Updated: May 15, 2021
HAPPIEST OF HOLIDAYS TO YOU!
Although there are great ideas for all levels of cooks in this blog, if you are a new cook who may be taking on most of the holiday meal yourself, this blog is especially for you! I wanted to provide a printable check list of some of my large dinner planning methods so you have a less stressful holiday in your kitchen. This is not an extensive list of everything I do, but more like the top twelve ways I tackle large gatherings, and I think it will help.
STARTING TWO WEEKS TO ONE MONTH AHEAD
o #1 Get a rough head count and ask what or if others are going to contribute, then make decisions on the recipes you want to make. Some people have traditional dishes they make every year, others are unconventional like me and strike out in new directions. It’s not too soon to get most of those decisions nailed down. This will take longer than you think especially when you are depending on other people to make their decisions and get back to you.
o #2 Now that you’ve got your recipes, purchase all the non-perishable goods you’re going to need: flour, sugar, pasta, spices, canned goods, etc. Purchase your beverages, alcohol, mixers, and everything that won’t go bad beforehand. Also, pick up your freezable vegetables (see #3 below.) Why do you do this so far in advance? Because it divides up the shopping and cuts down the shopping time later when everyone else is in a frenzy rushing around and supplies begin to dwindle.
o #3 Chop your freezable vegetables, label and store them in the freezer. (Labeling system #6 below.) Onions, celery, garlic, and bell peppers all freeze well. Having them prepped and portioned will save you time and clean up down the road. I even sauté my onions, caramelize some, and put them in the freezer. It’s shaves off prep time later. And, when you are cooking for a lot of people, every little thing you can do ahead saves you time on the other end.
o #4 Here’s a fun thing I do while I’m doing all the rest of this. I start a music playlist. When I hear a song I think will fit the vibe for this dinner, I add it. I consider my guests and what their music taste might be so that everyone hears something they recognize. By the time the big meal gets here, you’ll have great music to listen to all day.
UP TO TWO WEEKS AHEAD
o #5 If you read your recipes closely, there will be steps you can do ahead. Prep them, label them, store them.
o #6 Labeling! How much time do you spend picking up containers in the fridge and looking to see what's in it, opening it, maybe smelling it, scratching your head, and putting it back because you couldn’t figure out what it was? A lot! Especially when you’re cooking a large meal. I use blue or plain masking tape and a sharpie, and my refrigerator looks like a construction zone. It’s not glamorous, but it’s functional. Label EVERYTHING you prep as it goes into the refrigerator. If you have other household members who might munch on your supplies, add a code of some kind to ward them off so you will still have what you need when you need it, like maybe a circle with an X drawn through or the words “I’ll kill you if you eat this” might work better!
o #7 Ask for help! Almost everyone wants to contribute, but Americans think we have to do everything ourselves. Sometimes I want to do it all as I need to orchestrate a coursed meal (that and I’m a bit of a control freak in the kitchen). Ask guests to bring a salad, or a six-pack/wine, or give them a recipe to cook. People want to help.
At a holiday meal twenty years ago, I asked for help by announcing to the Goodman family, “I have a request this Thanksgiving. If you cooked something for today's meal, you don’t clean.” The women let out a hoot, and the men looked at me like I had two heads. But, they got up and began cleaning. I won’t say that it started out with a lot of enthusiasm, but before it was over there was laughter coming out of the kitchen and some scotch missing from the Glenfiddich bottle. And, my dad loved scotch. Even when he was legally blind, he could spot that Scotch bottle from across the room!
TWO TO THREE DAYS AHEAD
o #8 Start finishing off the recipes that can sit in the refrigerator or on the counter like soups, pies, cranberry sauce, etc. Some dishes actually taste better a day or two after they're made. So, if you can safely cook a dish that will keep, do it now.
o #9 I adopt a sticky note system at this point. I like the ones that are 3x5 ruled so I can write details. As I think of things that need to be done, I jot it down and stick it on the outside of a kitchen cabinet. This way I don’t have to keep mulling over in my head what still needs to be done, and, if anyone wants to help out, they can take a sticky note and do that task for me.
o #10 If it’s feasible, set your table, fill your salt and pepper shakers, the sugar bowl, set your candles out, etc. This might not work for you especially if you have kids or if it’s your only place to eat, but, if it makes sense, check that off your list or at least pile all that stuff together somewhere in one place. You might even find you have time to decorate your table. You don’t have to be Martha Stewart or spend a fortune on decorations. We find things in our yard to clip, stick in a vase, and use in our table-scapes. It doesn’t cost us anything.
ONE TO TWO DAYS AHEAD
o #11 Roll out of bed, grab your baseball cap and sunglasses, and the moment your grocery store opens, pick up all the rest of your items. Not only will you save time and avoid crowds, you’ll get the best choices as they will have just restocked everything the night before.
o #12 Finish off any other recipes or parts of recipes you can. When possible, group the ingredients together in the refrigerator or on the counter that belong to the recipe they will go into so that you don’t have to poke around everywhere to find what you need. Set up your beverage area.
THE BIG DAY
o LOOK AT YOU! You’re finishing off the few things you have left to cook, making your main dish, warming up completed dishes, icing down drinks, dancing in the kitchen to your music, and sipping on a beverage looking and feeling fresh as a daisy when your guests arrive. You’ve got a lot LESS on your plate than you would if you hadn’t done all that prep work!
No matter how you achieve your holiday gatherings, and no matter what mishaps take place in your cooking (because they always do), have a great time, laugh a lot, and embrace the time you spend with your guests. It’s precious and sacred.
Whatever you’re doing this year for the holidays, whether you’re gathering or spending it contentedly alone, Jason and I wish you good health, safe travels, peace, love, and happiness. We’re grateful for your friendships and support and for watching and participating our videos (and for reading this blog all the way to the end)!
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Now, go have FUN in your kitchen!