Simple Holiday Meal Ideas to Reduce Stress
When I think of the holidays, food is usually the first thing that jumps to mind. I loved seeing the colored lights on the Christmas tree - and presents under it! But some of my most cherished memories are of my mom scurrying around our kitchen, and the scents of Christmas cookies baking and Thanksgiving roasts.
As an adult, I've tried my hand at a few holiday meals, mostly with good success…and, unfortunately, a lot of stress. This year, I decided that I would figure out a way to pull together a satisfying feast while still enjoying a special day with family.
I've come up with two main ideas. Hopefully, one of them will help you de-stress your holiday cooking!
1. Paring Down Your Meal
Now I don't mean by this that you should skip favorite dishes or cut back on the amount you serve. It's more like taking the elements of your meal and re-thinking them a little.
I like making things as simple as possible, especially during busy times. So when I find a way to pare down the prep or cooking process, that cuts my stress right away. Here, I took each of the main parts of my holiday meal and cut down on the steps. Plus, these methods take away the need to keep opening the door or lifting the lid, except to take an extra dose some of the delicious scents as things cook!
Here are some traditional dishes, and how you can "de-stress" them for yourself.
Buying pre-made platters may be more convenient, but the cost may cause some anxiety in itself! You'd do better to buy the things you want, say pre-cut veggies, fruit or cheese, and then you can make a quick dip. A box of store brand wheat crackers would round out that plate nicely.
Recipe: Greek Yogurt Dip
1 container plain greek yogurt
1 tsp dried dill
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 tsp lemon zest
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
Combine all the ingredients into a bowl and store in the fridge in an airtight container or covered in plastic wrap until using.
You can also make appetizers that only have two or three ingredients. Simple but well-made noshes will impress everyone, and your prep time will be shorter.
This recipe for bacon-wrapped scallops is a great example of something easy but elegant.
- 5 slices bacon, cut in half
- 6 oz bay scallops
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- Lay out the bacon on a microwave-safe plate and cook on high for 3-4 minutes, until bacon is browned but still soft. (Be careful not to get burned by the hot plate!) Let the bacon cool.
- Meanwhile, gently rinse the scallops and pat them dry. Wrap each scallop with a piece of bacon, securing it with a toothpick. Broil in the oven for about 4-5 minutes, until the scallops are cooked. Serve them warm.
This year I tried a radical idea for me - I let the turkey alone. After putting it in a roasting pot, I added a dab of black pepper, covered it and set it in the oven to roast. No basting, no elaborate seasoning, just the giblets in the pot along with the rest of the bird. I was pleasantly surprised at the rich and flavorful result, without having to keep an eye on it or peek periodically. It works for other meats, too.
Recipe: Easy Roast Pork
pork tenderloin roast (2-3 pounds)
1 tbsp dried rosemary
1/2 tsp black pepper
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Place the pork in a roasting pan. Drizzle the canola oil over the whole roast. Rub the rosemary onto the pork, then sprinkle it with the pepper. Cook the pork for about 25 minutes, until browned on top, and reaches 160 degrees inside (check with a meat thermometer).
Remove the pork from the oven and cover with foil. Let the roast sit for another 10-15 minutes to settle (it keeps more of it's juices and stays moister).
I always try to include at least two vegetables in my meals, to balance out all the bread and meat. But trying to synchronize different veggies in separate pots with everything else just added extra stress along with steam.
Then it occurred to me: why not cook both vegetables the same way? And my new favorite method is roasting. It takes about 5 minutes to prepare whatever kinds you like, and then they go in the oven, together.
They cook on their own, no checking needed, and come out browned and full of their natural flavor.
Recipe: Roasted Vegetable Medley
1 cup green beans, cut in half
1 cup caulflower
1 cup grape or cherry tomatoes
2 tbsp canola oil
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Rinse the vegetables and put into a large bowl. Pour the canola oil onto the vegetables and add in the pepper. Stir well to make sure every piece is coated. Spread on one layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Cook for about 15 minutes, then turn the pieces and cook for another 10 minutes. Serve warm or room temperature.
The canned version is the easiest for sure. But put 1 bag of whole cranberries plus a couple of ingredients into a small saucepan, and a batch of homemade sauce practically cooks itself on top of your stove in just 20 minutes. The tart and bright taste will give a boost to your table with very little effort.
Recipe: Cranberry Sauce
1 bag whole cranberries
1/3 cup white sugar
1/4 cup orange juice
1 tsp fresh lemon zest
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp cinnamon (optional)
Put the cranberries in a sauce pot, add the other ingredients. Bring to a simmer and cook for 15-20 minutes. (the cranberries should start to burst open).
Many families look forward to pie on holidays. And you may enjoy baking them. But if making a crust fills you with frustration or anxiety like it does me, then you might consider getting a pre-made crust and filling it yourself. Or, better yet, ask one of your guests to bring one.
Another idea is to venture into another kind of dessert: cookies, turnovers, cake - whatever you feel comfortable and confident making. Your family might discover a new favorite in the process!
2. Making Your Meal Ahead Of Time
My husband and I bought a 12-pound turkey a few days ahead of Thanksgiving last year. And since it didn't fit in our freezer, I wondered how I'd keep it cold enough to stay good. Then we hit upon the idea of cooking it ahead of time and reheating it on Thanksgiving. It sounded a little weird to me, but I was willing to try it.
On Monday, I roasted the turkey, carved it up and put it into bags. I also saved the juice from the pan to use for reheating. The only drawback was having to wait to eat it after the smell took hold of the kitchen. But we got to enjoy that all over again on Thanksgiving.
Inspired by the turkey, I decided to do the sides beforehand as well. I ended up feeling a lot more relaxed during Thanksgiving Day, and actually enjoyed the meal more because I wasn't rushing around. I served everything up, sat down and stayed at the table with my family instead of hopping up to check on things.
Here was my game plan:
When (what day)
Which (the Item to make)
What (how to prepare it)
roast, cut up, store
prep for baking
rolls and pie
cook, mash, store
prep, roast, store
HEAT THEM UP
3. Doing A Pot Luck Dinner
Lots of people divvy up the dishes for a big feast. The host might only have to cook the roast while everyone else fills in the meal. I know someone who only had to clean the house and set the table - the guests brought everything else.
There's something special about having lots of hands working together. And it gives others a chance to shine with their unique contributions. My mom makes a scalloped oyster casserole that no one else has dared to copy - it just wouldn't taste the same.
Whichever way you decide to prepare your meal, the goal is to spend more of your time and energy this holiday season with people than utensils. And your guests won't care if the food is gourmet - they'll be thrilled at how relaxed you are!