holiday feast

Preparing the big feasts during the holiday season can be stressful. But with a good plan, you can be thankful and have relaxing holiday get-togethers without running around your kitchen like a crazy person. Don’t just get through the holidays, allow yourself to enjoy the season by doing a little at a time.

Following these simple guidelines for planning your big holiday feast ahead of time can eliminate stress this holiday season and let you enjoy your holidays and your family.

Nail down the guest list

If you’re inviting friends and neighbors or have nearby relatives who may attend, get an accurate number of guests as soon as possible. Give plenty of opportunities and avenues to RSVP. And, if your guests are bringing a dish, have a coordinated area where these dishes are listed or checked off. That way you know what to leave off of your own prep list. Determine any dietary restrictions or allergies for your guests. If you have vegan guests, be sure to add a few vegan dishes to your holiday meal plan. (Likewise for guests with gluten intolerance or any other allergies.)

Make sure you have enough dishes, cooking tools, pans, tables and chairs once you know how many people you need to serve. If you don’t have enough, ask those planning to attend if they have items you can borrow before purchasing more. After all, you’ll probably only need that many dishes and chairs one or two days per year.

Cook or prep dishes ahead of time

There are many dishes you can prepare ahead of time and either freeze or refrigerate to be served or finished on the holiday feast day. Not everything can be prepared ahead of time, but most dishes can be at least started before the big day.

To-do planner for the week of the holiday:

  • 7 Days Ahead: Order or purchase any large meat items like your turkey or ham. 
  • 6 Days Ahead: Cube up some bread if you’re making bread-based stuffing and lay it out to dry. You’ll want it nice and stale to absorb flavors. You can also make cranberry sauce and any jams you’ll need.
  • 5 Days Ahead: Make and refrigerate your pie doughs. If you’ve already made and frozen your doughs, move them to the refrigerator to thaw. You can also mix and refrigerate any bread or roll doughs. Start shopping for your non-perishables to avoid the holiday rush.
  • 4 Days Ahead: Make your gravy base and refrigerate it. On the holiday, you can add the meat drippings to the base instead of having to whip it up from scratch while the meat is resting. If your turkey or ham is frozen, move it to the refrigerator today.
  • 3 Days Ahead: Buy any remaining perishables and prepare greens. If you’re using any squash in your recipes, peel and cube it on this day so you can get right to roasting. Peel any other root vegetables like rutabas and carrots. These can be stored in the refrigerator as-is or diced and stored in lightly salted water in the refrigerator.
  • 2 Days Ahead: Make the stuffing. Giving it an extra day to marinate makes it extra yummy. Make your pecan pie filling and, if you use a recipe that calls for pre-cooked fruit filling, you can make fruit pie filling today also. If you plan to brine your turkey, start that process today.
  • 1 Day Ahead: Bake those pies! Then try not to eat them. Or, make an extra to eat today. Bake them as late in the day as possible to keep them fresh. You can also bake any fruit breads like banana or pumpkin bread today. Chop all your vegetables and fruits for anything you’re choosing to make the day of the holiday. Prepare any side dishes that will reheat well, or that you can prep and then finish cooking on the big day.

Make a cooking plan for the big day

Make photocopies of all the recipes you’ll be serving on the holiday, making notes on anything that’s going to be prepared ahead of time. Once you have all the copies made, highlight your baking times and temperatures as well as stovetop times and temperatures.

You know you’ll have a turkey or ham in the oven for the majority of the day, so base your cooking plan on that temperature. Anything that can be cooked at the same temperature and fit in the oven with the turkey or ham should be scheduled to coincide with the main dish. If you don’t have a second oven, you’ll need to plan to cook the other recipes ahead of time and simply warm them in the oven with the turkey or ham. Set up a warming schedule and cover dishes after warming to allow you to cycle through all of your dishes.

Make a list of each recipe, along with its baking temperature and time. Create a list to order the cooking schedule to start at the lowest temperature and progress to the highest. Be sure to remind yourself to prepare the next dish while the first is cooking.

Once the baking schedule is complete, write out a stovetop schedule, making sure to take into account the number of burners available.

Create an action zone in the kitchen

Bring in a card table or clear off your breakfast table to lay out prepped ingredients and dishes you need to complete your cooking. Having enough space to spread out and prepare your dishes can save your sanity during a long cooking day. This is a great place to prep and chop vegetables the night before, also.

Set up a serving area

Make sure your serving area has access to outlets in case you need slow cookers or chafing dishes. Set this area up the night before the holiday. You can also set up the dining table the day before and cover the entire setting with a second table cloth if you’re worried about dust, pets or children.

Image: benchun