Do you have fond memories of sharing food with friends and family over the holiday? Do you also dread all the stress of things to do, worry about it being perfect or have stories to share of all the things that went crazy over past holidays?
We have all been there: guests arrive late, the turkey gets overcooked, you drop the side dish, don’t set enough places at the table, or someone just happens to forget to bring a dish to share.
Yet some of our best memories are baking cookies with that special someone, preparing that favorite family recipe and sharing the fun and laughter of gathering together, making memories as we sit down to a beautiful feast with our most loved family and friends.
For me, food is more than just a delicious meal; it brings people together. Have you ever noticed at the holidays time, no matter how big or small the house you are in, that people always gather in the kitchen? There is a reason. They come for food, but what really matters are the stories shared and memories made. The greatest present I can give someone is a meal in my home. Not only is it a delicious, nutritious meal, but it is the gift of my time, a display of love and sharing that really makes it special. Food fills the physical need of hunger, but being in community with others fills the need of belonging and being loved.
I recently shared my top 10 Secrets to De-Stress Your Holiday. I thought you may benefit from these tips and secrets to set you up for a successful holiday.
Make-ahead meals are essential for easy dinners all year, but holiday time makes them perfect for impromptu parties and welcoming last-minute guests. Note that these are not crock-pot meals that can take up to 8 hours to defrost and 6 hours to cook. The key to efficient make-ahead meals is packaging them in small or even individual portions to lock in the best flavor and feed as few or as many as you need, quickly and easily. One of my family favorites is 4 Cheese Italian Stuffed Shells. You may also like these tips on Freezer Meals.
No Cook Appetizers
Cheese plates are my go-to appetizers for the holidays as they can be made ahead of time, require no cooking, and can please any diet with the right accompaniments. Keep a variety of hard cheeses and cured meats, and pair them with crackers, nuts, fruits, vegetables, or preserves for a beautiful and tasty platter that can serve as first appetizers, first courses and even desserts. For a simple, no-fail guide on how to make perfect tasty cheese plates get your Pretty Plate Cheese Paring Guide.
Plan a workable menu
For any dinner party, a properly planned meal is the key to success. It’s more than just what you want to eat, or what’s in season and goes together. The key is to think about how it comes together and plan items that can be made in advance. If a menu has more than two things that have to be done last-minute, I will choose other options as this can be too time-consuming and stressful to take on as guests are arriving. Remember that your job as a host is not only to provide food, but also to engage with the guests.
Whether you are setting up a main meal, an appetizer buffet, or just desserts, it is important to keep in mind how much last-minute preparation is required; slicing, mixing, assembling and garnishing all take time. You will want to have all the food ready at once, so be sure to plan accordingly – choosing mostly make-ahead items and leaving only a few last-minute preparation items. This is the number one pitfall of most unorganized buffets and the cause of most stressed-out hosts as items usually take longer than expected and are not ready when planned.
This also concerns your cooking space. If you only have one oven, you can’t roast a turkey, bake potatoes, and heat a casserole all at the same time. Think logically about how much preparation, cook time and assembly is required for each dish, and manage all the work if you can. If not, choose something else or ask for help. Spacing items out like this also makes the cooking more manageable; do little pieces along the way, rather than get tired doing all the cooking and cleaning in one day and then hosting a party.
Pull dishes in advance
This is a major stress-saver. It takes a touch of advance planning that will make your life so mush easier later. Pull all your serving dishes and utensils at least two days beforehand. This way, you are not running around looking for items while guests are waiting and food is hot. If you need to borrow or buy something additional, you have time to do so. Go one step further: label everything to make dishing up easy and set items on your buffet to make sure you have space for everything.
Simple decorating with centerpieces
You can fill clear vases with a variety of inexpensive items you may even already have: extra ornaments, ribbons, candles, even candies. If you want flowers, think of floating a single bloom, a tight bouquet of one bloom like carnations or even spruce tips. Choose clear vases that can be used repeatedly and change the colors to go with the occasion/season.
Add interest to your buffet
Think of the buffet as a roller coaster! If it is all flat, it is not very fun or interesting. Add a few varied heights to show off the beautiful food. Footed platters and warming dishes are easy to add height. For regular platters, I love using empty egg carton as risers. They are inexpensive, readily available and sturdy; just cover them with an extra napkin, or go to the fabric store and get some remints that match your colors.
Be sure to test each platter if you have it on risers to make sure it is sturdy with people grabbing food off of it. Leave large or delicate items on the table. Not everything has to be lifted; just raise one to three items to add visual interest for the table.
Separate food and beverage
People naturally gather where there is food and drink. It is the most common error to put these two areas together, creating a traffic jam of guests who stay in one place. By separating these two main attraction points, guests must get moving and mingling.
Manage the Mess
Whether you use china or paper, there are always dishes from the meal and cooking. Making as much food in advance will cut down on the dishes you have on the day of the event.
Empty your dishwasher before guests arrive and load soap in it already. Once dinner is finished, plates easily get loaded in and washed while dessert is enjoyed. If you don’t have a dishwasher or you have too many dishes for one load, designate a corner space in the kitchen or tub to stack dirty dishes. This keeps the kitchen looking nice, and your sink being available for uses.
In addition, double-line trash bins, so it is easy to take out and replace. Helpful guests don’t have to search for a new bag. It helps to avoid guests tossing something away without a bag and makes the process clean, quick and easy.
It’s easy to try and be that super-woman attempting to do it all. Yet, there are times we all could use a little help. If a guest asks, allow them to help even if it is just bringing a bag of ice or a bottle of wine. It is a way for them to participate and give as well, so don’t deny them that opportunity.
The biggest challenge in asking for help and delegating is being clear in your request. Often we think we are clear, but the other person may hear or think something completely different.
If you ask someone to bring a dish to share, ask them for what you need: a sweet or savory main dish or a side. Should it come ready to serve, or can they prep it when they get to the location? And what time do you need it? Be clear and specific. The more details are left out, the more space there is for misinterpretation, confusion, stress and disappointment by both parties.
Take Care of Yourself
The holidays are times for everyone to enjoy, and that means you too. With all the running around, events to attend, gifts to make, and taking care of others, it can leave very little time for you. It is truly impossible to care for others well when you have not cared for yourself first. Think realistically about what you are committing to, how much you really want to be involved, and what a great holiday looks like to you, then plan accordingly. If something does not fit for you, have the power and respect for yourself to say no instead of trying to squeeze it all in to make everyone else happy. The holiday will still be wonderful if you choose not to attend that cookie exchange, volunteer for the kids class party, or make everything from scratch.
Be clear and honest with yourself. Ask for help and do what is important to you. Do something for yourself: maybe just 5 minute of quite time with coffee in the morning, a yoga class, getting your nails, or taking a weekend away with your husband. Do what you need without guilt and without being attached to the holidays looking a specific way. Trust that everything will be perfect and it will. By taking care of yourself, you will make others happier as well.