I’ve been cooking holiday dinners for many years. Many, many years and many, many holidays.
Our very first holiday meal was a dinner for two, served on top of a cardboard box “table” with a bath towel as a tablecloth. We used a disposable foil pan for roasting the meat, cooked the potatoes in our only pot, and made a salad in our plastic popcorn bowl. It was a pitiful sight, but we were happy.
Over the years, we’ve graduated to a real table, expanded our menu, added more people, and piled on more stress.
Sometimes our house is full to overflowing with guests, and other times it’s just our little family.
Sometimes my husband is home, and other times he’s not (because that’s life in the restaurant biz).
Sometimes I cry, and other times I don’t.
Let’s all just admit upfront that fixing a holiday meal, whether it’s for twenty-four, or fourteen, or your family of four, can be stressful (to put it mildly). There’s just something about cooking a hunk of meat that weighs more than your youngest child that makes it all seem like a very big deal.
The people, the expectations, the inevitable flops, the cluttered countertops, the heat of the kitchen, and the sheer amount of food can cause anyone to have an emotional meltdown. I’ve certainly had more than my share.
I don’t tend to feel much holiday cheer when I’m standing in the middle of a destroyed kitchen while a zillion people (or even just five) are waiting to eat a meal that I can’t seem to pull together. Self-pity mounts….tears flow….it’s not a pretty sight.
If you’ve ever made a big holiday feast, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you’ve never had the pleasure, you’re probably lifting your hands in thankfulness for dodging the bullet. And if you’re getting ready to cook a big ‘ol meal someday soon, you might be starting to hyperventilate.
Well, grab a paper bag, take a few deep breaths, and listen up because it’s all going to be okay. It really is possible to make a holiday dinner (or any large meal) without losing your mind or crying your eyes out. I promise.
Over several years (and way too many tears), I’ve learned a whole lot of lessons about how to pull off a successful family meal and still enjoy the day. So much of the stress I experienced over the years was completely unnecessary.
You don’t have to worry about making a holiday meal. You just have to be prepared and set yourself up for success!
Preparing for the Big Day
Expect to serve.
I’m just going to go ahead and say it: You are going to work most of the day while the rest of the family plays. If you go into the day expecting to work hard and being thankful for the chance to shower your family with love and lots of food, you won’t be as likely to drown in a pool of tears and self-pity.
Allow guests to contribute.
It can be hard to admit that we need help, but when one of your guests asks what they can bring, tell them! Even if you really want to make the main parts of the meal yourself, it will help defray the cost and give you one less thing to worry about if you let your guests bring things like rolls, dessert, drinks, ice, disposable cups, or nuts and cut veggies for snacking.
Plan for snacks and other meals for the day.
Kids will still want to eat something for breakfast or lunch, even if they’ll be eating a feast two hours later. They’ll also have the audacity to want an evening meal while the adults are still trying to sit down without popping a button. Pick up things like nuts, chips, raw veggies, cheese and crackers, and sandwich fixings for easy eating throughout the day and evening.
Serve the big meal in the afternoon or evening.
It can be very helpful to push your mealtime to later in the day, rather than aiming for a traditional lunchtime. It buys you some extra time to get everything finished up, and it doesn’t force you to set your alarm for two hours before sunrise just to get the food started.
Do not try too many new recipes.
Although it’s tempting to show off your cooking skills by making some fancy new recipes, just resist. Please, please resist. It’s never a good idea to experiment in the kitchen when you’re already making thirteen different dishes and you have a house full of people who are starving half to death.
Been there, done that, failed miserably.
Prep the day or week before.
Cut veggies, bake bread, and make pies the day before the meal. You will be thankful for having a few less things to do. Plus, some tasks (like making pies) always seem to take twice as long as you expect, and putting it off until the day of the meal gives you very little margin for error.
Plan out serving dishes and serving spoons.
The day before the big meal (earlier if you think you’ll need to borrow things), set out all your serving dishes and mark what will go in each one with a sticky note. This is so helpful when lots of hands are in the kitchen and trying to help dish up all the food at the last minute.
Make a menu plan for the rest of the week.
If you’ve spent one entire day cooking, you most likely won’t feel like doing the same thing the very next day. Plan for how you can either use up leftovers or make very simple meals to serve for a couple of days until the shock and exhaustion wear off.
Make a detailed time schedule for the day.
This has been the game-changer for me. Making a time schedule for the entire day that includes prep work, cooking times, periodic clean-up, and even family necessities will keep the day flowing smoothly, help you remember all the details, and insure that everything gets done and to the table.
How to Make a Holiday Meal Time Schedule
I designed a special Holiday Menu Workbook to help you plan your meal and your time schedule! You can sign up here to get this holiday workbook and use it to work through the steps below:
1. Write out your entire menu and have your recipes handy.
2. Make a simple time schedule down the left side of the page using fifteen minute increments. Start the times early in the morning and finish the list with the time you want to serve the meal.
3. Starting with the main part of your meal (probably the meat), write down “remove meat from oven” at the time you want it out. Always leave extra time for it to “rest” and then be carved. This also gives a buffer in case it needs more time in the oven.
4. Using your recipe as a guide, count backwards to figure out what time your meat needs to go into the oven in order to be finished by the time you just noted. Write “meat in oven” on your schedule.
5. Next, think about how long it will take you to prepare the meat for the oven and write that on your schedule.
6. Take one last look at your menu and note on your schedule any times the meat needs basted, glazed, or checked for doneness.
7. Follow the same process for any other time-sensitive or labor-intensive menu items.
8. Fill in other food items that need prepped and cooked. For example, think about when the potatoes need mashed and then figure out when they should start cooking. Plan to peel and cut them earlier in the day when you see a gap in the schedule.
9. Write the preparation, cooking, and finishing of every single item on your menu. Every single one. Especially consider the order and time required for finishing the dishes, and give yourself plenty of time, plus a little buffer.
10. Finally, fill in empty time slots with things like cleaning up throughout the day, fixing an easy lunch, setting the table, putting the baby down for a nap, and tidying up the bathrooms before guests arrive.
Once you put the time and effort into making this schedule, you can use it over and over again for years to come (with just a few tweaks here and there). Type it up on the computer for easy editing.
I put my printed time schedule in a plastic page protector to make it easy to mark things off the list with a dry erase marker as I go throughout the day. Then I wipe it clean and stick it in the cabinet until another fun (and exhausting!) holiday rolls around again!
Thinking ahead, following a detailed time schedule, and finding simple ways to ease the stress of the day will ensure that you can enjoy the holiday, even if you don’t get to prop up your feet and relax.
Making a big meal, especially on a holiday, is a unique opportunity that you have to show love to your friends and family and to create special traditions and memories. Embrace it and enjoy it!