Tips for Stress-Free Holiday Meals

I remember the first Thanksgiving meal that I ever prepared by myself. This would have been about 10 years ago, when I was newly married and didn’t know my way around the kitchen very well yet. I had helped my mom prepare turkey dinners before, and she wrote directions down for me on recipe cards, but it was still overwhelming to tackle the whole dinner on my own. The worst part was when the guests arrived and I was struggling to finish everything all at once. I was trying to make the gravy, mash the potatoes, pull the stuffing out of the bird, and carve the meat all while trying to keep the guests entertained. The stuffing ended up being way too salty (I used seasoning salt instead of poultry seasoning- big difference!), the turkey was undercooked in places, my gravy had a heavy layer of fat swimming on the surface, and my cranberry sauce was shaped like a can. Although my guests tried to be polite and never said anything bad about the meal, I just felt completely frazzled and exhausted by the end of it all.
Over the last decade, I’ve made my share of holiday meals for guests and I’ve figured out some helpful tips along the way. I’m by no means an expert at it and I still mess things up, but at least I’m better at enjoying the holidays with my guests rather than stressing over the dinner.

Prepare Ahead

The best advice I can offer is to prepare as much of the meal as you can ahead of time. Usually the day before the feast, I start making some of the side dishes. Things like potatoes and yams will reheat well in the oven or microwave, so they’re perfect for making in advance. Just remember the day of the meal to bring the potatoes out of the fridge and let them sit for about an hour, then pop them in the oven on 350F for about 20-30 minutes. Pioneer Woman has a great recipe for mashed potatoes that you make ahead.

Cranberry sauce is another great one to make the day before, or even earlier. I think it tastes better when it has time to sit in the fridge. I used to never make my own cranberry sauce until I discovered it’s so incredibly simple to make! It’ll impress your guests too when you tell them you made it from scratch.

Here’s the cranberry sauce recipe that I like to use.
This time I just used whole orange peels instead of orange zest, then pulled out the peels when the sauce was done. It gives a more subtle orange flavor than the zest. You could also add a cinnamon stick in there if you’d like, instead of powdered cinnamon.

Plan a Schedule

It really helps to have a schedule of when to do what. That way you don’t forget anything, burn anything, or leave too many things until the last minute. First of all, determine the cooking time for your turkey and plan around that. I used this site. I like to plan to have it out of the oven around an hour before dinner time, so I have plenty of time to make the gravy, remove the stuffing, and carve the turkey. It’s good for a turkey to sit for a while before you carve it so the juices get absorbed back into the meat to make it more moist. I just put tin foil over it to keep it hot.

This year, my bird was 10 lbs, so I planned on 3 1/2 hours of cooking time. I wanted dinner to be on the table by 7, so my schedule went something like this:

1:30pm- Pull the turkey out of the fridge (I used a fresh turkey, so no thawing necessary). Prepare the stuffing. Preheat oven.
2:00pm: Stuff the turkey.
2:30pm: Put the turkey into the oven
5:00pm: Pull out the mashed potatoes, yams, broccoli and cauliflower casserole (which I had made the day before) from the fridge and let them sit at room temperature.
5:30pm: Set the table (or better yet, get husband to do it).
6:00pm: Turkey comes out of the oven (check the internal temperature to make sure it’s cooked). Remove from the roasting pan and place on a cutting board. Cover with foil and let it sit. Turn oven to 350F.
6:10pm: Make your gravy with the pan drippings.
6:20pm: Put the potatoes, yams, and broccoli-cauliflower casserole into the oven.
6:30pm: Scoop the stuffing out of the turkey, place it in a serving dish and cover it.
6:40pm: Get husband to carve the turkey. Check the food in the oven to see if it’s heated through. If not, put it back in for another 10 minutes, or to speed things up, use the microwave.
6:50pm: Start getting food on the table. Don’t forget the cranberry sauce!
7:00pm: Dig in!

Okay, so that schedule may seem hectic but a lot of it is just taking things in and out of the oven. It’s really not bad at all. Don’t be afraid!

Help is a Good Thing

Get your spouse or other relatives to help as much as possible. If they offer to bring something, take them up on it. If people ask me what they can bring, I usually say appetizers, wine, or dessert.

I find that everyone seems to like to congregate in the kitchen, so we set out appetizers and wine on the kitchen counter so people can snack and visit, and maybe lend a hand with the meal if they want.

It’s Okay not to Make Everything from Scratch

Do yourself a favor and pick at least one part of your meal that you buy pre-made. For me, this is usually dessert. I bought a pumpkin pie this year. I did whip the whipping cream myself after dinner while my husband made the coffee and tea, but that was the extent of my efforts. It was nice to have one less thing to think about.

Make the Most of Leftovers

When your meal is over and you have a ton of leftovers, put them to good use. I use the turkey bones to make stock, and then make a turkey soup, like this one.

If you have a lot of mashed potatoes left, make gnocchi! I make more mashed potatoes than I need just so I can have enough leftovers to make it.

Cranberry sauce is excellent in muffins. I tried this recipe the other day and it was fantastic!

If you’re looking for holiday dinner recipe ideas, check these ones out from Life Made Delicious:

Stuffed Roast Turkey and Gravy
Beer and Rosemary Turkey
Parmesan Butternut Squash Gratin
Green Bean Amandine Casserole
Impossibly Easy Pumpkin Pie

Good luck with your next turkey dinner; I hope these tips have been helpful.
What are your tips for making holiday meals easier?

Disclosure: I am part of the Life Made Delicious Blogger Program through Mom Central Canada and I receive certain perks as part of my affiliation. Opinions are my own.

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