixers, and garnishes). Make another list of pre-made items like pies, breads and dinner rolls, cheese and charcuterie boards, and fruit platters. Is there anything you can purchase online and have delivered to save you a trip to the store?
Keep in mind, this is not a good time to check out that new market – even if the deals are amazing. Navigating an unknown supermarket with other frazzled customers stocking up for a holiday is a recipe for disaster (pun intended).
Purge your fridge, freezer, and pantry and cross those items off your shopping list. This not only saves precious holiday bucks but creates more storage space; Frozen turkeys use up valuable refrigerator real estate while they thaw and you’ll need plenty of room for leftovers. You’ll also want to make sure there’s space in the freezer for ingredients or anything you’re opting to make well in advance like gravy, vegetables sides, or desserts.
Assess Your Tools
Make sure you have those random kitchen items you may not use any other time of the year like a working meat thermometer, baster, kitchen twine, or cheesecloth. And as a precaution, check the dates of your yeast, baking soda, and baking powder if you plan to bake from scratch. No one likes an expired surprise. Invest in (or borrow) any small appliances needed like mini choppers, blenders, a new electric mixer, or even an air fryer if they’ll save time and labor. Better yet, why not invest in those items with the money you save from your pantry purge?
The Prep Count Down
Breaking down your menu over a period of days or even hours will greatly reduce any pre-Christmas dinner jitters you might have. What can be frozen up to a week ahead? Casseroles, desserts, homemade rolls, and vegetables can be frozen and reheated in minutes. What can be made one to two days ahead? Quick breads, pies, cakes, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and gravy actually taste better as their flavors have time to blend together. And plenty of beverages can be batched and stored in the fridge until the holiday.
‘Twas the Night Before
Think about the pots/pans/vessels you’ll need for cooking. Set them out the night before and designate stove and oven space in your head so there are no surprises when you go to cook.
Outside of the kitchen, think of other household areas that would benefit from early prep like decorating, putting the fancy towels and soaps in the powder rooms, arranging the dining table with table runners, place settings, and candles, or a kids’ table. Set up a portable bar or even a photo op space by the Christmas tree. This is an excellent opportunity to recruit the kiddos who can share the load by helping to set the table, complete light dusting or sweeping, or simple, supervised food prep. Set the mood with a festive music play list and create new joyful family memories!
Let Go of Perfection
In the end, Christmas is about enjoying the moment with loved ones, not aspiring to staged TV chef status. Don’t stress out if a dish doesn’t turn out exactly as planned or if someone forgot the green bean casserole. Take breaks to recharge and regroup, as needed. Shave something off the list if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Maybe you gussy up a plain store-bought cheesecake with whipped cream and crushed peppermint candy instead of baking. It’s all about the process, the company, and the moment. If the stuffing is gloopy or the pie isn’t baked in the middle, no worries! Raise a toast and remember you’ll have a funny story to tell next year!
With these tips and tricks, you’ll breeze through the holiday season and make your Christmas dinner a resounding success. Just remember to plan ahead, recruit helpers, and embrace the joy of cooking for and spending time with your loved ones.