Organized Holiday: How to Plan a Holiday Meal

How to Plan a Holiday Meal

Are  you hosting a holiday meal?  Yay!  I love hosting a holiday meal – hosting is my favorite (reference to the movie Elf, a holiday must see for my family).

Truly, I do love all things homemaking, so it only stands to reason that I love hosting for the holidays.  I actually don’t host very often, as our parents still tend to do the hosting, but every other year or so I manage to sneak in a chance to host.

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This year, I am hosting Christmas for my side of the family.  When I get ready for a holiday meal, I have quite a few organizing tips and tricks that work well – here is how I plan a holiday meal.

Make a list, check it twice.

I cannot say enough about lists.  Here is the logic, just in case you are not a list person.  Making a list gives you an opportunity (ideally a during a low stress time) to consider which parts of the meal are most important to you, list out what you need to do, purchase and prepare.  Once you have a list, you can add to it as more pops into your head, you free up brain space because you don’t need to keep running through your mental list (it is on paper, after all) and you are so. much. less. likely. to. forget. something.  I recommend three lists:

Meal Planning List

First, I would do a list on one page that considers the following.  Jot down the date and time.

Next answer the following questions:  How many people do you expect?  How many are children (as in children small enough to eat less than adults)?  Any special needs (a recovering alcholoic (nonalcoholic beverages only), allergies, vegetarian, etc.)?  What do you plan to serve (consider the special needs question)?  How about beverage offerings?

Then list out your menu items – for exampl:  turkey, potatoes, green beans, cranberries, stuffing, salad, pie – check, check and check.

Finally, consider your priorities.  What is important to you for this holiday?  Do you want to include fun children’s activities?  Are decorations number one on your list?  Do you want to present a polished and beautiful holiday or is a relaxed, joyful atmopshere most important to you?  Does the turkey need to be free range or organic, or will a regular store turkey do?  Are there any dishes that must (in your mind) be made from scratch (Nana’s pecan pie, Aunt Mary’s famous sweet potato pie, etc.)?  Which dishes would it be OK to purchase or make semi-homemade (note it by the dish)?  Are there dishes that you really want to be the one to provide?  Which dishes could someone else bring (note it by the dish)?  Reflect on what you want the holiday to be like and what sort of event you want to offer your guests.  Keep in mind the true joy of the holiday season is really the time you get to spend with family.  With that being said, there are no right or wrong answers – just be honest with yourself and set your expectations accordingly.  That will help you keep your priorities in line with your wishes.

How to use this list:  You will use this list to make your grocery list (coming up next), as well as figure out where you can seat everyone, how many dishes you need, and what you need to plan to make verses what you can purchase.  The best part of this list is that when someone says “What can I bring?”, you can take advantage of the offer and have something ready to assign out to others.  Don’t feel bad about letting others bring a dish.  I know I love to bring a dish and I can spend more time on it when it is just one dish verses hosting an entire meal.  Having others help out makes everyone feel a part of the preparations, spreads the holiday cheer and saves you time and money in the end.

Grocery List

Using your planned menu and number of guests, write out a shopping list for just that meal.

How to use this list:  First, check for items you may already have on hand.  Next, check this list in the coming weeks as you do your grocery planning each week and buy items as they go on sale, or split the list up so you can spread out the cost.  Start with staples and frozen items, then work up to the more perishable items as you get closer to the date of the meal.  You may want to plan for the possibility of family lingering beyond just the one meal.  Stock up on crackers, maybe have some ingredients for a simple dip or spread on hand, so you can offer snacky foods if your meal takes longer than you anticipate to cook or if people stay for several hours after the meal and you want to offer more food.

Event To Do List

This may be the list that saves your sanity.  It is important for all the typical reasons, but this list really is the list that you can rely on and know that you are prepared.  I would have several sections on this list.  Start as far out from the event as you feel is reasonable.  Up until the last week, I would just list a weekly to do list.  Save the daily to do list section for the last several days.

Start with items you can do way ahead of time – make it whatever you need to.

Maybe it will help relieve some stress if you have stocking stuffers done and out of the way.  Jot down a week to have those done by.  Maybe you desperately want to reorganize the bookshelves in the living room before company comes over – jot down a week to have that done by.  Or perhaps you want to have the carpet cleaned – make sure you call ahead so you can get on the schedule.  Plan when you can give the house a good cleaning (ideally about 1-2 weeks before the event), then you can plan to just do a basic cleaning up until the event.  Consider when you could make some foods ahead of time – especially anything that freezes well.

Next, list out the last five days or so before the meal.

Break down your remaining to do items between those days.  Start with the last day first – what HAS to be done on that day?   Things like last minute food items or warming up pre-made items, sweeping or vacuuming one last time, setting the table, etc.  Then move backwards.  How soon can you make the mashed potatoes (can you make them a day ahead and re-heat?), how soon can you make any sauces or dressings?  How about preping the fruit or vegetables?  Be sure to fit in your usual chores so you don’t feel out of sorts.  I always try to complete things like the laundry a day or two before the event.  Don’t forget to cross off any to do items related to dishes that someone else has agreed to bring.  And don’t forget to leave time for the turkey to thaw!  That bad boy takes a LONG time to thaw (as in days), so plan ahead or you will regret it.  When you have the list, when your spouse asks how he or she can help, you don’t have to rant and rave about how you do not have time to even think – you can just pick an item from the list and cross it off  :-)

Finally, add a section for “if you get time.”

We all love the idea of a picture perfect holiday, but so often those sorts of images we see are crafted by a team of workers.  It would be lovely to have place cards or a super fun centerpiece, etc, but it may not be possible with the time you have available.  Maybe you would like to make a fun punch, but you just planned on beer and pop for now.  Add these ‘wish list’ items to a separate part of the list, and if you get some time and think – “What else can I do to prepare?”- then check something off of that list.  You could also dole out some of these items (such as the punch) to a willing relative that offers to bring something.  I find I can usually get to at least some of that list, and knowing the must do items are done leaves me stress-free to enjoy the fun projects that I am delighted to get to that can make the day even more special for me.  Leaving them on their own saves me from trying to do everything, and lets me physically acknowledge my priorities for the day.

Feel free to add any tips on how to plan a holiday meal in the comments!  Happy Holidays!

About Michelle Schahn

Michelle manages a beautiful, chaotic life of kids, home, community involvement and work. She is the author of the blog Counting Willows.

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