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How to plan a stress free holiday meal

Updated on December 18, 2010

I know firsthand that cooking a holiday meal can be extremely stressful. I remember the first time my husband and I cooked a Christmas dinner together - the kitchen was a mess and nothing was finished on time! Even if you’ve done it a dozen times before, but especially if you haven’t, the stress of planning your holiday meal can cause many sleepless nights before the event. With a few easy tips, you can rest easy and get your holiday meal cooked without breaking a sweat!


Choose the right menu

Choosing the right menu is probably the most important part of planning your holiday meal. There are many factors that you will want to consider when you’re planning out which dishes to make. Here are some questions you should ask yourself:

  • How many people are you feeding? Make enough to feed everyone, but don’t overcook or you’ll end up with a lot of extra work and a ton of leftovers.
  • How many burners are on your stove? Make sure you have enough burners to cook the dishes you choose. Wherever possible, choose dishes that can be made beforehand to minimize what needs to be done on the day of your special meal.
  • How much room do you have in your oven? If you’re cooking a big turkey or other large items, consider if there is room for anything else in there while it’s cooking.
  • How much time will you have to cook on the day of the feast? If you’re having a midday meal this reduces the amount of preparation and cooking time on the day itself.
  • Will it be a formal meal or a more casual dinner? If people will be serving themselves, you should make sure you have some serving dishes and choose dishes that are easy for a self-serve dinner. 

Picking the right dishes can mean the difference between a really easy and a painfully difficult time cooking and preparing your food. Consider dishes that are easy to make beforehand, or that can be eaten cold or at room temperature. My parents even go as far as cooking a turkey the day before and then just warming it on the day of the meal. There are many options to make your job easier.

Shop smarter

Figure out what you need to buy for your meal well beforehand. This will allow you to buy what you need gradually over time, rather than having to buy everything all at once. In order to get prepared in the weeks before your party, try to pick up non-perishable and frozen items a few weeks beforehand, provided you have space to keep them in your pantry and freezer. This may also provide you the flexibility to buy items on sale and save some money. Then pick up any perishable items, like fruit, vegetables and dairy products, a few days before the event. Finally, have someone on standby to pick up any emergency last-minute items on the day of the meal!


Get help

One mistake that I always make when preparing a holiday meal is to try to do it all myself. Why not accept some help from your family and friends when preparing for a holiday meal? One way to get help is to ask your guests to bring a side dish or dessert. This is a fun way to take the load off, and may mean you get to try some interesting new dishes. In addition, why not ask your children, partner or a friend to help you out with the cooking, cleaning the house or setting the table. This will allow you to share the work and maybe have a bit more fun at the same time.

Do the preparation beforehand

There are many jobs that can be done before the day of your holiday dinner. The table can be set and the decorations hung a few days or even a week before the holiday. Many vegetables can be prepared / chopped the day before, and placed in sealed containers in the fridge. If you’ve chosen wisely, some dishes can be prepared the day before. Most importantly, make sure your meat is defrosted properly before the holiday meal - a large frozen turkey can take 3 days to defrost in the fridge. 

Get your timings right

Make sure you get your timings right so that all of the food is hot and ready to eat at the same time. The easiest way to do this is to make a list of everything that needs to be cooked and heated through and how long it will take. Based on the cooking time for each (and the amount of room in your oven and on your stove), work out what time you need to start cooking everything and write it down. This will keep you organized and on schedule. If your schedule slips a little, don’t worry about it - just serve dinner a little late. If you make sure your guests have plenty of snacks and drinks, they won’t even notice!


If this sounds like too much work, then by all means just go out to eat or order in! The important thing on holidays is to enjoy yourself and spend time with friends and family. Don’t beat yourself up over not cooking a big fancy dinner if it’s not something you like doing.

If you have other techniques you use to minimize stress when planning your holiday meal, I'd love to hear about them! Happy holidays!


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    • chirls profile image

      chirls 6 years ago from Indiana (for now)

      So do I, Active Nutrition! I have to be quite tough on myself to make sure I stay organised and on top of everything. When I discovered that less is more for holiday cooking, that made my life a lot easier! Having a double oven to keep things warm helps too. ;)

    • Active Nutrition profile image

      Active Nutrition 6 years ago from Sammamish, WA

      Thank you for this great article. I like your suggestion to work out what time you need to start cooking. I have a hard time getting everything done at serving time!

    • chirls profile image

      chirls 7 years ago from Indiana (for now)

      Kelly: I have the same problem, but when I get organized and choose things that are easy to make, it helps a lot. Leg of lamb sounds like a great choice for Christmas, although if minimising stress is your mantra, then I'd say stick to what you know! Glad it turned out well and thanks for reading. :)

    • profile image

      Kelly 7 years ago

      Hey Chirls,

      Great advice! I'm a big fan of asking for help... nor am I ever prepared enough and always leave too much to the last minute. This year, I decided on a leg of lamb for our guests this year. It was the first time I've ever done it and was stressed about it at every step. Especially since we had the in-laws over on Christmas day and they cook lamb all the time. Luckily, it turned out pretty good... for a newbie. :)

    • chirls profile image

      chirls 7 years ago from Indiana (for now)

      Hey Tom! Thanks for reading and for your advice. I really like your idea about incorporating links to hubs on holiday recipes. :)

    • TomC35 profile image

      TomC35 7 years ago from Georgia

      Good article. You should do one with actual dish suggestions, or talk about Turkey Vs Ham (like only more serious and about benefits of both).

      You could actually write hubs for your favorite recipes, then link each into the article about the ones you recommend for Christmas/Thanksgiving/Easter meals. It could be a connecting theme.