Food,  How To

How to Plan a Holiday Dinner

Here’s a fact about me: I’m dreadfully antisocial. I put the grr in the Grinch. I don’t like making small talk, and the idea of being stuck in the middle of a crowd makes me cringe.

But I love throwing dinner parties and the fuss and hubbub of holiday meals. I start thinking about what I’m going to cook months before anyone else does (as evidenced by this posting, in September!) and I absolutely delight in the idea of holiday leftovers for days.

Buuut, I do know that it is a lot of work, and even when you think you’ve got everything down and manageable, it’s pretty easy for something else to pop up again.

You don’t want to play whackamole with problems at Christmas dinner, okay? Trust me on this.

So yeah. Here’s the Cady guide to throwing a holiday dinner – suitable for Christmas, for Thanksgiving, for Easter… any big event throughout the year, really 🙂


How to Plan a Holiday Dinner

1. Know your limits.

There is so much pressure on us around the holiday season to be perfect. To have the perfect home, the perfect food, to be a perfect host. And the truth is, all of that pressure? Can be a quick road to a breakdown, or to overextending yourself because you want to be, do, and have it all.

I think the best remedy for that is knowing what you are and aren’t comfortable with in advance. Maybe you really want to host a dinner! …but you don’t really feel good about having more than ten people over for it. Or perhaps you feel pretty chuffed about having a huge party! …but the idea of actually having people stay at your house for a few days makes your stomach just churn.

All of this is okay. Your limits are your limits, and in a season of giving to other people, it’s important to make sure that you take the time to care for yourself, too.

Here are some ideas to think about:

– do I feel comfortable hosting a dinner?
– how many people do I feel alright with having in my house?
– do I want to allow people to stay over or would I prefer they go home/to hotels?
– how much time can I actually commit to spending on this project?
– how much energy can I actually commit to cooking? (this might be the difference between mostly boxed/premade foods, semi homemade food, and homemade from scratch food)

2. Similar to knowing your limits, it’s important to know what you actually want.

Do you want to host, but you’d prefer to have a potluck for less stress on you? Do you want leftovers for days or do you want most of the food to be gone by the time you’re cleaning up? Do you want to serve a traditional meal, or would you prefer to add a little modern flair to it? Are there any foods that you absolutely must have, and are there any that you don’t think anyone actually eats, even though someone makes them every year?

3. Plan your guest list.

Starting with your guest list is nice because it gives you added support when making decisions later on. If most of your guests are vegetarians, then you’re going to end up with more vegetarian dishes. If one or more of your guests have food allergies, this will also impact the menu. And of course, you probably don’t want to end up making ten sides if you’re only serving dinner to four people.

This is also a good place to think about whether or not you’ll need some added leeway in the guest list. Is it likely that someone is going to show up with a date at the last minute?

4. Budgeting is your friend.

Hosting large meals can be expensive. Quite frankly, if you’re any kind of foodie at all, meals can be expensive! (Ask me how I know 😉 ) Unless you are well to do (and if you are, that’s awesome! Good on you!) and maybe even if you are, having a budget is going to help your dinner be much nicer to your bank account.

Because the truth is, it isn’t only the large things – the turkey, the green beans, the wine – that you have to account for. Have you run out of small, staple items, like vanilla extract or powdered sugar? Are you planning on doing any decorating to make your space more inviting? Are you thinking that you’ll probably dine out the week of the holiday so that you have more time to pre-prep other dishes for the Big Event?

Having some sense of a budget, even if it is a fairly loose one, will help you to stay on track and make more economical decisions.

5. Preparation is everything

Here’s where we get into the nitty gritty. You ready?

– Two words: meal planning. I know, I know… this seems completely obvious, right? Especially if you tend to have the same dishes/recipes at every holiday dinner.

But here’s the thing – if you take the time to do this several weeks in advance (or as much in advance as you can manage) that sets the stage for everything else to become easier.

By setting your meal plan – and making sure you find recipes to match it – you are able to know in advance what ingredients you need, what cooking times you need, how many items need the oven vs the stovetop or other prep surface, how much each dish makes and feeds, what cooking supplies you need, etc.

– Make lists. If you’re not a naturally organized person, I know that list making can seem daunting, but taking twenty minutes to do it up front? Can definitely save you a couple hours down the road. And stress. And panic because whoops there’s no more room in the oven and these two dishes still have to go in. Lists that I’d recommend include a rough schedule of when foods need to go in and out of the oven and what you need to pick up at the store.

– Grocery shop in advance. You’ll have your list for this (see what I mean?!), so you should be able to get things well in advance. If you have time, you can get pantry staples a few weeks out, long lasting perishables like apples and eggs a week in advance, and then any last minute perishable goods a few days before the party.

– Cook in advance! This won’t work with every recipe, but there are plenty of dishes that you can premake in advance and pop in the freezer or refrigerator. Often, your recipes will make note of whether or not something can be frozen well.

And if you’d prefer all the food to be as fresh as you can manage it? Prepping ingredients a day or two in advance will also help keep cooking-day disasters to a minimum. Vegetables like peppers, onions, and green beans can be cut up several days in advance, as well as things such as boiling eggs (just wait to peel them until you’re ready to use them). You can premeasure dry goods like flour and sugar and keep them in labelled containers or plastic bags until you’re ready for them.

6. Work smarter, not harder.

You are the person most intimately acquainted with your own situation. So what are some things that would help you? Brainstorm a list while you’re doing your planning, and this will make it easier for the process to stay smooth later on.

– Can you practice mise en place? This is the practice of setting up all of your ingredients and cooking tools before you actually start working, so that everything you need is at hand and saves you running back and forth to the pantry.

– Can you use a scrap bowl? Often when I cook, I designate a large bowl or container as the scrap bowl, or trash bowl. I can collect all the things that I’ll need to compost or throw away while I’m cooking, rather than walking back and forth to the trash can. This saves me time and effort and helps me to monitor items on the stove that need to be flipped quickly.

– Can you use a cooler? Fridges have a way of getting filled up fast when you’re putting on a fancy dinner. By taking out the items that you won’t be using to cook with (bottles of dressing when you won’t be serving salad, for instance) and popping them in a cooler with ice to stay fresh, you can create extra space in just a couple of minutes.

– Can you preset the table? If you’re using fancy dining ware, getting the table set and ready a day or even a week in advance can save time on the day of the big dinner.

– Can you get help? Asking someone to bring a dish, or for your family member to cover simple kitchen duties while you take a shower and get ready for the event can be a lifesaver!

– Can you prep the household? Aside from getting cleaning out of the way in advance of the party, simple things like making sure that the kitchen laundry (dishcloths, towels, etc) is done and that you have a fresh pile of linens for drying your hands and mopping up spills can take the pressure off when things feel high stakes.

7. Remember to have a good time!

A great holiday dinner isn’t just about the food – it’s about the people coming together to celebrate and feel joyful with each other. It’s okay to be less than perfect, or to take some time to relax and have fun. That’s what the holidays are all about 😉

What do you think? Are there any great tips I’ve missed?

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