In this insanely busy world, most people — even Grandma — would be daunted by the prospect of preparing an entire Thanksgiving or Christmas feast for a crowd. And with so many dietary preferences to accommodate — vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free — holiday meal prep can start to feel overwhelming. Whether you’re going to be a host or a participating guest, here are some tips that will help simplify your holiday meal prep so that you can feel festive rather than frazzled when the company starts to gather. Need ideas for what to make? We've got you covered. Here's our full list of Thanksgiving and Christmas recipes to mix and match.
Make it a cooperative meal. It’s not only easier, but a lot more fun, to make a huge meal cooperatively. This is more planned than potlucks, to which everyone brings whatever they fancy. For Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners, you want to make sure that all the courses are covered, from appetizers to dessert. If every participant makes one or two items, no one comes to the event already feeling frazzled—or broke!
If you’re going to be one of few vegan, vegetarian, or gluten-free eaters at a holiday meal, offer to bring a main dish to share. Make it a heaping helping, because everyone will want some of what you’re having. Look at this as a good thing: what better way to promote healthy food than by showing how delicious the kinds of dishes we eat can be?
Plan the meal at least a week ahead to avoid last-minute panic. If you’ll be hosting, plan the menu, first of all, then figure out what other guests will be contributing to the meal. Follow up by making your shopping list. Even though we live in such a hurry-up, last-minute world, I would recommend shopping no less than 3 days before the date. That gives you a bit of leeway should you need to make any last-minute changes.
Plan for non-food needs. Make sure that any other needs that may not be defined in your list of actual ingredients are included, such as beverages, napkins, candles, table seasonings, and the like. Make sure you have aluminum foil, baking parchment, trash-collecting needs, and storage containers for leftovers. You can do this kind of shopping at least a week ahead of time, and not save it up for the aforementioned big food shopping.
Make use of shortcuts. Why not, especially when there are so many other tasks to accomplish that are best done by hand? There are lots of good-quality, natural ways to do so. My favorites, as you’ll see in the pages ahead, are prepared vegetable broth, all-purpose seasoning blend, canned beans, and pre-made pie crust.
Do some basic food prep as you count down to the gathering. Three, two, and one day ahead, you can prepare some of the food so that your dishes come together quick when you need them, saving time when assembling. Here are a few things you can ahead:
- Bake winter squashes to prepare for making pies, stuffed squash dishes, and the like.
- Cook, bake, or microwave potatoes or sweet potatoes.
- Cook grains, including brown rice, and even quinoa which cooks quickly, simply because it’s one less thing to do when you’re cooking for company.
- If any salad dressings or sauces are in the plans, it’s fine to make them a day or two ahead.
- Make bread crumbs or croutons.
And most important, accept help when it’s offered. Many of us, especially of the female persuasion, tend to turn help away, with that usual self-sacrificing, “don’t bother, I’ll handle it” attitude. If someone asks what they can do to help with a holiday meal, assume that the offer is sincere, and give that person a task, or assign a dish to bring. If no help seems to be forthcoming, or not enough, speak up and enlist some! If you ask politely and sincerely, most people would love to be part of the holiday preparation.