Friday, November 20, 2009

Holiday Meals Made Easier

Putting a holiday meal together can really be stressful and energy-consuming. So I want to share some tips I've used over the years that've made this process much easier. (You'll notice too, that these ideas translate well to the overall goal of getting the family dinner on each night.)

Let's start with the obvious (which are favorites of time and motion experts):
  • Use a menu and check off each item as it is prepared.
  • Delegate, delegate, delegate. Nothing new here--many hands do make light work. But I am continually amazed at how many folks don't do this. My motto: It doesn't have to be perfect, but it does have to be fun and pleasant. So for me, that means letting others help put the production on so I have time and energy to enjoy the day also.
  • Do as much as possible prior to the day of the event. For instance, if mashed potatoes are part of the menu, then peel all you'll need and keep them in the fridge, covered in salt water, until time to cook on event day. So many parts of a traditional holiday meal can be prepared early and cooked or baked later: sweet potatoes, dressing, crudities, gravy, veggies for steaming, veggies for salad, pies, cakes, cookies, even rolls. (Go the Rhoades Bake 'n Serve route by mixing your dough, let rise once, form into balls, and freeze. On bake-day, remove from freezer, thaw, let rise once, and bake.) The table can even be set the day before. You get the idea. Pre-event work frees up the kitchen on the day of the event for other tasks, and saves you time and energy that you can devote to guests, etc.
  • On prep day(s), designate task centers so folks don't fall over each other and the work flows easily.
  • Have a system in place for after-meal clean-up. For instance, provide an extra trash container for scraping dishes. Have a specific spot designated for stacking dirty plates, bowls, silverware, glasses, pots/pans, etc. In fact, fill the sink with hot soapy water for the scraped plates and bowls, etc., to sit in as you load your dishwasher. This will saves a LOT of water--no rinse, rinse, rinse needed. 
  • Have a system in place for sharing left-overs. I often hear folks say they love being invited to a holiday meal, but they really miss not having any left-overs in their own fridge, which is part and parcel to cooking for holiday guests. SO, prior to the occasion, stash some restaurant-style take-home containers (restaurants will sell or maybe give them to you). When cleaning up after the meal, you can divvy up the goods amongst yourself and your guests. They'll love you for your thoughtfulness.
Now the not-so-obvious:
  • Keep files for special day meals: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hannukah, Valentines, Easter, July 4th, Halloween, individual birthdays, etc. Each event has its own folder and in it would go:
    • The menu for the day
    • Copies of tried-and-true recipes you always use.
    • Recipes you plan to try.
    • Contact information you rely on (the bakery where you get your rolls, the orchard owner that supplies you with fresh apple juice, and etc.).
    • Even product labels (that of the very best turkey you've ever had, for instance).
    • Number of guests and amounts of everything served (10 pounds potatoes, 2 cherry pies, 2 pumpkin pies, etc.).
    • Who brought or prepared what.
    • A picture of your table decor that you take
    • An assessment page (this step is for die-hard entertainers): What went well? What didn't? What would you repeat? What would you do differently? The whole point of these files is to save you time and energy for next year's event. Make it easy on yourself--stop reinventing the wheel each time an occasion rolls around.
If you try just one or two of these tips, I know your work will be lighter and your event will be easier to put on. And of course, you'll find more help in earlier posts on preparing food ahead of time ("gravels"), involving family (kid-friendly kitchen) in the kitchen work and doing what you can to make your kitchen truly user-friendly (fridge organization). Now it's YOUR turn: do you have tips for us on how to get the holiday meal on the table with less muss and less fuss? Please share--we're all in this together, remember. And until next time, here's to gettin' ready for the big one (Thanksgiving), and as always, here's to making family dinner hour possible.


  1. Great post! Life is much easier with a plan. And I do love to check off my list one item at a time!

  2. Thanks for reading Sharon. And I'm with you, checking items off a list is so energizing!