It’s almost that time! Time for huge family meals, lots of eating, maybe some drinking, and laughing, and tons of memories being made. My approach to holiday dinners is similar to my approach to planning regular meals, which, in large part, focuses on the idea that pre-planning makes everything run more smoothly. My goal is to simplify holiday meals as much as possible so that I can enjoy every minute of the time my family and I spend together. That said, I do love preparing a big holiday meal and actually enjoy being in the kitchen for a lot of the day on Thanksgiving and Christmas. I love hosting for the holidays and have gotten pretty skilled at making it fairly stress-free. Toot! Toot! So, I thought I’d share some of what I do to simplify our holiday meals.
So…I’m not going to officially include ‘prep ahead’ on my list because I feel like it is SO NOT rocket science. But, I do know that that blanket statement has often left me wondering, ‘Great idea! But, what in the world should I prep ahead?’ Great options for this are mashed potatoes, pies, stuffing, and veggies sides. Typically, I choose to make the ‘stars of the show’ on the day we’ll be eating, so, in our house that’s a turkey or ham, and then any dish that is a bit more ‘delicate’, that tastes better the day of, or, that simply fills our house with the smell of the holidays. We’ll be cooking our corn pudding the day of, for sure, as well as the turkey and gravy. Now…on to the good stuff.
And, if you prefer to learn with other mamas, come on over to our Facebook group, Meal Planning Junkies, to join in on our free group program, Rock Your Holidays. In it, we’re learning how to own our schedule, meal plan for regular weeknight dinners during the busy season, and sharing tips on how to simplify holiday meals and parties.
Simplify the menu.
Growing up, I always ate Thanksgiving dinner with my dad’s side of the family. And, man, the Toombs ladies can cook, and cook, and cook. I was so programmed to think that holiday dinners had to have a gazillion different choices that when I started cooking for my own family, I had to have a small come to Jesus talk with myself. For 6-8 adults and 2 kids, we didn’t NEED a turkey, a ham, and 10 side dishes. One main meat and some traditional sides are always the basis of our menu. From there, I either add on 1 or 2 newbies to look forward to or tweak something we already make.
Have a ‘showstopping’ side!
Make something that you know your family LOVES–something that screams the holidays and leaves your guests begging for more! If you have a 1 or 2 of these guys, you may not feel so compelled to over-cook. Quality over quantity. Two years ago, I made my first from scratch stuffing and it was soooo good. It was pretty labor intensive, but I loved making it because it was new, smelled amazing, and I really felt like I was pouring all of my love and thankfulness into that one dish.
Only introduce 1 or 2 new recipes.
DO NOT stress yourself out by adding in 5 new recipes! The newness may seem exciting, but, in the long run, you’re upping your chance for disaster, especially if you haven’t tested the recipe. It’s no different than my firm belief that you should never blindly search for recipes when you’re just starting to meal plan (or ever, really). Couple the inevitable time suck that the searching really is with knowing that new recipes take longer to prep than they say, and there’s a huge chance it will put you behind the 8 ball. In years past, I’ve switched out the traditional green bean casserole for a sauteed green bean recipe, I made my own cranberry sauce and last year, the Pioneer Woman convinced me to make my own cornbread for a stuffing. They were all simple, but still new.
Include some of the kids’ favorites.
This is a total sanity saver. My son doesn’t really eat meat, except pepperoni and chicken nuggets…neither of which actually qualify as real meat. And, my daughter literally gags on mashed potatoes. So, if I were to serve JUST turkey and mashed potatoes, our holiday meal would be no fun. However, they are huge fans of sweet potatoes (especially with marshmallows on top), green beans and cooked carrots. So, I add a little holiday flair to those foods and we’re all happy. You can even make some simple, quick veggie sides to go along with the meal. Be sure to do this step if you’d like to spend your meal relaxing, rather than bartering with your kids to take just ‘1 more bite’. Set yourself up for success, my friend.
Supplement your meal with great, store-bought items.
In years past, and, please don’t judge, we’ve purchased store-bought mashed potatoes and I used to love a good Stove-Top stuffing. Now, occasionally I do enjoy making those foods from scratch, but, each year I will buy some parts of the meal already made. I’ve always been an advocate of incorporating grocery store shortcuts into weeknight meals, so why would a holiday meal be any different?
This year, I know I’ll be serving sweet potato rolls from Wegman’s. They are super moist and have a sweet, fall-like taste to them. Last year, we also bought a shrimp ball from a local seafood shop to have out while we were cooking. It was simple, delicious and added a little bit of specialness to the day. Consider purchasing some of the more labor and time-intensive parts of the meal that you aren’t excited about cooking.
Delegate the foods you don’t enjoy making.
I have no inherent desire to bake rolls or multiple pies. So, if anyone asks what they can bring, my answer is always the same. I’m also not especially excited about cooking a huge meat–it’s just not my jam. I’m more of a ‘side’ girl, where I feel I can really let my love of southern food (and butter) shine. So, when my husband piped up this year that he’d like to fry the turkey, I danced a little Thanksgiving jig! My mom asked me what she could bring and I suggested mashed potatoes and a pie. Homemade, store-bought, from Cracker Barrel…doesn’t matter to me. But, I do know that I won’t be peeling, boiling and mashing 3 lbs of potatoes and, for that, I am thankful.
Don’t serve ‘dinner’ before 2pm.
Growing up, we always ate holiday ‘dinners’ at lunchtime. I loved it because I was 10 and that was an AH-MAZING lunch, but as an adult who is now scurrying around to MAKE the meal, I can’t imagine what my Nanny and aunts were going through trying to get all of that food cooked. GURL…turkeys take between 15-20 minutes to cook per pound, so you’re looking at at least 3 hours for a small boy. Then, you’ve got to cook the other foods that couldn’t fit in the oven with that dang bird in there. So, give yourself some margin with the clock and shoot for a later than lunch start time.
Make a timeline.
If you know me, you know that I’m a big proponent of considering TIME in your meal planning, especially when you are planning around busy schedules. It’s also just as important when planning a large, holiday meal if you have any plan to have all the parts ready at the same time. A couple of years ago, my hubs and I started planning our menu a week in advance but then, a couple of days before, we’d plan out the cooking schedule. GENIUS! If you’ve got a lot of items that you’re cooking on the day you’re serving the meal, you HAVE to do this. We start with the time we’d like to eat and work backward. So, once we have the turkey, we estimate how long it will take to cook and how many other dishes we’ll need the oven for once its is out. Corn pudding cooks for an hour and 15 minutes, so we know we’ll need the turkey out that far in advance of dinner. Since we have a 12-pound turkey, it will take about 3 hours to cook, so we shoot to put it in 4 hours and 15 minutes BEFORE we want to eat.
Consider eating WITHOUT the littles.
I know…I may totally take some flack for this, but I’m going for it. The truth is, when my kids were super little, like 2 and under, we’d eat DURING their naps. It was a bit more enjoyable, actually relaxing, and they didn’t feel like they missed out on anything. When they got up, we could fix them a plate or we’d wait to eat dessert with them. Do what feels right for you and your family and, at the end of the day, remember that you’re there to make memories with everyone in your family. And, if you can’t really connect or enjoy Grandma Suzy while you’re force-feeding Jr. a bowl of mashed potatoes in your effort to make memories with him, then, you’re kind of leaving Grammy in the dark.
I hope these suggestions on how to simplify holiday meals have been helpful! Let me know which you’ll be leaning on during this holiday season to make your meals more special and less stressful. Come over to our Facebook group, Meal Planning Junkies, to join in on our free group program, Rock Your Holidays. In it, we’re learning how to own our schedule, meal plan for regular weeknight dinners during the busy season, and sharing tips on how to simplify holiday meals and parties.
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